Four Nigerian villagers took Royal Dutch Shell to court on Thursday in a landmark pollution case that campaigners said could open the door to more compensation claims against international companies.
The fishermen and farmers, together with the Friends of the Earth campaign group, accuse the oil major of polluting land and waterways around their homes in the Niger Delta region of Africa's top energy producer.
Shell has denied responsibility, saying the leaks were caused by sabotage.
The villagers launched their claim in a civil court in The Hague, where Shell has its joint global headquarters.
It was the first time a Dutch-registered company had been sued in a Dutch court for offences allegedly carried out by a foreign subsidiary.
Friends of the Earth said the claim, if successful, could open up a new way for plaintiffs to take on multinationals — by suing their parent companies in their home countries.
The villagers, who appeared in court, want unspecified damages saying Shell and other corporations were responsible for pollution from three oil spills between 2004 and 2007.
"My community is a ghost land as a result of the devastation. We had good vegetation. Today people have respiratory problems and are getting sick," said one of the plaintiffs Eric Dooh, from the Goi community, which lives between two pipelines.
"Shell is aware of the whole devastation. I want them to pay compensation, to clean up the pollution so we can grow our crops and fish again," the 44-year-old told Reuters before the hearing.
Shell says the pollution was caused by thieves breaking into pipelines to steal the oil, and believes it has played its part in cleaning it up.
"The matter has been resolved as far as we are concerned and we do not properly understand why Friends of the Earth has submitted the case," Allard Castelein, Shell's vice president for environment, told Reuters before the hearing.
The biggest pollution problem in the Niger Delta was caused by thieves who steal oil from Shell's installations, he said. Around 150,000 barrels of oil are stolen every day in the Delta. That is worth about US$6 billion a year.
Friends of the Earth said other companies could face similar claims in European Union cities if it won the case.
"It opens up a range of possibilities for people from poor countries to use the legal system to seek compensation from companies," said Geert Ritsema, international affairs coordinator at the environmental group during a break in the proceedings.
The Nigerians' lawyer Channa Samkalden told the court Shell had failed to maintain pipelines, clean up leaks and prevent pollution.
"It was insufficient maintenance, not sabotage, that was responsible for the leaks … Shell did not operate as a conscientious oil company," she said.
With around 31 million inhabitants, the Niger Delta is one of the world's most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems. It is an important source of food for the poor, rural population.
Last year, the United Nations said in a report the government and multinational oil companies, particularly Shell, were responsible for 50 years of oil pollution that had devastated the Ogoniland region, part of the Niger Delta.
The government and oil firms have pledged to clean up the region and other parts of the Delta, but residents say they have seen little action.
Shell Petroleum Development Co (SPDC) is the largest oil and gas company in Nigeria, with production capacity of more than 1 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.
It operates a joint venture in which state owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp has a majority share. Total SA subsidiary Elf Petroleum Nigeria Ltd. also has a stake.
Three judges are expected to deliver their verdict on the Hague case in the new year.