A Dutch appeals court has ruled that the Nigerian branch of oil giant Shell is responsible for damage caused by leaks in the Niger Delta.
The court ordered Shell Nigeria to pay compensation to Nigerian farmers, while the subsidiary and its Anglo-Dutch parent company were told to install equipment to prevent future damage.
A group of farmers launched the case in 2008, alleging widespread pollution.
Shell says the leaks were the result of “sabotage”.
In a statement on Friday, Royal Dutch Shell said it was “disappointed” with the verdict.
The ruling can be appealed against.
The judgment could have implications beyond Nigeria, in terms of corporate responsibility and the duty of care multinationals have to the people in the places where they operate, reports the BBC’s Anna Holligan from The Hague.
While the oil spills in this case happened from 2004 to 2007, pollution from leaking pipelines continues to be a major issue in the Niger Delta.
The court said Shell had not proven “beyond reasonable doubt” that saboteurs were responsible for the leaks affecting the villages of Goi and Oruma, rather than poor maintenance.
“This makes Shell Nigeria responsible for the damage caused by the leaks” in these areas, it said. It added that the amount of compensation would be “determined at a later stage”.
The court found that a leak in Ikot Ada Udo village was a result of sabotage, but said it needed more time to resolve the case.
The four farmers who launched the case – Barizaa Dooh, Elder Friday Alfred Akpan, Chief Fidelis A. Oguru and Alali Efanga – said the leaks from underground oil pipelines had cost them their livelihoods by contaminating land and waterways. Mr Efanga and Mr Dooh have died since the case was first filed in 2008 so their sons pursued the case instead.
“I’m very happy – the common man in Nigeria now has hope,” Princewill Efanga told the BBC.
James Oguru, son of Chief Oguru, said “justice had prevailed” but urged Shell to “do the necessary” so they could start farming again.
The farmers were backed by environmental group Friends of the Earth.
“Tears of joy here. After 13 years, we’ve won,” the group’s Dutch branch tweeted following the ruling.
This is the first time individual farmers who have had their sources of livelihood taken away by the environmental destruction in the Niger Delta hope to get justice.
It is being received with excitement among environmental activists, as it may open a floodgate of more litigation against Shell and other corporations involved in oil exploration in the region.
Kentebbe Ebiarido, who represents some of the farmers, said people in the area had been “cheated environmentally and economically” and that no matter how much the multinationals had misbehaved in the past, the communities now have hope.
For many years, Shell has been accused of being responsible for the contamination of the region through leaks from oil exploration – allegations it has always denied.
There have been settlements in the past. But in those instances – like in 2005 when Shell agreed to an $84m (£60m) deal for fishermen in the Bodo community – thousands of residents of the Niger Delta were lumped together. When such settlements eventually got to each of them, it did not amount to much.
But this time, even though no-one knows what the compensation will be, there is little doubt that it will different to before.