As concerns over environmental issues on the African continent gain attention around the world, the problem of foreign companies dumping their toxic waste wherever they feel like has come to light. This dumping takes many forms: donations of pesticides that are actually expired, illegally dropped containers of chemical waste offshore, or even sending broken electronics to be “recycled” in struggling countries.

One highly publicized dumping scandal began in 2006, when a Dutch company called Trafigura left chemical waste in about a dozen sites around the poorest parts of Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. Estimates now say 17 people died as a result, and as of 2009 at least 100,000 people had sought medical treatment for ailments caused by the chemicals. These results are not surprising, considering the substance turned out to be 500 tons of a mixture of fuel, caustic soda, and hydrogen sulfide. The company was turned away from several countries after leaving Amsterdam due to a hefty disposal charge, eventually partnering with a company in the Port of Abdijan. However, after several inquiries and a trial, Trafigura was fined €1 million in 2010.

Sadly, most cases of dumping have not met the same justice, and don’t receive any attention until horrifying health concerns begin surfacing en masse. In Somalia, it is widely accepted that the infamous piracy now plaguing their coasts began as retaliation against foreign companies polluting their fishing waters.Waste dumping off the coast of Somalia came to light in 2004, when a tsunami dragged in multiple large containers of toxic chemicals that a foreign company had illegally dropped in the water some years before. The contamination of these coastal waters is troubling because much of the population in Somalia relies on fish for food and the fishing industry in this area for their livelihood. Continuous foreign toxic dumping has exacerbated an already bad sociopolitical environment for the Somali people: companies will clandestinely trade weapons for foreign waste, fueling civil conflict. It seems European and other industrialized countries’ companies have been taking advantage of Somalia’s strife, and its waters, for years.
Another huge factor throughout the continent is the problem of e-waste, or electronic pollution. This occurs when developed countries send their leftover used electronics to developing countries. About a third of the materials that reach electronics markets in these countries are already broken beyond repair, in which case they are dumped and either burned or buried. Meanwhile, women and children search the scraps for whatever pieces they can find that may be valuable, amid all kinds of fumes from burning heavy metals and plastics. The problem of dumping e-waste in Africa only exacerbates the insecurity brought on by conflict related to the extraction of minerals that go into the initial production of the same electronics. Consumerism in more industrialized countries has created a destructive loop of exploitation for Africa. Conflict minerals are a problem within themselves. However, we are now not only taking their resources out, but once these products become obsolete or broken we send them back to let Africans deal with the resulting toxins and climate change. All of this is made possible because the industry for waste disposal in Africa has become a very profitable one. The continent has emerged as an integral part of the network of waste management and disposal in global political economy. Many U.S. companies advertise that they recycle electronics by sending them to developing countries in need. While it’s great to send electronics to developing countries (they do actually have good use for them) we as Americans ought to be sure that when we give electronics to be recycled that they will actually end up recycled, not broken and burned and left to destroy the atmosphere and quality of life of Africans.

Ghana: Digital Dumping Gound 2/2

By Rubea Stouppe, AFJN Intern