A Dutch court ruled on Wednesday that Royal Dutch Shell can be held partially responsible for pollution in the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, saying the company should have prevented sabotage at one of its facilities.
The district court in The Hague ordered Shell to pay unspecified damages to one farmer, but dismissed four other claims filed against the Dutch parent company.
The case was seen by activists as a test for holding multinational companies responsible for alleged offences at foreign subsidiaries.
Four Nigerians and interest group Friends of the Earth filed the suit in 2008 in the Netherlands, where Shell has its global headquarters, seeking reparations for lost income from contaminated land and waterways in the Niger Delta region.
The court backed Shell's argument that the spills were caused by sabotage and not poor maintenance of its facilities, as had been argued by the Nigerians.
"Shell Nigeria should and could have prevented this sabotage in an easy way," the ruling said. "This is why the district court has sentenced Shell Nigeria to pay damages to the Nigerian plaintiff."
The Nigerians - fishermen and farmers - said they could no longer feed their families because the region had been polluted by oil from Shell's pipelines and production facilities.
The pollution is a result of oil spills in 2004, 2005 and 2007, they said.
It is the first time a Dutch-registered company has been sued in a domestic court for offences allegedly carried out by a foreign subsidiary.
The suit targets Shell's parent company in the Netherlands and its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Co (SPDC). It is the largest oil and gas company in Nigeria, Africa's top energy producer, with an output of more than 1 million barrels of oil or equivalent per day.
In October, Shell lawyers said the company has played its part in cleaning up the Delta, which accounts for more than 50 percent of Nigeria's oil exports.
The Niger Delta has about 31 million inhabitants and includes the Ogoniland region. It is the main source of food for the impoverished, rural population.