Friday, September 25, 2009

Wasting Africa’s Future

Trafigura Beheer BV, a Dutch oil trading company, has agreed to pay more US$48 million for up to 31,000 Ivorians who claimed to have been made sick by toxic waste dumped in Abidjan three years ago. However, the Toxic Waste Victims’ Association says the cost of medicine for those affected exceeds the settlement amount. Meanwhile, the company denied liability and claims the settlement actually vindicates them since they are covering for the actions of Compagnie Tommy, an Ivorian company.

In whatever way you choose to assign blame, 500 tons of toxic waste sent up fumes of hydrogen sulphide, petroleum distillates and sodium hydroxides across the capital city of Cote d’Ivoire. Several people, including two children, died from these fumes. At least 15,000 others had to seek medical treatment for nausea, vomiting and headaches at clinics specially set up to handle the multitude of those affected. If only this were an isolated case.

Over the past three decades, companies in developed nations have used poor African countries as dumping grounds for toxic waste they could not as easily dispose of in their own homeland. Secret deals sent thousands of tons of raw sewage, sludge, incinerated ashes, contaminated oils, chemical compounds, acids and poisonous solvents into countries such as Angola, Benin, Nigeria and Somalia. Of course, they have often used rural areas unlikely to get the kind of coverage the Abidjan incident did. How many Africans have died or developed long-term illnesses from such dumping? No one can say for sure because neither the dumpers nor the government officials that allowed them to do so cared about the consequences for the average African, or they wouldn’t have used these countries in such a cruel way in the first place.

Sixty years ago, toxic waste production generated five million metric tons annually. By 1988, during the peak of toxic waste dumping in developing countries, more than 300 million tons of toxic waste was generated. Regulations in developed countries require treatment of toxic waste and disposal in highly regulated conditions that cost up to US$3,000 a ton. Developed world companies found willing officials to accept untreated waste for as low as US$5 a ton, presumably even with bribes attached. In the late 1980s, international organizations such as the United Nations Environment Program and the Organization of African Unity began taking action to regulate toxic waste dumping and sanction countries that violated international restrictions on international trading in hazardous waste. Illegal toxic waste dumping in Africa reportedly went down, but unfortunately, whenever times are hard and some officials think they can conclude a secret deal for profit, toxic waste trading has continued. By 2001, the United Nations estimated that 8.5 million tons of toxic waste was exported much of it to African countries. As recently as 2005, Greenpeace reported that an inspection of 18 European ports found that 47% of exported waste was illegal.

So what will happen in the Cote d’Ivoire case? Well we don’t know yet how the money for those who have suffered will be apportioned or how long it will take for them to receive it. We don’t know what standard of proof of injury will be used to determine who gets any of the money or how much money they will get. Nor do we know how the Government of Cote d’Ivoire will use the US$198 million it received from Trafigura Beheer BV or how it intends to protect the interest of Ivorians in this matter. Those are questions that need to be answered for the sake of the Ivorians affected and victims in other developing countries.

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