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Taking advantage of the disadvantaged

Thursday, August 21, 2008

waste.jpg The relationship between Europe and Africa has always been an interesting one -- for centuries, the European colonial powers destroyed their African colonies by enslaving their people, crippling their economy and stealing their natural resources. Now, decades after achieving independence, many African countries are still not able to keep pace with most of European countries. And, you guessed it, European countries take advantage of that.

One of many cases happened two years ago in Côte d'Ivoire. A Dutch multinational company, Trafigura, dumped about 500 tons of waste, and it lead to at least 16 deaths and more than 100,000 other victims needing medical treatment.

The initial dump was going to happen in Amsterdam, but the company in charge of the location raised their prices when they determined that waste was much more toxic then they initially thought. So, instead of paying the higher price, Trafigura decided to "cut a deal" with a company formed just days before the deal was struck and save some money. Well, indeed they saved some money in the beginning. Recently, they paid 152 million euros to Côte d'Ivoire in compensation, so it wasn't that great of a deal for them anymore.

Is Trafigura the only one to blame here? Yes, they lied about the toxicity of their shipment, but they are absolutely not the only guilty ones. The Côte d'Ivoire company that accepted the waste is at least as guilty as they are, if not more. After all, they are the ones who illegally dumped the waste instead of processing it. In addition, the report by the Côte d'Ivoire government identified officials at the city's port and in several other government ministries that are in charge of monitoring the handling of waste, who allowed the chain of events to lead into dumping, despite the red flags they were seeing.

In the meantime, not enough is being done, according to this BBC article. People are still sick, and most of the sites are not decontaminated and continue to pose health hazards for the local community. The government does not have the technical capacity to do things faster and Trafigura doesn't much want to be involved.

This issue is a global one, it is not just in between Europe and Africa. Each year, the U.S. exports hundreds of thousands of tons of hazardous waste to other countries. The U.S. also exports between 50 percent and 80 percent of e-waste (used electronics) that end up in economically disadvantaged countries. Sometimes these items are recycled but more often then that, they are just dumped.

In addition, the U.S. has also refused to sign the Basel Convention, an international treaty designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, and to prevent transfer of toxic waste from developed to less developed countries.

So, Trafigura is not the only multinational company who sees Africa as an inexpensive alternative to the things that they would not be allowed to do in rest of the world. They just happened to get caught.