Shame on Shell - putting profits first over people and the planet
Kwahlala ngantsomi is an isiXhosa phrase traditionally used at the start of a tale. This tale starts about 50 years ago in the southern Nigerian Ejama-Ebubu community when Shell started mining for oil and gas. An oil spill in 1970 devastated local ecosystems and has impacted the health of generations of people. This was the first of many such spills. In 2012, close to 16 000 infants died because of oil pollution in the Niger Delta region alone. More than 40 million litres of oil are spilled every year across this region, contaminating crops, destroying vital ecosystems, and threatening human lives. This seems an extraordinarily high price for people to pay for the success that many of these large oil companies enjoy. Read about the most recent oil spill in Nigeria here.
In 2021, Shell lost its fight to avoid paying compensation to the Ejama-Ebubu community for its 1970 oil spill. It is set to pay the affected community $111 million in compensation. If a conglomerate like Shell takes 50 years to address their social and environmental injustices, and only does so following a legal ruling, they should not be welcomed into South Africa to conduct seismic surveys, and into a country which has already fought some of the worst injustices.
The Amazon warrior – the ship responsible for conducting Shell’s seismic survey – has left the Cape Town harbour and is heading towards offshore Morgans Bay. Basically, Shell will be using seismic surveys to explore an area of 6 011km squared under the Wild Coast seabed looking for oil and gas deposits for a period of five to six months.
The primary concern for many activists and scientists is that the ocean is an acoustic environment. Sound travels through the water more efficiently than it does on land. This efficiency enables marine organisms to communicate, scavenge or hunt, avoid predation, and breed. Seismic surveyors use this efficiency to their benefit by emitting explosive impulses with airguns to successfully map the seafloor – in a sense mimicking the echo-location abilities of dolphins and whales. These explosive impulses will affect the animals that depend on acoustics for everyday activities, at times deafening them, and they can impact fisheries by likely reducing fisheries catches. Already, the everyday man-made noise pollution in our oceans threatens how marine organisms use the ocean.
Drawing from the Nigerian case study provided above, we cannot take such a risk when it comes to our coastal communities who reside in one of the most poverty-stricken yet pristine province in our country, the Eastern Cape province. Thus, the second concern is that only Shell will benefit from this exploration in the long term while communities are likely to experience negative impacts to their livelihoods. For example, small-scale fisheries catches are mostly for human consumption and thus is a direct contributor to food security at a local, as well as on a national scale. The catches may also be a source of income for small-scale fishers; thus, the impact of seismic surveys on fisheries would hinder this. Furthermore, small-scale fishers are often excluded from decision making in coastal and marine planning and this can further perpetuate marginalization and exclusion of communities in future matters pertaining to ocean use. Finally, in an event where there is an accidental oil spill, the Wild coasts’ strong and meandering current would make it difficult to contain and manage its spread.
The global oil industry – proudly sponsored by the legacy of colonisation – works to benefit the very few who have built wealth through immoral, unjust and exploitative explorations. The system is flawed, biased and promotes overexploitation – and Africa’s rich and natural resources are at the forefront of the scramble for valuable resources! Fortunately, we live in a world where anything is possible, and true enough, over R131 billion has been pledged from the international community to help South Africa decrease its reliance on oil and gas. We can start by ending it with Shell’s and future seismic surveys.
About the author
Jamila Janna is a Marine Biologist and is currently a master’s candidate and has a background in stable isotopes, estuarine and coastal ecology, filmmaking, science communication and marine activism. She has participated in stakeholder engagements and was a liaison officer for youth, has a deep interest in environmental racism and intersectionality in conservation.