Toxic Trade News / 13 October 2006
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My Notebook: The dirty underbelly of globalisation
by Hardev Kaur, New Straits Times (Malaysia)
13 October 2006 – Globalisation has its critics — from heads of governments, political leaders, trade unions to non-governmental organisations and environmentalists. They argue that it disadvantages the poor and the weak.

"It is not working for many of the world’s poor. It is not working for much of the environment. It is not working for the stability of the global economy.

"I saw first-hand the devastating effects that globalisation can have on developing countries, and especially the poor within these countries," Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist and senior vice-president of the World Bank, writes in his book Globalisation and its Discontents.

While Malaysians have been exposed to smog and environmental pollution as a result of forest fires in Indonesia, an even worse "devastating effect" is being played out in Abidjan with toxic waste from Europe. It has brought death and sickness after hazardous waste was shipped nearly halfway around the world. At least eight people have died, some 85,000 are seeking medical treatment for nosebleeds, diarrhoea, nausea, eye irritation and breathing difficulties and it has forced a government shake-up in Ivory Coast.

The dark tale of globalisation, according to the New York Times, "began in July when a Greek-owned Panamanian-flagged tanker, leased by Trafigura, stopped in Amsterdam and attempted to unload its waste. That fell through when a Dutch company that was contracted to do the job for US$15,000 (RM55,500) found far more noxious materials in the ship’s hold than it had been led to believe. Completing safe disposal there would instead cost US$300,000, plus perhaps as much again in delays".

"That sent Trafigura looking for cheaper alternatives. But for a company that had revenues of US$28 billion last year, it was not a prohibitive price — especially considering what happened. The ship moved on to several more ports, ending up in Abidjan, where Trafigura hired a local disposal company that did the nocturnal backyard dumping.

"A fuming mix of caustic soda — that started out in the Mediterranean and ended up in Africa could have been safely disposed of earlier in its journey. But Trafigura, the Swiss trading company that leased the tanker, balked at paying European prices".

The ship has since been detained by Estonian authorities in the port of Paldiski and the European Union Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas flew to Estonia to "find out for myself what happened and to take appropriate action".

"It is shocking that toxic waste from Europe reached the Ivory Coast, causing so much human suffering and damage to the environment," Dimas said.

"The case is a clear violation of European and international law with deadly results. But I fear that the Probo Koala incident is only the tip of the iceberg."

Undoubtedly, Africa has long been a dumping ground for all sorts of things the developed world has no use for. Andreas Bernstoff, a German expert on the toxic waste trade and a former Greenpeace International activist, has identified more than 80 sites in Africa where the rich world’s dangerous trash has been dumped.

According to a report in London’s Independent, all down the West Africa coast, ships registered in America and Europe unload containers filled with old computers, slops and used medical equipment. Throughout the 1980s, Africa was Europe’s most popular dumping ground, with radioactive waste and toxic chemicals foisted on landowners.

In 1987, an Italian ship dumped a load of waste on Koko Beach, Nigeria. Workers who came into contact with it suffered from chemical burns and partial paralysis, and began to vomit blood.

The UN then came up with the Basel Convention to regulate the trade in hazardous waste. By 1988, the European Union had agreed to implement the ban, which prohibited the export of hazardous waste from developed countries to the developing world, but the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand refused to sign up and global waterways are still filled with ships looking to unload their toxic waste.

Some of this "unwanted cargo" was uncovered along Somalia’s 650km shoreline by the powerful waves that were unleashed by the Boxing Day tsunami off the coast of Sumatra. The force of the tsunami broke open some containers which held radioactive nuclear waste, lead, cadmium, mercury, flame retardants, hospital waste and cocktails of other deadly residues of Europe’s industrial processes.

"This is the underbelly of globalisation," according to Jim Puckett, an activist at the Basel Action Network, an environmental group that fights toxic waste dumping. "Environmental regulations in the north have made disposing of waste expensive, so corporations look south."

And now, there is a new threat — the dumping of electronic waste, or e-waste: Unwanted mobile phones, computers and printers, which contain cadmium, lead, mercury and other poisons. More than 20 million computers become obsolete in America alone each year.

Haidar al-Ali, an ecologist from Senegal, notes: "We talk of globalisation, of the global village, but here in Africa we are under the impression of being that village’s septic tank."

The Probo Koala only serves to reconfirm that belief.

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