By Lisa Vives
A Nigerian lawyer who took up the cause for delta communities harmed by a subsidiary of the oil conglomerate Royal Dutch Shell will be recognized this year with a “Nobel Prize for grassroots advocacy to protect the environment,” formally known as the Goldman Environmental Prize for 2022.
Chima Williams, executive director of Friends of the Earth Nigeria (Environmental Rights Action), was recognized for his role in helping the Goi and Oruma communities of the oil-rich Niger Delta region get justice.
The victory came after 13 years of litigation when a Dutch court awarded damages to the communities for oil spills which happened between 2004 and 2007 due to exploration by a subsidiary of the oil giant.
It was the first time a parent company was held liable for the actions of its subsidiary in the delta.
Oil and gas are vital to the Nigerian economy and account for almost half of the country’s GDP. But that wealth was never shared with the delta community. On the contrary, the delta was soon so damaged by frequent oil spills and flares that it was designated one of the most polluted places on earth by Amnesty International.
Life expectancy in the region is estimated to be 49 years, 10 years lower than the rest of the country.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Williams described the halcyon days before Shell first found oil in 1956.
“Before the advent of oil in commercial quantity,” he recalled, “the Niger Delta used to be known as the most peaceful, the most hospitable, and the most luscious part of the country.
“Port Harcourt, seen as Nigeria’s oil capital, was christened ‘the garden city,’ he reminisced. “Landscapes in the Niger Delta were a beauty to behold. The people were fishing folks and farmers, supplying the needs of households and families in the Niger Delta and across Nigeria.
“All those cherished memories of the Niger Delta people have been consigned to the dustbin,” he said bitterly, “because the fishes they catch now are poisonous.”
In his acceptance speech, Williams, who lives in Benin City, Edo State, gave thanks to all those who supported the litigation. He called on the global audience to join the campaign for environmental justice.
“After all, the environment is our life – a healthy environment breeds healthy people and only healthy people can make a healthy world.”
The top environment prize is annually awarded to six grassroots activists – one from each of the world’s continents except Antarctica. In addition to a physical award, each winner receives an undisclosed cash prize. The organization does not make recommendations on how the funds should be used.
The award ceremony can be seen online with winners from the U.S., the Netherlands, Ecuador, Thailand and Australia.