Poor Nigerians May Be Fouling Land With Oil to Create Jobs

Between the tiny villages of Ihuaba and Elele Alimini, near the oil capital of Port Harcourt, is a pond from which two Nigerian communities once farmed fish.

Now it is a fetid pool of oily water, the center of a dispute between the villagers and Shell Oil Co. and an example of how in many parts of Africa, short-term desperation can override long-term environmental concerns.

In May, the pipeline ruptured, spilling thousands of barrels of oil into the pond. "This is our land," says Dixon Joshua, a villager. "We want Shell to compensate us for this damage, and to give our people jobs for cleaning up." There have been 15 such spills this year, six in May alone, the worst in recent memory, according to estimates by Shell.

But the Anglo-Dutch multinational alleges that the ruptures are not accidental. "Nearly 90 percent of those spills are the direct result of deliberate sabotage," says Hubert Nwokolo, operations manager for Shell's eastern division. "One 30-kilometer [19-mile] stretch of pipeline has been hit 34 times since the beginning of 1995."

Shell alleges that the villagers are poisoning their own land. In an area of rich natural resources, they live without electricity, running water, adequate schools, or good health care.

Meanwhile, Shell draws an estimated 800,000 barrels of oil here, approximately $15 million worth - each day.

Oil firms say they suffer the consequences of years of neglect by NIgeria's government. "The economy is so bad that people will do anything to make money," Mr. Nwokolo says. "They think if they flood their area with oil, they can demand compensation ... and contract labor."

The environmental effects can be profound: Agriculture and fishing are disrupted, and there may be long-term health risks.

For oil companies, the economic implications are also apparent. It is costly to recover spilled oil. Pipelines must be closed while repairs are carried out. Unofficial estimates place lost output this year at about 30,000 barrels per day.

At Ihuaba, work by Shell's Oil Spill Response Unit has been halted by locals. Negotiations for fees to be paid for access to the area are continuing, but the company is reluctant either to pay compensation or use local labor in cases of suspected sabotage.

As delays continue, the cleanup becomes ever more difficult as the crude begins to break down and seep into the soil.

"Whatever the cause, we try to clean up and recover what has been spilled," says Paul Morgan, head of community affairs for Shell. "But it is our policy not to reward sabotage."

Agip and Elf oil companies, which have smaller operations in the region, experience similar problems.

"We are not government, but because of our profile, people see us as government and demand jobs and services from us," says one oil company official.

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