Trade in toxic waste refers to the migration of dirty industries to less developed countries. Unfortunately, Africa is the first choice of location for the dumping of European waste.(2) The need for cash in developing countries has led to a new import-export market for toxic garbage. Industrialised countries export their waste to emerging nations and capitalise on less expensive disposal cost.(3) Recent statistics revealed that most of the people involved in the evil businesses of trafficking in drugs, human, arms and trading in weaponry, are diverting into the so called new ‘Trade in Radioactive waste’ because the financial gains associated with this business far exceeds those of other despicable businesses.(4)
This matter is clearly proved by the toxic waste disposed in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire in August 2006, described as the biggest toxic dumping scandal of the 21st century. The incident in Abidjan is sadly part of a growing trend known as toxic waste colonialism, which sees underdeveloped states used as inexpensive disposal sites for waste refused by developed states.(5) This CAI brief takes a closer look at the human rights implications of toxic waste colonialism and discusses possible solutions to the issue.
New forms of pollution in Africa
Toxic waste colonialism can take various forms. Often masked as the exportation of valuable goods, large amounts of discarded computers, mobiles phones and other electronic junk, as well as old cars and refrigerators are sent to Africa. The objects are all filled with hazardous substances, some of which are highly toxic, including oil, fire retardants, dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Under the cloak of cooperation and development aid, this kind of pollution continues. Sometimes it is arranged in the form of contracts, signed between the Governments of underdeveloped and developed states. For instance, in one case the Government of Benin signed an agreement with France and received an advance cash payment of US$ 1.6 million and 30 years of development aid in return for accepting hazardous waste, including radioactive waste. Waste shipments contain poisonous metals, hospital waste, expired chemicals and pesticides and toxic sludge, all destined to be buried, incinerated or recycled.(6) When the treatment of hazardous waste is considered too polluting or least profitable, Western countries send the waste Africa and Asia, in the name of recycling. All the way down the West African coast, American and European ships offload containers filled with old computers, slops, and used medical equipment. Scrap merchants, corrupt politicians and underpaid civil servants take charge of this rubbish and, for a few dollars; they dump it off coastlines and on landfill sites.(7)
On 19 August 2006, Abidjan, the economic capital of Cote d’Ivoire, was the victim of a very dangerous environmental and sanitary scandal. A Greek-owned tanker (the Probo Koala) registered in Panama, chartered by a Dutch company and run by two Frenchmen, operating from London and employing a Russian crew, dumped 500 tons of chemical mud’s mixed with caustic soda, oil residues and water in various open air places in the city. The deadly gas evaporating from these sites killed 20 people and poisoned ten thousands of citizens. On 2 July 2006, one month before coming in the Port of Abidjan,the Probo Koala was in Amsterdam where it was supposed to unload its cargo. Due to the high cost quoted for treating the waste which it transported, the ship moved southward, in search of less scrupulous subcontractors.
The Cote d'Ivoire toxic waste scandal sheds light on the reality of the West’s toxic waste being dumped indiscriminately on the poor. Although they lack adequate installations of toxic waste treatment, numerous African countries, including Benin, Congo-Brazzaville, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Nigeria, Togo, Somalia and others imported whole cargoes of toxic waste (industrial muds, cyanides, solvents, pesticides, pharmaceutical waste) and even nuclear waste ( from Somalia) at very low cost to the ‘sellers’: between US$ 3 and US$ 40 per ton, compared to the US$ 75 – 300 that elimination would cost industrial nations.(8) Sometimes the waste was packaged in barrels marked ‘fertiliser’ or even ‘humanitarian aid’. Greenpeace advances the figure of 167 million tons of hazardous waste having found a second homeland in Africa.(9) A subsidiary branch of the company Arcelor Mittal in France is suspected of having laundered million of tons of toxic waste (under the shape of fuel for tankers) between 1993 and 2004.(10)
The issue of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) is also part of the growing trend in toxic waste trade in Africa. There are huge stockpiles of pesticides in African countries, estimated at hundreds of thousands of tonnes. These pesticide stockpiles are unwanted and obsolete and some are already banned in many countries of the world due to their hazardous threat to the environment, human health, animals and plants. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) compiled an inventory of obsolete stockpiles for 45 countries in Africa. The stockpiles estimated to exist in Africa was totalled at 20,000 tonnes, but more stockpiles have since been declared. This includes heavily contaminated soil and empty and contaminated pesticide containers, so the current total stands at nearly 50,000 tonnes and is likely to increase much above this total.(11) These substances are produced and exported by the 11 most powerful multinational chemical companies who dominate 90% of the world market, namely American Cyanamid, BASF, Bayer, Ciba-Geigy, DowElanco, DuPont, Monsanto, Rhône-Poulenc, Sandoz, Zeneca, and AgrEVO.(12)
Tsunami of e-waste!
Due to ongoing technological advancement, many electronic products become obsolete within a very short period of time, creating a large surplus of unwanted electronic products, or ‘e-waste,’(13) defined as all secondary computers, entertainment device electronics, mobile phones, and other items such as television sets and refrigerators (whether sold, donated, or discarded by their original owners). This definition includes used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal.(14)
Reduce, reuse, recycle! This familiar environmentalist slogan represents the goal of minimising the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, incinerators, and waterways.(15) Richard Gutierrez, a toxics policy analyst for Seattle-based environmental activist organization, Basel Action Network (BAN), believes that a large amount of the materials sent to developing nations under the guise of ‘reuse’. In October 2005 BAN issued a report titled ‘The Digital Dump’. The paper concludes that three-quarters of the supposedly reusable electronics shipped to Africa's largest port are broken.(16) Ghana and Nigeria have emerged as new target countries for used electronics. The implications of this waste industry are shocking for both environment and human health.(17) Africa’s increasing demand for information technology, combined with its limited possibilities to manufacture it, has made it a famous destination for second hand electronics. According to BAN, up to 500 shipping containers loaded with second hand electronic equipments arrives in Nigeria monthly. This amount of containers equals about 100,000 computers or 44,000 TV sets.(18)
In addition to electronics, several aid groups and organisations are encouraging people to donate their old electronics for African schools and hospitals. Although the idea is noble and the donations are usually done in good faith, the negative effects of waste increase are tangible. According to local sources in Ghana and Nigeria, only around 25% of the Western imports are actually usable.(19) The useless e-waste ends up in unofficial dumpsites, where it is picked apart by unprotected workers (many of them children) in search of saleable metals. After all the metal has been removed, the remaining plastic, cables and casings are usually burnt. These processes are extremely hazardous to health: most of the e-waste contains toxins such as lead, mercury and chlorinated dioxins, not to mention the noxious fumes and chemicals released by the burning waste.(20)
The BAN, which monitors trade in toxic waste, has recently turned its attention toward what they see as a coming “tsunami of electronic waste”.(21)Environmentalists warn that the unregulated disposal of e-waste with toxic elements that can persist for hundreds of years is particularly alarming given the expected rise in volumes in the next decade.(22)
The economics of waste trade
Africa is vulnerable to the uneven economics of waste trade because it includes most of the world's severely impoverished countries, most of whom are in dire need of foreign exchange. Africa has long existed as a sphere from which the West could extrapolate wealth and resources. When those resources have fulfilled their purpose, Africa absorbs the garbage produced with their resources, but not by them.(23) A major factor that spurs on the trans-boundary shipment of waste is the disparity in disposal cost between developed and developing nations.(24) The rising cost of waste disposal and the introduction of more stringent environmental control standards in the developed world render developing countries (particularly in Africa) an attractive destination for waste disposal.(25) Disposal of hazardous waste may cost as much as US$ 2,000 per tonne in a developed nation, versus US$ 40 per tonne in Africa. The high cost of waste disposal in many developed countries is due in part to compliance costs with strict regulations and in part to effective local opposition to sitting landfills (often called NIMBY- Not in My Backyard).(26)
Trade of toxic waste and implications for human rights
The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) unanimously adopted a motion on 23 May 1988, which declared that “The dumping of nuclear and industrial wastes in Africa is a crime against Africa and the African people.”(27) Trade in toxic waste remains an important human rights issue. The UN General Assembly first recognised the relationship between the quality of the human environment and the enjoyment of basic rights in 1968.(28) The movement and dumping of toxic waste and dangerous products endanger basic human rights such as the right to life, the right to live in a sound and healthy environment and consequently the right to health. In Cote d’Ivoire, for instance, the magnitude and severity of the 2006 toxic dumping was overwhelming and the consequent impact on human rights was alarming. The waste and toxic gases disposed on opened ground around the densely populated city of Abidjan caused significant health problems to the majority of Ivorian people living at the periphery. According to official estimates, 20 people died, 69 were hospitalized and there were more than 108,000 medical consultations resulting from the incident.(29) The sludge was particularly harmful to children who made up the majority of the official deaths. It is suspected that many deaths were not counted in the official toll.(30)
Loss of life as a result of the movement and dumping of toxic waste constitutes a violation of the right to life. In the wake of the waste dumping, there was widespread recognition among Ivorians and the international community that profit was more important than the lives of Ivorian citizens.(31) Toxic waste dumping amounts also to a serious violation of the right to health and well-being. On 20 August 2006, thousands of Ivorian individuals visited health-care centres complaining of nausea, headaches, vomiting, abdominal pains, skin reactions and a range of eye, ear, nose, throat, pulmonary and gastric problems. In the following days and weeks, thousands presented signs of poisoning. The right to information is a human right as well as an environmental one. Human rights are implicated because knowledge of environmental risks and information on how to minimise or avoid those risks can directly affect the quality of a person’s life. International instruments such as the Rio Declaration provides that individuals shall have appropriate access to information held by public authorities concerning the environment, including information on hazardous materials and activities that have or are likely to have a significant impact on the environment.(32) In the Ivorian case, the Government failed to provide essential information that would have enabled the public to assess the environmental risks of living in proximity of the dumping sites.
Realising a total ban of hazardous waste trade in Africa
The adoption of the Bamako Convention (33) is a sad reminder that the Basel Convention (34) has failed to realise the total ban of hazardous waste trade in/with Africa. There is a strong disagreement between Europeans and African countries. While the Basel Convention intends to control the movement of illicit waste, the Bamako Convention aims to ban hazardous waste trade in Africa completely. One of the main challenges to achieving the total ban of toxic waste trade in Africa remains the enforcement and full implementation of international standards related to the environment and ratified by African states. Non-compliance by African governments includes a failure to give effects to substantive norms and to fulfil procedural requirements.(35) In European legislation the term ‘reuse’ is a massive loophole which allows old electronics to be taken into countries like Ghana and Nigeria. Clearly, this loophole has to be addressed urgently. The European Union (EU) needs to put legislation and mechanisms in place to ensure that only usable electronics that are tested and certified are sent to developing countries.
African governments need to implement the Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment (TEIA), an environmental policy that is considered a necessary tool to prioritise the environment in decision-making processes by improving the quality of information available to decision makers. This way, careful attention can be paid to minimising environmental impacts, improved planning of activities and protecting the environment.(36) Last, but not least, international organisations and the donor community must seek to offer technical and financial assistance to assist in implementation of environmental plans in Africa. In consultation with African Governments, they must take positive steps to build infrastructure capacity for the monitoring and control of transboundary movements of hazardous and chemical waste in Africa, including port facilities.
(1) Lassana Koné is an External Consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Eyes on Africa series (
(2) Bernstorff, A. & Stairs, K. ‘Pops in Africa, Hazardous waste trade 1980-2000. Obsolete pesticide stockpiles. A Greenpeace Inventory.’ 2000. http://www.ban.org.
(3) Abubakar, B. 2007. ‘The impact of decommissioning of nuclear facilities on African coastal countries.’ http://www.sdewes.fsb.hr.
(5) Nicola M.C.P. Jägers & Marie-José van der Heijden. 2008. “Corporate human rights violations: The feasibility of civil recourse in the Netherlands.” in Brooklyn Journal of International Law, Vol 33:3, http://www.brooklaw.edu.
(6) Cobbling, M. 1992. Europe's toxic colonialism: exporting Europe's hazardous wastes.’in Chemistry and Industry, 21 December.
(7) ‘From rich to poor: Ivory Coast tragedy highlights hazardous trade on the rise.’ Basil Action Network. 17 October, 2006.
(8) Du Vivier, F. R. 1988. (éd. Sang de la Terre) Les vaisseaux du poison – la route des déchets toxiques.
(9) Bernstorff, A. & Stairs, K. ‘Pops in Africa, Hazardous waste trade 1980-2000. Obsolete pesticide stockpiles. A Greenpeace Inventory.’ 2000. http://www.ban.org.
(11) FAO. 1999c. ‘Inventory of obsolete, unwanted and/or banned pesticides. Prevention and disposal of obsolete and unwanted pesticide stocks in Africa and the Near East.’
(13) California Department of Toxic Substance Control. ‘Electronic Hazardous Waste.’ http://www.dtsc.ca.gov.
(15) Harder, B. ‘Toxic e-waste gets cached in poor nations.’ National Geographic News. 8 November, 2005. http://news.nationalgeographic.com.
(16) Harder, B. ‘Toxic e-waste gets cached in poor nations.’ National Geographic News. 8 November, 2005. http://news.nationalgeographic.com.
(17) ‘Europe’s e-waste in Africa.’ http://www.ghanabusinessnews.com.
(21) Bridgen, K., Labunka, K., Santillo, D. & Johnston, P. ‘Chemical contamination at e- waste recycling and disposal sites in Accra and Korforidua,Ghana’. Greenpeace research laboratories technical note 10. October, 2008.http://www.greenpeace.org.
(22) B. D. Team. ‘Kenya faces electronic waste time bomb.’ Business Daily, 13 October, 2009. http://www.businessdailyafrica.com.
(23) Means, A. 2007. “Toxic Sovereignty: Biopolitics and Cote d’Ivoire.” in Politics and Culture, Issue 2.
(24) Hunter, D. Salzman, J. Zaelke, D. 2002. International Environmental Law and Policy. 2nd Edition, University Casebook Series.
(25) Viljoen F. 2007. International Human Rights Law in Africa. Oxford University Press, pp.290-292.
(26) Kitt, E. 1995. “Waste Exports to the Developing World: A Global Response.” in 7 Geo, International
Environmental Law Review, 485:491-92.
(27) See OAU Council of Ministers’ Resolution on Dumping of Nuclear and Industrial Waste in Africa (1988), reproduced in C. Heyns, C. 2004. Human Rights Law in Africa. p. 342.
(28) UNGA Res.2398 (XXII)(1968).
(29) ‘Report of the International Enquiry Commission on the discharge of toxic wastes in the District of
Abidjan.’ February 2007.
(30) Human Rights Council. ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the adverse effects of the movement and
dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights, Okechukwu Ibeanu.’ 2009. http://www2.ohchr.org.
(31) Comaroff, J. 2007. “Beyond the Politics of Bare Life: Aids and the Neoliberal Order.” in Public Culture, 19(1).
(32) Kiss, A. 2003. ‘The right to the conservation of the environment’ in Picolotti, R. & Taillant, J. D. (eds). Linking human rights and the environment. University of Arizona Press.
(33) The Bamako Convention on the Ban of the Import into Africa and the Control of Transboundary Movement and Management of Hazardous Wastes within Africa, adopted by the OAU on 30 January 1991 in Bamako, Mali.
(34) The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.
(35) Vinogradov, S. 1990. ‘International environmental security: The concept and its implementation.’ in Carter, A. & Danilenko, G. (eds.) Perestroika and International Law. P. 196.
(36) Woodliffe, J. 2002. “Environmental damage and environmental impact assessment.” in Bowman, M. & Boyle, A. (eds.) Environmental damage in international and comparative law: Problems of definitionand valuation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P. 134.