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Element Africa: A lawsuit over oil, deaths over mining, and worries over lithium

People protesting against fossil fuels and related pollution in Africa.

People protesting against fossil fuels and related pollution in Africa, including Ogoni. Image by Babawale Obayanju/Break Free via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

  • A community in Nigeria’s oil heartland is suing Shell in a U.K. court for oil-related pollution and compensation dating back to 1989.
  • Two teenage boys fleeing a raid by forestry officers on illegal gold mining in Ghana’s Ashanti region have been found drowned, but the district chief alleges they were assaulted before being thrown into the river.
  • A lithium boom in Zimbabwe looks set to benefit foreign mining firms and exclude local communities, activists say, drawing a parallel to an earlier diamond bonanza that has left many communities mired in poverty today.
  • Element Africa is Mongabay’s bi-weekly bulletin rounding up brief stories from the commodities industry in Africa.

Niger Delta community pursues new claims over Shell oil spills in U.K. court

More than 11,000 people from Nigeria’s southeastern oil-producing region have filed claims against Shell at a London court, demanding the fossil fuel giant clean up damage from decades of oil spills and pay compensation to affected residents.

Following a U.K. court ruling that Niger Delta residents could sue Shell in British courts, U.K. law firm Leigh Day submitted the claim last week on behalf of 11,317 people and 17 institutions in Ogale, an Ogoni fishing community of around 40,000 people in the Niger delta. It follows individual claims from 2,335 people in Bille, a fishing community also in the Niger Delta, which were submitted to the London High Court in 2015.

The latest filing says repeated oil spills dating back to at least 1989 severely contaminated the stream that served as Ogale’s main source of drinking water, and left borehole water covered in oil sheen, with a strong stench of oil. Shell’s own records show more than 55 spills have taken place in this community alone since September 2011. In Bille, spills between 2011 and 2013 damaged vast areas of mangrove forest and killed most of the fish in nearby rivers, leaving the population without a source of food or income, the lawyers say.

Shell, which has operated in Nigeria since the late 1950s, says it is legally distinct from its local subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), and that only Nigerian regulators — typically weak to hold oil majors to account — have the legal authority to order a cleanup. The company also denies the damage was caused by SPDC’s negligence.

A man in polluted water in Bodo
Boats in a polluted river at Bodo, Ogoniland: in addition to oil wells, a network of pipelines transporting crude across this part of the Niger Delta to the coast for export have made it a hotspot for pollution. Image by Milieudefensie / Akintunde Akinleye via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

“A lot of the spills have been caused by theft and sabotage. And even when we have tried to go back in to be able to remedy those leaks, which were caused by third parties, we haven’t been able to sometimes access it because of security concerns,” Shell CEO Wael Sawan said on CNBC last week.

The company also says it’s too late for communities to seek compensation for spills that took place more than five years ago.

Leigh Day says Shell’s argument means the company could “chronically pollute a community’s land and the community is powerless to enforce clean up. Instead, they must rely on a regulator who is unable or unwilling to hold Shell to account.”

History of pollution

A 2011 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) put the cost of an initial cleanup of the Ogoni area, covering nearly 1,000 square kilometers (380 square miles), at $1 billion — around 3% of Shell’s 2022 profits.

“Had this level of contamination and pollution occurred in Europe or North America, it is hard to imagine that there would not have been swift and severe consequences and legal redress,” said Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International Nigeria. “Shell should clean up the pollution the oil has caused in these communities and compensate those whose livelihoods have been devastated and whose health has been harmed.”

In 2021, a Dutch appeals court found Shell liable for the pollution of two Nigerian communities. Eric Dooh, one of the plaintiffs in the Dutch case, told Mongabay the success of the litigation was a turning point, and welcomed the latest lawsuits against Shell in the U.K.

“We thank God for it. It will make them sit up,” Dooh said.

People protesting against fossil fuels and related pollution in Africa.
A 2011 report put the cost of an initial cleanup of Ogoniland, 1,000 square kilometers (380 square miles), at $1 billion — a huge sum, but only 3% of Shell’s profits in 2022. Image by Babawale Obayanju/Break Free via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Ghana villagers mourn boys’ deaths after raid on illegal miners turns deadly

Ghanaian police are investigating the drowning of two teenage boys in the Offin River, near the town of Anwiafutu in Ghana’s Ashanti region. Townspeople say the boys drowned while fleeing forestry officers conducting a raid against illegal mining.

The bodies of 19-year-old Kwabena Anane and Derrick Atta, 17, were found Feb. 1 by the National Disaster Management Organization (NADMO), 12 hours after three other boys who were in the forest with them reported the encounter with Forestry Commission officials.

“We retrieved the bodies and handed them to the police to be sent to the mortuary, for autopsy and investigations,” said Joseph Oppong, the local district coordinator for NADMO.

Illegal miners from other communities are active in the nearby Apinkrom Forest. Unemployed youth from the area, including many who should be in school, often visit abandoned mine sites in search of gold.

Anwiafutu residents say forestry officers come to the area to plant trees and also arrest people engaged in illegal mining in the forest, which has polluted the river.

“We ran into the bush when the forestry officials came shooting at us while Kwabena and Derrick dived into the river to hide,” one of the boys who was in the forest with Anane and Atta when forestry officers appeared told Mongabay. “The forestry officials kept shooting and pelting stones at them in the river, but we managed to escape.”

“We believe that the boys were beaten up and thrown into the river because they were bleeding and had cuts when we retrieved their bodies,” Isaac Kofi Marfo, the district chief executive, told Mongabay.

Efforts by Mongabay to reach the Forestry Commission for comment were unsuccessful.

Anwiafutu residents say they want officials to focus their attention on illegal miners using heavy equipment to destroy farms, forests and watercourses instead of chasing teenagers.

Villagers protesting in Anwiafutu.
Villagers protesting after the drowning of two youth near Anwiafutu in Ghana’s Ashanti Region. Image courtesy Ben Kwarteng.

Activists fear new lithium boom signals old problems for ordinary Zimbabweans

Mining for newly valuable minerals is under the spotlight in Zimbabwe as transnational mining giants invest hundreds of millions of dollars in new and expanded lithium mines. Activists say the government is backing large investors while failing to ensure participation or benefits for local people, or protection for communities’ rights.

At a Jan. 20 briefing, Zimbabwe’s Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) noted that the government had allowed three Chinese-owned companies — Chengxin Lithium Group, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt and Sinomine Resource Group — to buy up $678 million worth of Zimbabwean lithium mines and deposits last year.

CNRG attorney Tracy Mutowekuziva described how November 2022 raids by police on the Sandawana lithium mine in Zimbabwe’s Midlands province drove out around 5,000 artisanal miners who had rushed into the area after lithium was discovered. In January 2023, the government banned the export of raw lithium, excluding all but large companies from the anticipated profits from deposits of lithium that are still being discovered. The metal is an important component of batteries needed for a global transition to lower-carbon energy.

Mutowekuziva said the Zimbabwean government is at risk of repeating mistakes it made managing diamond mining, with dangerous consequences for communities and for the environment.

Thousands of artisanal miners moved to Marange in Zimbabwe in 2006 when diamonds were discovered there. Two years later, they were violently removed by the Zimbabwean military, which fired on diamond panners from helicopters, killing more than 200. Marange villagers were forcibly relocated 40 kilometers (25 miles) from mine sites, and today live in poverty without a share of the royalties from the diamond mining on their territory.

“It is very pathetic that in areas like Marange, they [the communities] are not able to even ask the mining companies to fix some of the things that they have destroyed,” Mutowekuziva said.

The CNRG has called on the government to set out a “master plan” that details how much lithium is being mined, how much tax the mining companies are paying the government, and what share of that revenue is being allocated for development projects in the mines’ host communities.

Abuse, displacement, pollution: the legacy of Zimbabwe’s Marange diamonds

Mabel Adorkor Anang, Ini Ekott, and Anna Majavu contributed to this bulletin.

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