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Riding in the back of a taxi the other night, I heard a BBC news story that sounded strangely familiar. After a lawsuit that dragged on for 13 years, the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell agreed to pay a $15.5 million settlement to Nigerian families as compensation for its alleged complicity in past human rights abuses, including the 1994 execution of local leaders who spoke out for the rights of people affected by the oil industry.
The company denied any wrongdoing, but said it welcomed the settlement as part of “a process of reconciliation.” Meanwhile, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs hailed the outcome as a message that “corporations, like individuals, must abide by internationally-recognized human rights standards.” (The case made it all the way to the US courts, based on an old law that allows international human rights cases to be tried here.)
The story sounded familiar because it reminded me of the work I’ve done for Oxfam’s Right to Know, Right to Decide campaign. Before I came to work here, I never realized how large a role the oil, gas, and mining industries play in the developing world. More than half of the world’s poorest people live in countries rich in natural resources, countries where these companies reap staggeringly huge profits.
I’ve learned that it’s not impossible for oil and mining to be a source of development for poor communities, given the right conditions. But too often, local people don’t have access to information about the costs as well as the benefits of these projects. Or they don’t have the right to decide whether or not to consent to a project that affects their land, water, health, and means of earning a living. Like the fallen leaders in Nigeria, many local people speak out to claim these rights, only to have their concerns go unheard–or worse.
In western Ghana, for example–just a few hundred miles east of the Nigerian border–cyanide spills from a gold mine contaminated community water sources. Residents of Prestea, Dumase, and other neighboring villages reported serious health problems after drinking the water. Despite protests from local environmental groups, the mining company is now negotiating to expand its operations in the area. My colleague Chris recently blogged about these communities’ ongoing fight against intimidation and injustice.
Whether or not Royal Dutch Shell is guilty of wrongdoing in Nigeria–and whether or not any amount of money can make up for the loss of lives–the outcome of the lawsuit still sends an important message. Oil, gas, and mining companies need to respect the rights of local communities where they operate, not exploit or ignore them in the name of making a profit.