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Toxic Waste in Africa: an ongoing scandal

Publié le 1 November 2008 by Franck Olivier
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From Abidjan to Accra, Northern countries get rid of their toxic waste at discount prices. Whole cargoes of industrial muds, cyanides, solvents, pesticides and electronic waste have been dumped into the countryside. The Probo Koala incident is the most recent example.

During August 2006, Abidjan, the economic capital of the Ivory Coast, was victim of a very dangerous environmental and sanitary scandal. A Greek-owned tanker (the Probo Koala) registered in Panama, chartered by a Dutch company run by two Frenchmen operating from London (and employing a Russian crew) dumped illegally 500 tons of chemical muds mixed with caustic soda, oil residues and water in various open air places in the city. The deadly gas evaporating from these sites killed 17 people and poisoned ten thousands of citizens.

In October 2008, so two years later, the first lawsuit of this affair has just taken place in Abidjan. The criminal court returned a contrasted verdict in condemning two defendants (the owner of the small Ivory Coast company which dumped the waste outdoors as well as an agent of the port) to 20 and 5 years of imprisonment but in acquitting the seven others. The most flagrant aspect of this trial was the absence of the charter company, Trafigura, in the courtroom. In February 2007, an out-of-court settlement had been reached between this multinational company and the Ivory Coast government for a 152 million euros payment. This aroused the protests of several lawyers for whom the lawsuit was «biased» in the absence of the «central witness».

What has to be said is that, on July 2nd, 2006, the Probo Koala was in Amsterdam where it was supposed to unload its cargo. But because of the high price asked for the waste treatment which it transported, after a bend by Estonia, the ship made road southward, in search of less scrupulous subcontractors!

Old practices

At the same time, as the progressive implementation of the first environmental standards in Europe during years 1970-1980, the cost of elimination of toxic waste increased considerably during the last decades entailing the development of diverse traffics to Africa.

A chance of a lifetime for the chemical industry of the countries of the North (Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland etc.) which so found the means to reduce the elimination coasts of their toxic residues to the detriment of the health of the inhabitants of the South.

This business, in spite of the enormous logistics which it requires, benefited from the uncontrolled opening of the borders and from the support of mafias sometimes paying their «discharging rights» with cargoes of weapons, even if it means subsidizing civil wars as in Somalia. On the other side of the Mediterranean, this scandal was facilitated by the urgent need of currencies on behalf of governments already choked off by the mechanism of the debt, and, besides, often steered by autocratic and corrupt regimes.

Although they lack adequate installations of dangerous waste treatment, numerous African countries (Benin, Congo-Brazzaville, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Nigeria, Togo, Somalia and others) imported whole cargoes of toxic (industrial muds, cyanides, solvents, pesticides, pharmaceutical waste) and even nuclear waste at very low prices: between 2,5 and 40 dollars the ton against 75 - 300 dollars (prices of that time), the cost of elimination in industrial nations [1]. Irony of fate, this waste was sometimes conditioned in barrels marked «fertilizer» or even «humanitarian aid» not to attract the curiosity of the harbour authorities of host countries. Greenpeace advances the figure of 167 million tons of hazardous waste having so found a second homeland in Africa [2] before 1986. In Italy, the illegal traffic of the waste would represent, in the 1980s, the second activity of the criminal organizations, just after the drugs - a 100 million euros market per year [3]. In France, a subsidiary of the group Arcelor Mittal is suspected of having laundered million of tons of toxic waste (under the shape of fuel for tanker) between 1993 and 2004 (La Voix du Nord, September 17, 2008) but so far, no formal evidence could be found.

Tax havens in front position

These operations sometimes made the object of contracts in due form, cunningly tied up by contracting parties close to the government of the importer country. Between the producers and the subcontractors in charge of the low job operate screen companies, that act as simple mailboxes established in tax havens. As example, one of them (whose effectively released capital was only two pounds of Sterling!) was registered on the Isle of Man, managed remotely by a couple living in Cyprus, then in Gibraltar where its track was lost. In other circumstances, these operations were made without the need to negotiate a contract with the host country: the multinational companies having operating sites in these countries were able to transfer the waste to them without warning the local authorities.

Attempts for transboundary control

After several scandals in 1988, a series of international agreements were signed, supposed to regulate and even to ban the transfers of toxic waste towards the countries of the South. Created in 1989 under the auspices of the United Nations (it came into effect in 1992), the Basel Convention was the first binding international legal instrument in control of the cross-border movements of dangerous wastes and their elimination. In its first version, however it tended to legitimize a practice which should be considered a criminal activity. But in 1995, an amendment was adopted to put a definitive term in the exports of dangerous waste in countries that do not dispose of adequate installations. Besides, a series of regional agreements were signed, among them the Bamako Convention. Its field of application also extends to radioactive waste. Unfortunately, on 166 signatory states of the Basel Convention, three countries – Afghanistan, Haiti and the United States (reluctant at the idea of taking back on their territory the dangerous waste produced on their military bases in the Pacific) have still not ratified it; this inevitably strikes a blow at its universal character.

The e-waste: an announced disaster

Today, waste traffic gives itself a more respectable face but the victims could indeed be even more numerous. When current laws are not violated, one tries to by-pass them… So, today, in the name of recycling, the western countries continue to send hazardous waste to Africa and Asia when its treatment is considered too polluting or little profitable. We all have in mind the image of ships at the end of life (such as the Clémenceau) making road towards South Asia to be dismantled there. With less media coverage, the «recycling» of waste of electric and electronic equipments (better known under the abbreviation D3E) in South Africa, in Nigeria or still in Ghana. [4], is equally dramatic.

At first sight nevertheless, some people saw in the re-use of computers or mobile phones, still in working order, a way of reducing the digital gap between the North and the South. A «win-win» formula allowing some to get rid of mountains of electronic waste whereas the others, too poor to be able to buy new equipments re-use old ones, so offering them a second life. Regrettably, an inquiry of the NGO Basel Action Network in Nigeria contradicts this version: 75 % of the imported second-hand computing equipments are not economically repairable nor saleable. Then, having been dismantled to extract precious metals, these equipments join unchecked discharges where they are burned, notably emitting dioxins, organo-chlorinated compounds and heavy metals, and so contaminating the air and the soil. In the name of recycling, we so achieve exactly the contrary of what the world community tried to forbid with the adoption of the Basel Convention!

What about the future?

Certainly, these last years, things are changing in Europe and important progress was made to treat the famous D3E in the North. But as long as the European governments will continue to ignore them, these traffics towards Africa risk to remain. The problem comes at first from a lack of means: On 1100 cargoes checked in 2006 within a European inquiry’s framework, 50 % were illegal. The French Office central de lutte contre les atteintes à l’environnement et à la santé publique (OCLAESP; Central Office against infringements on environment and public health) recommends to intensify controls as well as a better collaboration between the different European national police forces. However, the fact that in 2008, a company implanted on the Isle of Man still escapes the application of the European directive on the control of the transboundary transport of wastes shows that control is incomplete.

And although a project of a new directive for environmental protection (which would allow to consider grave infringements on the environment as crimes, following the example of the Agreement of Palermo on organized crime) is on the right track in the Parliament and in the European council, as long as islands having certainly nothing paradisiac will continue to escape such laws, you can bet that the smartest ones will continue to get through the stitches of the net.

Suggested further Reading

Trafigura en Offshore by Rafik Houra in Billets d’Afrique N° 174 nov.2008. Dossier special de Billets d’Afrique sur les déchets toxiques (4 articles) No 151, Octobre 2006: http://billetsdafrique (Translated for Survie IDF by SS/ revised by Isabelle Rousselot, Bayonne)

Note : For the original version of this article as well as other commentaries please consult the French Billets d’Afrique rubric of this website

[1] Les vaisseaux du poison – la route des déchets toxiques , François Roelants du Vivier, edited by Sang de la Terre, 1988.

[2] POPs persistent organic pollutants in Africa: hazardous waste trade 1980-2000. Obsolete pesticide stockpiles. A Greenpeace inventory, Johannesburg 2000. www.ban.org/library/afropops.pdf

[3] Trafic d’armes et de déchets toxiques. Les déchets de mort à l’ombre de réseau “Gladio Stay behind.” Enrico Porsia, 2003. www.amnistia.net http://www.amnistia.net/

[4] Chemical contamination at e-waste recycling and disposal sites in Accra and Korforidua, Ghana , Greenpeace research laboratories technical note, Octobre 2008.

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