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This is the headquarters of the oil slick watchdog in Benin City. Without the Friends Of The Earth activists, a substantial disaster would have gone unnoticed. For every oil leak, the team publishes a report and travels to help stricken populations. The head of the organization, Nnimo Bassey, fights to stop an environmental and human disaster  almost nobody speaks out about.

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The delta of the Niger river is a vast maze of creeks and mangroves, but in half a century it has become the capital of oil slicks. There are no run aground tankers or major pipeline leaks here; just a permanent sloppiness in the mining of crude oil. Millions of tons of oil have been dumped for years. Forests and rivers are poisoned, contaminated by a brown muck that covers vegetation and gets into the soil. A few weeks ago in Ibada Elume, there was another significant pipeline leak. Murphy Akiri,  is here to assess the damage.

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For miles around the leak water is no longer drinkable and lands are unworkable. The entire ecosystem has been destroyed. Already mutilated by the installation of pipelines, the forest is now poisoned, as if a black plague has infected the enviroment. In the next village, inhabitants are furious. Everyone here gets their livelihood from the natural environment. These Nigerians believe that the oil mining hasn’t brought them anything, but has cost them dearly.

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It's a curse that has taken root In Oloibiri in the state of Bayelsa. In 1956, the Shell company opened the sluice gates of the first oil-well in Nigeria. It has since closed but 7000 kilometres of pipelines now criss-cross the Niger delta. Two years ago, one of these arteries failed right in the middle of the jungle, in the village of Okpotuwari.

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AGIP, an Italian firm, has admitted to being at fault for the leak,

but to avoid compensating the local population, it has seriously underplayed its responsibility.

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This swamp was essential to the life of several surrounding villages. Palm trees provided a local wine that is sold in town. Other trees, like the Iroco, provided timber for construction work. And finally fishing was their main means of subsistence. In two years there has been no indemnification or cleaning. There is serious evidence of double standards between corporate responses in the west, and those enacted in impoverished nations like Nigeria.

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In Ossiama Creek, there's no option but to keep fishing, although the flesh of the fish now tastes a of kerosene. The water they use for drinking, cooking and washing is polluted. Esame has been fishing these waters for years, and she has almost resigned herself to these permanent oil slicks.

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The Niger delta has thousands of villages just like this one. Latrines line the same river where people wash themselves and clean the dishes. Sanitary conditions are horrific. And tens of millions of people are being ignored by the federal government and oil corporations. In Okpotuwari, the inhabitants have been offered some minor considerations. Following the leak of 2008, the Italian firm AGIP constructed a road  for the villagers. But compared to the wealth that lies beneath the ground, these infrastructures are derisory. No health centre, no school, the closest town is two hours away by boat. And as for permanent electricity, well, they’re going to have to wait. 

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While penetrating the jungle, worrying figures appear from the haze at a bend in the river sound. In a secret glade, behind a curtain of smoke, three men are engaged in strictly illegal activities.

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It’s another Nigerian paradox. The nation is wealthy with crude oil, but the citizens have no fuel. Howver, these illegal refiners are able to get petrol, diesel and fuel. For a few euros, transporters and individuals come here to be supplied. Emmanuel and his friends have made a real business from it. But working in these conditions is life threatening. Here, everything can explode or catch fire at any time.

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What these refiners won't tell you is that the crude oil they retrieve comes from pipeline sabotage. For a few years now, armed groups have fought for a fairer division of national oil income. These rebels regularly attack installations of foreign companies. They siphon off crude oil from pipelines and sell it. That’s the alibi given by oil men to explain the oil slicks. But for ecologists there is no doubt about it. Deep inside this tropical forest, it’s really poor pipeline maintenance causing these repeated leaks.

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The United Nations’ Programme For The Environment has been investigating for three years to discover the culprits. The first conclusions made the ecologists yell. The UN claims that 90% of the pollution came from looting and that only 10% was the result of negligence by the oil companies.

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The safety of installations and employees is indeed a major concern for oil companies. Through the years, rebels have intensified their operations. The expatriates have become one of their favourite targets. 80 foreigners were kidnapped in this region in 2010. But the state of Nigeria watches over. A special army unit is entirely dedicated to the protection of oil companies. Without admitting it, government forces act as a militia serving private interests.

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In 2008 the conflict became so intense that the production of crude oil collapsed. In response, the government proposed an amnesty for the rebels. Weapons and reintegration into civil life in exchange for peace. Twenty thousand men agreed to surrender. The army relentlessly hunts those still hiding in the creeks.

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These are former rebels who accepted the amnesty. They left the jungle to be rehoused here, in a hotel in Port Harcourt. But they feel prejudiced against by the government and threaten to take arms once more.

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In the meantime, these ex-rebels receive a government salary of between 100 and 300 euros a month. They must also take part in agricultural training. And the amnesty isn't really working. Weapons keep circulating in the Niger delta.

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85% of the Nigeria state budget comes from oil revenues. Other sectors, particularly agriculture, have been reduced dramatically. Over the years, Nigeria, the first producer of crude oil in Africa, has become an economy based entirely on the mining of crude oil. Revenues are substantial and inequities in the division of wealth create envy. Corruption rules at the head of the state. According to a note from the American embassy in Abuja released by Wikileaks, crude oil buyers have apparently paid millions of dollars in bribes in order to allow their oil tankers to depart. Meanwhile, the notion of an oil curse increasingly seems to make sense. People are poorer today in Nigeria than in the 60s, as populations of the delta received only a tiny share of the billions of dollars that crude oil brought. In order to get a share of this providential godsend, their final resort is to sue the oil companies. Here, in Goi, four years ago, a badly maintained pipeline belonging to Shell burst, leaking toxic material for days. The village is now involved in a lawsuit with the Anglo/Dutch company.

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Why don’t oil companies maintain their pipelines? Why do they allow such precious a precious commodity to leak? It's a simple cost benefit analysis: combined with the direct cost of maintainence, the risk of kidnapping means it is cheaper to allow the loss than it is to avoid it  Nevertheless, oil men claim that they are renovating the polluted sites one by one.

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Mike Karikpo works on behalf of villagers, and has managed to have debates organized in the Netherlands. Because in Nigeria, procedures last on average between ten and fifteen years. And the indemnities are ridiculous compared to the damage that has been done.

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Most of the time, victims of oil slicks give up or die before the Nigerian court of justice gives them a verdict. The trials which will take place in Holland, where the headquarters of Shell’s parent company are located, and have a double impact. There is a guarantee that the debates will be heard fairly in front of the judges. And they’re drawing the attention of the international community to a drama that is poorly talked about in the media.

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These rainbow-coloured reflections might spatter the waters of Delta Niger for a long time. Here, nature and men are strongly bound together in a fight for survival. Without a better sharing out of the oil income. Without a renovated and healthy environment. These endless oil slicks will be forever feeding the bitter disappointment, anger and frustrations felt in this region of the world. 

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PROGRAM END: 00 : 21 : 58 : 09



Keyword: Nnimmo Bassey
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