Photo via the Poor Mouth
In one of the many tragic tales of environmental heroism, Ken Saro-Wiwa stood up to the oil giant Shell with peaceful demonstrations and vocal opposition—until he was executed by his own government on false charges. A legal battle was then waged for nearly 15 years, in which Saro-Wiwa's fellow Ogoni people charged Shell with funding the government backed security forces that lead to the violence against them. Now, Shell has just agreed to pay $15 million to settle the case out of court—though the company still says it did nothing wrong.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was an Ogoni, an ethnic group of Nigerians whose homes and health were (and still are) endangered by oil extraction practices in their native land. He took to organizing, writing, and activism to bring light to his people's plight.
According to the Environmental News Service:
An early member of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, organized and led nonviolent protests of up to 300,000 people against Shell's practices in Ogoniland, where crude oil extraction has taken place since the 1950s. The land and communities have suffered extreme and unremediated damage from decades of oil waste dumping and gas flaring, which continues today.
Shell of course despised and feared the negative PR beginning to swell around their activities, and the Nigerian government felt economically bound to the giant company. And so what happened next was yet another atrocity in the sad and despicable history of powerful conglomerates protecting their interests:
Shell grew increasingly concerned with the international prominence of the Ogoni movement and made payments to security forces that they knew to be engaging in human rights violations against the local communities.
The military government of General Sani Abacha violently repressed the demonstrations, arrested Ogoni activists, and falsely accused nine Ogoni activists of murder and bribed witnesses to give fake testimony. The nine were denied a fair trial and then hanged on November 10, 1995.
Now, nearly 15 years later, the Ogoni have won a small but deserved victory. The case they brought against the company under an obscure US law that allows foreigners to sue companies for human rights abuses has just been settled out of court. Though $15 million may seem a paltry sum to repay the vast injustices done to their people, and the murder of some of their brightest, perhaps the international attention garnered from this case will draw some attention to their plight. And even though Shell hasn't publicly admitted any wrongdoing, sometimes, actions speak louder than words.
Ken Saro-Wiwa, with his courageous dedication to protecting his people, has proved that.
More on Shell and Environmental Activists:
A Message to Shell Oil
Shell CEO Admits Peak Oil Could be Here in 7 Years
Top 100 Eco-Heroes