C of E's biggest investment 'destroying lives of poorest'

By staff writers
July 3, 2009

A new Amnesty International report says that the company in which the Church of England has its biggest shareholding is responsible for bringing impoverishment, conflict, human rights abuses and despair to the majority of the people in the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta.

Royal Dutch Shell, in which the Church has an investment of £103.7 million and from which it seeks to profit according to its latest annual report, has brought pollution and environmental damage to the region through its subsidiary company, Shell. Amnesty says that rights to health and a healthy environment, to an adequate standard of living (including the right to food and water) and to gaining a living through work, have been violated for hundreds of thousands of people.

Published on Tuesday, the report, Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta, also details how the Nigerian government is failing to hold oil companies to account for the pollution they have caused.

“Oil companies have been exploiting Nigeria’s weak regulatory system for too long,” said Audrey Gaughran of Amnesty International. “They do not adequately prevent environmental damage and they frequently fail to properly address the devastating impact that their bad practice has on people’s lives.”

The Niger Delta is one of the world’s 10 most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems and is home to some 31 million people. It is also the location of massive oil deposits, which have been extracted for decades by the government of Nigeria and by multinational oil companies.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) describes the region as suffering from “administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure and services, high unemployment, social deprivation, abject poverty, filth and squalor, and endemic conflict.” This poverty, and its contrast with the wealth generated by oil, has become one of the world’s starkest and most disturbing examples of the “resource curse”.

Oil has generated an estimated US$600 billion since the 1960s. Despite this, many people in the oil-producing areas have only polluted water for drinking, cooking and washing and have to eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins.

“More than 60 per cent of people in the region depend on the natural environment for their livelihood,” said Audrey Gaughran “Yet, pollution by the oil industry is destroying the vital resource on which they depend.”

Oil pollution kills fish, their food sources and fish larvae and damages the ability of fish to reproduce, causing both immediate damage and long-term harm to fish stocks. Oil pollution also damages fishing equipment.

Oil spills and waste dumping have also seriously damaged agricultural land. Long-term effects include damage to soil fertility and agricultural productivity, which in some cases can last for decades. In numerous cases, these long-term effects have undermined a family’s only source of livelihood.

The destruction of livelihoods with the lack of accountability and redress have led people to steal oil and vandalize oil infrastructure in an attempt to gain compensation or clean-up contracts.

Armed groups are increasingly demanding greater control of resources in the region and engage in large-scale theft of oil and the ransoming of oil workers. Government reprisals against militancy and violence frequently involve excessive force and communities are subjected to violence and collective punishment, thus deepening anger and resentment.

The oil industry in the Niger Delta involves both the government of Nigeria and subsidiaries of multinational companies. The Shell Petroleum Development Company (Shell), a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, is the main operator on land. The majority of cases reported to, and investigated by, Amnesty International relate to Shell.

Oil spills, waste dumping, and gas flaring are notorious and endemic. Oil spills result from corrosion of oil pipes, poor maintenance of infrastructure, leaks and human error. They may also be a consequence of vandalism, theft of oil or sabotage.

The scale of pollution and environmental damage has never been properly assessed. The figures that do exist vary considerably, depending on sources but hundreds of spills occur each year. According to the UNDP, more than 6,800 spills were recorded between 1976 and 2001. The National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency reports that some 2,000 sites require treatment because of oil-related pollution. The real total may be higher.

The regulatory system in the Niger Delta is deeply flawed says Amnesty. Nigeria has laws and regulations which require companies to comply with internationally recognized standards of “good oil field practice” and laws and regulations to protect the environment but these are poorly enforced. The government agencies responsible for enforcement are ineffective and in some cases are compromised by conflicts of interest.

"The people of the Niger Delta have seen their human rights undermined by oil companies that their government cannot – or will not – hold to account.” said Audrey Gaughran “They have been systematically denied access to information about how oil exploration and production will affect them and they are repeatedly denied access to justice."

Yesterday, the Guardian newspaper revealed that Exxon Mobil, in which the Church of England has a shareholding valued at £17.2 million, is continuing to fund lobby groups which question the reality of global warming, despite a public pledge to cut support for such climate change denial.

On Tuesday, campaigners announced that the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) would be the subject of a legal action after it was was linked to climate change and human rights violations. The Church has a £8.4 million stake in RBS.

Today, Britain’s largest retailer Tesco, in which the Church has a £27.5 million shareholding, came under fire over 7p an hour garment workers in Bangladesh as shareholders prepared to hail the company’s record £3 billion profits at its annual meeting.

The Church of England says it has an ethical investment policy.

Read Ekklesia's report on the C of E's investments "Where is the Church of England's Heart Invested?" here

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.