Thieves blight Nigeria's swamps with spilt oil
* Shell says theft from Nembe pipeline "unprecedented"
* Has imposed force majeure, may shut pipeline
* Locals angry at oil spills
NEMBE, Nigeria, March 8 (Reuters) - In a mangrove forest at the edge of a Nigerian swamp, a film of oil shimmers in rainbow colours for hundreds of metres around Royal Dutch Shell's Nembe creek pipeline.
The cause of this latest environmental catastrophe, Shell says, was an unprecedented level of oil theft targeting a pipeline pumping 150,000 barrels of oil a day to the Atlantic coast.
Nembe is one of the most important production routes for Africa's top energy producer, but it is also a frequent target for criminal gangs who tap into pipelines and steal crude for sale to world markets or local refineries.
This week Shell declared a force majeure on the Nigerian Bonny Light crude oil grade and threatened to shut down the pipeline completely after thieves struck last month.
The impact on the environment of such so-called "bunkering" practices - and on the largely subsistence fishing communities who live around the pipelines in the creeks and swamps of the Niger Delta - is devastating. Decades of oil spills from a combination of theft and poor environmental management by oil majors has ravaged this fragile wetlands environment.
"The way of life I knew as a child, when we used to eat fresh fish straight out of the water, is all gone," said David Kosipre, who used to be a fisherman until all the fish died but who now uses his fishing boat to run a ferry service.
"These oil people have made a shortage of fish. We have to buy it frozen, whereas we used to get it fresh," he said, as his boat cut through a film of thick sludge coating the water.
Reuters was not permitted to gain access to the part of the Nembe pipeline that Shell says has been targeted by thieves, but the ruinous effects of spilled oil were evident: mangroves starting to die and go black, dead fish washing up on shore.
A military boat approached, and Kosipre darted to raise his hands and show he was not armed.
"If you're not careful, they can arrest you," he said. "Yet they're the biggest oil thieves of all," he added, voicing the widely held view that some in Nigeria's military, as well as some senior politicians in the delta, are complicit in much of the theft.
"OIL IS A CURSE"
Nigerian authorities reacted angrily to Shell's suggestion this week that current levels of oil theft were worse than ever, accusing the company of failing to plug pre-existing leaks.
Lieutenant Colonel Onyema Nwachukwu, a spokesman for Nigerian forces in the delta, says enforcement successes since the launch of a campaign against oil thieves last year have cut bunkering.
"There no surge in oil theft in the Niger Delta, rather it is abating," he said at his office. "It was an outrageous outburst by SPDC (Shell Petroleum Development Corporation). We discovered breaches on SPDC pipelines over three months ago, and they have not gone to clamp those breaches down."
A Reuters witness saw Nigerian forces storm a market in one of the delta's main cities of Yenagoa on Thursday to destroy a depot of illegally refined products.
They broke onto six makeshift wooden warehouses and pulled out 100 surface tanks and about as many drums containing diesel.
Nwachukwu said operations had curbed theft.
"Government security agencies have been deployed to protect that (Nembe) line," SPDC head Mutiu Sunmonu told Reuters TV in the United States. "But it will appear from what is happening recently that these measures are just not sufficient."
Meanwhile, the oil spills that blight the lives of millions in the delta show little sign of abating or being cleaned up.
"I barely feed my two children. They used to be in school, but there are no fish to sell, so I had to pull them out," said Douye Enegete, anger visible in his face.
"Oil is a curse on us."