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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Déchets industriels : le bilan s’alourdit en Côte d’Ivoire

by Grégory Lecomte

Industrial Wastes: the Death Toll Increases in the Ivory Coast

Translated Sunday 17 September 2006, by Patrick Bolland

Abidjan. More than 6 deaths and 9,000 victims: the scandal of the catastrophe provoked by the dumping of poisonous chemicals by a multinational company is getting even more serious.

The number of victims of industrial wastes being offloaded in Abidjan (Ivory Coast) by the Proba-Koala is still increasing. On Monday last, the Côte d’Ivoire ministry of health reported that there were 9,000 victims, of whom 6 had died.

The planning ministry, mandated to carry out administrative activities until a new government is formed, has pointed out the Ivory Coast’s rights under international law: “The State has no intention to be the garbage bin of the rest of the world”. This is an indirect reference to Basel Convention that, since 1992, regulates the transfer of dangerous substances from OECD countries to non-OECD nations.

The problem is that the cargo pumped out of the Proba-Koala – a chemical tanker that last August dumped 500 tons of a toxic mixture of diesel fuel, water and caustic soda accumulated from previous shipments at a dozen sites in Abidjan - seems to fall outside the terms of reference of the Basel Convention, which specifically excludes waste materials generated by ships themselves while they are carrying other products. Yet the contaminating substances incriminated fall under this category, according to a report by “Robin des bois”, a French non-governmental organization. On the other hand, a European Directive dating from 2000 requires that all ships that dock in the European Union discharge their waste products within the Union in specially-prepared sites.

This is the rub for Tafigura Beheer, the Dutch multinational corporation specialized in the transportation of hydrocarbons that chartered the ship, and for the Greek company, Prime Management, that was freighting it. “To the extent that the Probo-Koala already had in its hold the cargo residues when it was in European ports in 2006, it was already breaking the laws of the European States where it was dropping anchor”, according to Jackie Bonnemains, spokesperson of Robin des bois.

This scenario implicates the European authorities in that it makes the ship’s owner and freighter responsible. The reason why the ship carried this poisonous waste to the Ivory Coast is certainly one of saving money: getting rid of this polluted sludge would cost 10 to 15 times more in Europe than in the Ivory Coast. Trafigura was operating according to the regulations of Abidjan’s free port. But, even if it had this authorization, “Trafigura knew that the Ivory Coast lacks the technical means to treat certain toxic substances”, Jackie Bonnemains adds.

Is Africa becoming the new garbage heap of companies from the North? The transfer of dangerous waste materials to the continent is nothing new. In the 1980s, toxic wastes were being sent to countries such as Benin, the Congo and Sierra Leone, before this became illegal under the 1992 Basel Convention. But the convention does not include all types of industrial wastes. As well as the wastes developed by operating the ships, in the last few years there has been an increasing export of obsolete industrial materials. Nigeria has specialized in importing out-of-date computers, while Togo and Benin rehabilitate transportation materials (trucks, agricultural equipment, cars) and out-moded electrical equipment.

With a background of a major public health and ecological crisis, the political crisis in the Ivory Coast is becoming increasingly serious. On Monday, the attorney-general announced five arrests, one of these being a close collaborator of the minister of the environment, who had already resigned. The “prime minister of conciliation”, Konan Banny, is no longer fully supported by the “G7”, the coalition of opposition groups to the party of President Gbagbo, who had asked Banny to form a new government. Challenged from within his own ranks, Banny also finds himself under pressure from the international community to form a new government, while the elections set for 30 October already seem compromised.

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