Radio Netherlands: Shell On Shaky Foundation
By our Internet Desk, 21 July 2000
The Royal Dutch Shell group has recently set up a foundation to fund projects in sustainable energy research and other social investment schemes throughout the world. Some of the first projects include a scheme to reduce firewood use in China and an initiative to tackle poor air quality in Latin American cities.
"We see this as an integral part of taking a broad corporate social responsibility," says Harry Roels, a Shell Group Managing Director. "We'd like to be a healthy company in all respects but we also like to work in societies that are healthy and that means, for us, to balance economics, environment and social aspects in everything we do."
Too Little Too Late
But many environmental groups are sceptical and say this is just an elaborate public relations exercise for the multinational. Paul de Klerk, from the Dutch organisation Milieu Defensie, is especially critical and believes the US$30 million set aside for the foundation is not enough. "It's not bad that they do that," says Paul, "they could even be good projects, but they can't make up with a little effort like this for all the damage they have caused in the past. And Shell has decided again to invest more money in oil and gas exploration. I understand they have to make a profit but then they should spend more on sustainable energy instead of deciding to invest on traditional fossil fuels."
The recent pipeline explosions in Nigeria, killing over 200 people, have put the country's oil industry into the headlines. Less well publicised, however, are the on-going environmental problems which, says Paul de Klerk, have also been devastating much of the country. "Oil has leaked from pipelines which in some cases, has continued for 6 months. The Niger Delta, with its mango forest and wetlands, has been covered with a layer of oil. The people who live there depend on farming and fishing. Their whole livelihood is in danger because the fish die and the land can no longer be used for agriculture. In other parts of Nigeria the oil which is not used has been burned which, of course, causes a lot of pollution and health risks. There have been a lot of people who died or have become sick and many people are saying that oil producers should clean up the pollution and compensate the people who have been affected."
But bad news from Nigeria is nothing new for Shell. In 1995, nine local activists, including renowned author and human rights campaigner Ken Saro Wiwa, were convicted and executed by the Nigerian government, then led by Sani Abacha. Shell has always said it regrets the death of the activists, but denies any responsibility. Today Harry Roels says the company can't be blamed for the way the former Nigerian government treated its people.
"First of all, we are one of the very few companies that has openly spoken out about human rights in Nigeria," he says. "Fortunately, they now have a new government and a new democracy. We have publicly said that we think more of the revenues from the oil industry should go back to the regions where the oil is being produced, which is one of the causes for all the underlying troubles Nigeria has had. So I don't think it's fair to say we haven't done anything. We have incorporated the idea of sustainability into our business principles so it really is a touchstone in everything we do. And I think you should judge us on the impact of all the things we do in our daily operations. It goes beyond a PR exercise."
"They are doing better," concedes Paul de Klerk. "They have, for instance, pulled out of a controversial project in South Cameroon but we are getting information that, in Nigeria, oil spills are still happening and they're still not cleaning up the mess. They have learned part of the lesson but we think that they have only learned the lesson really well if they clean up what they have left behind and don't make the same mistakes again."
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