Nigeria's Delta State is not a good place to be an environmentalist. In fact, it's not a very good place to be a Nigerian. Delta State is quite a nice place for oil companies though; since oil was found there in 1956 multinationals like Chevron and Shell have extracted billions of barrels of crude -- currently, between 1.8 and 2.5 million barrels a day -- from across the oil-rich Niger River Delta, leaving a destitute and despoiled landscape in their wake.
As of 2004, oil accounted for 98% of Nigerian exports and almost half of GDP, yet despite record prices, almost three quarters of Nigerians still live on roughly $1 per day. Some of Nigeria's poorest communities are clustered around the platforms, pipelines, and refineries that dot the mangrove forests and rich estuaries throughout the Niger Delta and other oil producing communities. For decades, oil companies' pledges to improve their lot have gone unfulfilled. Instead, local villagers were bequeathed a toxic environment and a legacy of violence and human rights abuses.
On Monday, a handful of these villagers will finally get their day in court, when the case of Bowoto v. Chevron goes to trial.
In 1998, Larry Bowoto and about 100 other community members staged a peaceful protest at one of Chevron's offshore oil platforms, demanding a meeting between company representatives and village elders to negotiate for the job training and education programs they had been promised in exchange for the severe environmental harms they had been forced to endure. They were unarmed, and after receiving word that Chevron would attend a meeting in a nearby village the following day, they prepared to leave the platform peacefully.
Before they could do so, three company helicopters carrying Nigerian military personnel swooped down on the platform and opened fire, killing two people and injuring several others, including Bowoto. Allegedly acting at the direction of Chevron, soldiers detained and tortured several other protestors, after which company personnel paid them for their services.
Bowoto and his co-plaintiffs filed their suit in 1999 in United States District Court in San Francisco. After nearly a decade of legal wrangling, the case now stands as an important milestone in the history of international human rights law: for the first time, a U.S. company could potentially be held liable in U.S. courts for gross human rights abuses committed in their overseas operations.
I will be in the courtroom this week to witness this historic trial as it begins. Although I have no connection to Nigeria and no ties to the plaintiffs, it's important for me to be there because I've seen this kind of story before.
For the past several years, I've worked as a volunteer legal advisor in Ecuador and the U.S. on a case that raises similar issues. Starting in the 1960's, Chevron pumped oil out of the Ecuadorian Amazon and, in the process, recklessly dumped billions of gallons of toxic wastewater and oil sludge directly into rivers, streams and unlined earthen pits across a region the size of Rhode Island. Once one of the world's most important biodiversity hotspots and home to half a dozen isolated indigenous tribes, Ecuadorians now call the area a "Rainforest Chernobyl" due to the prevalence of cancer clusters and birth defects among those still bathing, fishing, and drinking the polluted water.
While the Ecuador case is proceeding in a dusty Amazonian courtroom, attention is now turned to San Francisco, where Chevron's lawyers will do their best to disprove Bowoto's arguments about the company's complicity in human rights abuse. Depending on what happens, this trial may open the door to justice for more victims of corporate malfeasance around the world, or it may make their claims much harder to hear. Either way, my colleagues in Ecuador and human rights advocates worldwide are waiting for news from the trial.
I'll be blogging from the courtroom this week. Stay tuned...