Shell’s toxic legacy, Curaçao

The pollution by the Isla refinery on Curaçao has been a problem for many years. Curaçaoans living downwind of the refinery experience many health issues on account of its toxic emissions.


Curaçao is a Caribbean island, it is located about 65 km north of the Venezuelan coast in South America, it is an ex colony of the Kingdom of the Netherlands until it became independent (within the Kingdom) in 2010. The island is worldwide recognized for been one of the main hotspots for tourism (beautiful landscapes, beaches and other tourism amenities). However, and according with Pulster (2015) the island rank in the top 10 environmental polluted sites due to the emissions of the hundred years old oil-refinery: the Isla.

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Basic Data
NameShell’s toxic legacy, Curaçao
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Oil and gas refining
Specific CommoditiesHeavy metals
Crude oil
Industrial waste
Project Details and Actors
Project Details-There is apparently 2 million tonnes of toxic material (asbestos, heavy metals etc) in a lake of asphalt within an area of 52 hectares.

-The health of thousands of people living downwind of the refinery has been threatened through substantial emissions of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. Empty barrels were filled with toxic residues and dumped into the sea.

-Shell remained on the island for decades and became a major employer, especially in the 1950s and 1960s when the number of jobs at the refinery topped 10,000.

-Prices at the pumps on the island are approximately $1.30 (£0.80) per litre, about 25 times higher than in Venezuela where petrol is heavily subsidised.

-Currently, the refinery produces 340,000 barrels of oil a day for shipment onwards to the US and South America.

Type of PopulationUrban
Start Date1985
Company Names or State EnterprisesGuangdong Zhenrong Energy from China
PDVSA from Venezuela
Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) from Netherlands
Relevant government actorsThe kingdom of the Netherlands, Government of Curacao; Minister of Health and Environment; Coordination Center Expertise Working Conditions and Health (CEAG).
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersEjos: Institution Clean Environment On Curaçao (Stichting SMOC);

Supporters: Friends of the Earth International
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups MobilizingInternational ejos
Local ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of MobilizationArtistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Demanding a clean-up;
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Other Environmental impacts
Potential: Oil spills
OtherSpecific impacts to the sea and marine ecosystems.
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Other environmental related diseases, Deaths
OtherEvery year at least eighteen people die from the pollution.
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights, Displacement
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseInstitutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Withdrawal of company/investment
Development of AlternativesDemand of a clean-up
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.Shell Company has not take responsibility of their environmental and health damages in Curaçao. This is a typical case of toxic imperialism. Currently, 18 people died due to the toxic pollution every year, they have not received any compensation and despite this, the project is ongoing.
Sources and Materials

Industrial pollution and human rights: A case study of the Isla refinery on Curaçao
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Pulster, Erin L., "Assessment of Public Health Risks Associated with Petrochemical Emissions Surrounding an Oil Refinery" (2015). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.
[click to view]


Shell Toxic Contamination In Curacao
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The Infamous Isla Refinery of Curaçao
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Caribbean island Curacao faces oil refinery dilemma
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Shell’s toxic legacy in Curacao
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Shell ‘apologises’ for worldwide damage in “erratum” to annual report
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SMOC: "Close down Isla-refinery until they comply with permit"
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Media Links

Stichting Smoc group
[click to view]

Zembla: Poisoned paradise
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Refineria Isla Curaçao B.V.
[click to view]

Other Documents

La Isla Refinery
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La Isla Refinery
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stichting SMOC
[click to view]

Other Comments"The air is contaminated and there's a terrible smell of sulphur," says Edgar Leito who set up a campaign group to protest against the continued use of the refinery.

"There where no rules for Shell with the toxic materials" Edgar Leito
Meta Information
ContributorGrettel Navas (ENVJustice Project)
Last update04/12/2017