A group of villagers in southern Chad, who claim a number of accidents by British mining giant Glencore poisoned their drinking water, harming people and destroying farmland, are to confront company representatives in mediation, after the UK government accepted their human rights complaint.
At least 15 people suffered burns in September 2018 when an earth bank supporting a wastewater basin the size of 34 Olympic-sized pools collapsed. It was part of Glencore UK's oil concession in Badila, and the waste flowed across the land of the farmers living in the area, ending up in the Nya Pende River, the primary water source.
"Everyone who used the water to clean their clothes, to wash themselves, they were all complaining that things are not as they were before that spill," says Delphine Kemneloum Djiraïbé, a lawyer with Public Interest Law Center (PILC) based in N'Djamena, Chad who is one of the groups representing the villagers, who are primarily subsistence farmers.
A traditional leader and five others a few weeks later reported they saw an oil feeder pipe that was leaking oil, just metres from the Nya Pende River.
While some of the 18,000 residents in the area were directly burned by the wastewater, others had skin lesions and pustules just a few weeks after the two incidents when they used the water to bathe in.
Those who used or drank the water reported suffering from internal pain, including stomach aches, and vomiting. A number of people were hospitalised, including two children, according to the complaint.
"At the beginning of the oil spill, we tried to engage with Glencore and we were ignored," Djiraïbé tells the Africa Calling podcast.
Fish were found floating in the oil spilled in the river, she says, and the villagers who ate this fish became ill. Many were itching all over and had nausea and diarrhoea.
It says that the British company disregarded guidelines set out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). These include environmental due diligence, human rights and remediation of impacts.
"In addition to general neglect towards its stakeholders and local communities, major events have occurred at the Badila oilfield that demonstrate the acute failure of Glencore UK to respect the OECD Guidelines," according to the complaint.
Lawyer Djiraïbé says that people keep drinking the water and getting sick. Some of the 18,000 residents who live in the area and rely on the Nya Pende river also reported between September 2018 and March 2019 that there was a sheen of oil on the water.
Another wastewater spill
While people of Badila were still dealing with these two spills - and the loss of land due to contamination, toxic drinking water, and livestock deaths - a third accident took place on 21 July 2020 at the Badila oilfield, which spilled into Malom village, flooding farmland, houses and contaminating the village well, according to the complaint.
Although locals and contractors maintained that 60 cubic metres flooded the area, Glencore UK said that only 3 to 4 cubic metres were spilled, according to the complaint.
Djiraïbé says they had tried to speak to Glencore UK previously, but were ignored or told that these spills contaminating land and water, and the health hazards surrounding this, were not their concern.
"At the beginning of the oil spill, we tried to engage with Glencore and we were ignored. They kept saying that it was nothing, that it was not their responsibility and that they were not at risk," says Djiraïbé from her office in N'Djamena, the Chadian capital.
She pointed out that livestock died after drinking the water, and that fish were found dead after the oil spill. Djiraïbé partnered with RAID, a watchdog group that exposes corporate wrongdoing, environmental harm and human rights abuses.
Based in London, RAID is familiar with the court procedures in the British capital and was able to pursue the complaint, she adds.
RFI contacted Glencore, who issued this statement: "The complaint primarily relates to a wastewater related incident that took place in September 2018 at the Badila oil field in Chad which is operated by a Glencore subsidiary, PetroChad (Mangara) Limited. Glencore has been fully transparent about this incident."
Breaking: British government accepts #humanrights complaint against @Glencore UK for toxic spill at its Badila oilfield in #Chad. UK NCP for the @OECD Guidelines says concerns raised by RAID & Chadian groups "merit further examination." #bizhumanrightshttps://t.co/FAX8y0ZTKj pic.twitter.com/s3QlvXmgCO - RAID (@raidukorg) January 27, 2021
It also says that their 2019 Sustainability and Human Rights Report includes information on their actions and response to this spill.
Concerning the 2020 spill, however, the UK National Contact Point (UKNCP) for the OECD guidelines said they have received the complaint there but "investigations in relation to this event are ongoing."
On their decision published on 22 January, UK NCP acknowledged that the villagers want Glencore UK to commission an independent investigation into the 2018 wastewater spill and alleged oil leak.
UKNCP is advocating for mediation, which Djiraïbé says they are going to go ahead with.
Glencore says that "it acknowledges their decision that the issues relating to the 2018 wastewater incident merit further examination".
"We also note that UKNCP's decision to further examine aspects of the complaint is not a finding against Glencore UK Ltd or a determination by the UKNCP that Glencore UK Ltd has acted inconsistently with the guidelines."
For Djiraïbé, it is a big step in the right direction to challenge Glencore in the UK, especially with RAID as a national point of contact to handle the case.
She says that Glencore was not transparent and consistently told villagers that the water was safe to drink. But then in two other villages it told people not to drink the water out of their well. Some farmers were paid small compensation by Glencore UK, but a number were left unable to use their land, and given nothing for their loss.
"I hope that this mediation is really an opportunity that people who are suffering from Glencore's activities will be heard, because it's so frustrating," she says.
"People are getting sick, livestock is dying, so that is a big chance for them just to be considered as human beings, because the behaviour of Glencore is disturbing," she adds.