quinta-feira, 13 de agosto de 2009

The Globalization of Garbage: Following the Trail of Toxic Trash

From Toward Freedom

Thursday, 13 August, 2009

"English Trash Going Home" read the front page of Brazil’s Porto Alegre journal, Correio do Povo on Monday, August 3rd. The image showed the hefty MSC Oriane tanker piled with dozens of containers. The photo’s caption explained that 920 "tons of domestic and toxic trash, imported illegally and which were in Rio Grande, were embarked and will make the return trip home to England." On her way North, the tanker stopped by the Santos port in Sao Paulo and picked up another 41 containers. For Brazil, it was the welcomed resolution to what had become a small-scaled international scandal. But globally, it is not even a scratch on the surface.

From February through May of this year, roughly 1,600 tons of "domestic and toxic trash" was imported from the English Suffolk port of Felixstowe, under the guise of plastic material for recycling. But when the containers—which were delivered to two ports in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul and one in Sao Paulo—were opened, they were found to contain domestic and toxic waste including used diapers, condoms, syringes, batteries, leftover food, chemical toilet seats, computer fragments, and old medicine.

"It was really frustrating to think that someone would actually send this to us," said Luis Carlos De Oliveira, a federal police officer at the Santos Port in Sao Paulo who inspected the containers personally. De Oliveira told Toward Freedom that not only was there hospital waste and bags of blood, but chorume or leachate, a foul-smelling gooey black substance "and that is only produced when you have organic waste," he said.

The toxic trash shipment violated international law under the Basel Convention, and the discovery of the containers sparked uproar in Brazil.

"Brazil is not the world's dump," said Roberto Messias Franco, head of Brazil’s Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, IBAMA. Brazil fined five companies 408,000 Reais ($223,000 USD) each for importing the containers, including the multinational shipping companies Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) and Maersk Brasil Brasmar, which shipped the illegal trash. England’s Guardian newspaper reported that Britain’s Environmental Agency raided three properties and three men were arrested. Britain apologized and agreed to accept the trash back.

According to IBAMA, only eight containers remain, still in the Southern mountain town of Caxias do Sul, waiting to be transferred to the port at Rio Grande, near Brazil’s border with Uruguay. The other 81 containers carrying 1,477 tons of waste are now being shipped back to England and are scheduled to arrive later this month.

"For us at IBAMA, getting this trash out of here is the conclusion of our job. It’s a good sensation. We got the results we hoped for." said Ingrid Maria Furlan Oberg last week, regional head of IBAMA at the Santos Port in Sao Paulo, where 41 of the containers were shipped out in early August. "It is symbolic, because it shows that Brazil will not accept this type of behavior. Let it serve as an example for other countries."

This is perhaps precisely what others need. The English trash may have made headlines in both England and Brazil, but in much of the world, this is an all too common reality.

The Trail of Electronic Waste

Domestic, hospital waste, or even plastics aren’t of interest to most, but electronic waste is.

"Most of our e-waste is getting exported, and exported to developing nations," says Barbara Kyle, National Coordinator of the U.S. based- Electronics TakeBack Coalition. "I’m not talking to the refineries, the smelters in Sweden or something, I’m talking low road."

Despite a near universal international ban on exporting toxic or hazardous material, Kyle says that most of electronic waste from the United States ends up in China, India, Vietnam, or in up and coming African countries, like Ghana, and Nigeria.

"It’s very, very cheap to ship, and typically what’s getting sent is stuff that costs more money to take it apart here," says Kyle. "People don’t want to spend the money here, and over there—where people basically earn pennies an hour, essentially just bashing stuff open to reclaim the metals—they can still make the economics work for a TV or a monitor for a buck a piece maybe."

CBS’s 60 Minutes reported in its November 2008 special Following the Trail of Toxic E-Waste, that the illegal recycling e-trade has wreaked environmental havoc in China’s Guiyu region.

"Women were heating circuit boards over a coal fire, pulling out chips and pouring off the lead solder," read part of the written report. "Pollution has ruined the town. Drinking water is trucked in. Scientists have studied the area and discovered that Guiyu has the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. They found pregnancies are six times more likely to end in miscarriage and that seven out of ten kids have too much lead in their blood."

The situation is just as bad in Ghana, where PBS’s recent Frontline expose, Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground, filmed an area known as Agbogbloshie, where millions of tons of e-waste each year is pulled apart and dumped into endless fields of trashed electronics parts.

There are international laws against the shipping of hazardous material. Under the Basel Ban—an agreement that went in to effect in 1998—the world’s 29 wealthiest most industrialized nations are banned from exporting all forms of hazardous waste to the less developed nations. However, the ban is difficult to enforce and the United States has fought against it tooth and nail. Although the U.S. signed on to the Basel Convention in 1989 (the precursor to the Ban), it is one of only three countries that has never ratified it into effect. The chances of the United States agreeing to adhere to the Basel Ban are even less likely.

"Our government believes that the fact that this stuff has commodity value is more important than the fact that it’s very hazardous, or the fact that its illegal from the importing country’s point of view," says Kyle.

She likens the electronics recycling industry in the United States to the "wild west" where there is little to no regulation, the business model of many recyclers is export, and where most of the recyclers export at least some of what they get.

In response, U.S. organizations like the Basel Action Network (BAN) and Kyle’s Electronics TakeBack Coalition have helped to create the e-Stewards Initiative, where member electronics recyclers must pledge not to ship their recycling abroad to developing countries. Thirty-three recyclers have so far joined the program.

According to a recent BAN press release, beginning next year, the initiative "will become the continent’s first ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB) independently audited and accredited electronic waste recycler certification program that will forbid the dumping of toxic e-waste in developing countries, local landfills and incinerators; the use of prison labor to process e-waste; and the unauthorized release of private data contained in discarded computers."

They have also waged a campaign to convince electronics manufacturers and retailers to pledge not to ship their e-waste abroad. So far, Dell and Sony have jumped on board.

The steps offer important options for U.S. consumers looking to ensure that their old TV sets and leftover computers don’t end up polluting a dried up river bed halfway around the planet. According to the 2005 report, The Digital Dump, by the Basel Action Network (BAN), 75% of the exported e-waste is not easily recyclable or reusable, so it is dumped into landfills or burned. Much of this is the bulky plastic of old televisions, printers and other electronic devices.

Brazil Says No to Importing Garbage

But plastic also has varying degrees of quality. According to De Oliveira, the Brazilian companies that imported the British trash believed they were importing much higher quality plastic than is commonly found in most of Brazil. They were obviously mistaken.

Nor was it the first time that Brazil had unwillingly received a toxic shipment. IBAMA spokesperson Janete Portos says Brazilian prosecutors are still investigating the arrival of a hazardous international shipment of heavy metals that reached the Santos port in 2004, but "we had never seen anything like this," said De Oliveira.

"We only have one option and that is to return the containers to the country where they came from, because we want to import other things, not trash." said Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva at the International Organic Product and Agroecology Fair in Sao Paulo on July 23rd. "We don’t want to export our trash and we aren’t going to import the trash of others."

Brazil has been one of the most outspoken critics in Latin America against the import-export of electronic waste.

"We hear that Brazil doesn’t even want to take used equipment because they know that’s just how people cheat; that’s how they dump on countries, in sending their crap, supposedly for reuse," says Kyle.

Perhaps this is part of what Brazilian Environmental Minister Carlos Minc had in mind when he met with U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern on Tuesday, August 4th, to discuss the upcoming Climate convention in Copenhagen this December.

Brazil’s Folha de Sao Paulo reported that they also discussed possible measures to ensure that the British trash incident not be repeated.

Brazil is now considering possible modifications to federal legislation to more strictly punish such crimes, and of using X-ray equipment to identify material within the containers. But in much of the developing world, it’s business as usual with middle-men brokering the deal to get the toxic e-trash past customs.

With the United States looking to undermine the Basel Convention and Ban, there doesn’t appear to be any solution on the horizon.

"We are the absolute outlier from the rest of the developed nations of the world on this topic," says Kyle. "The rest of the world is covered by the Basel Convention, and the only other countries that haven’t ratified it other than us are Afghanistan and Haiti. So nobody should be taking our waste. It’s a violation even to accept our e-waste, so we’re violating all of those developing nation’s laws by sending the waste there."

segunda-feira, 3 de agosto de 2009

Honduras and Washington: A Few Contradictions


Monday, 3 August, 2009

On Tuesday, July 28, the U. S. government announced that it had revoked the visas of four leading members of the government installed by the June 28 Honduran coup. More than a month after the Honduran military awoke President Manuel Zelaya at gunpoint and sent him packing to Costa Rica, it appears that Washington is finally beginning to put its foot down—lightly.

The Obama administration had responded quickly with harsh statements against the coup, but over most of the last month, it has carried out few active measures to pressure the coup plotters to step down. U.S.-backed negotiations, in fact, have been criticized in some quarters for helping to legitimize the coup-installed regime.

Not one country in the world—including the United States—has recognized the de facto Honduran government of Roberto Micheletti that swore itself in the same day it deposed Zelaya in June. But the United States has dragged its feet behind Latin America and Europe and refused to pull its ambassador or to cut off all aid to the coup-installed government.

In fact, Washington has yet to officially classify the Honduran coup as a “coup d’etat,” which, by U.S. law, would forbid any U.S. aid to the de facto government. $16.5 million in aid for military assistance programs has already been suspended, but $180 million dollars in U.S. aid is still flowing—although the State Department says it is under evaluation.

A week and a half ago, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called Zelaya’s decision to attempt to return to his country from the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, “reckless.” "We have consistently urged all parties to avoid any provocative action that could lead to violence," she said. A group composed of eight organizations and two dozen U.S. academics focused on Latin America quickly responded .

“Given that neither Clinton nor President Obama, nor any U.S. official, has even once criticized the Honduran dictatorship for the violence and political repression of the last four weeks, Clinton's pointing the finger at Zelaya is especially threatening to the human rights of Hondurans,” the group said in a press release.

The group pointed to the “shootings, beatings, arrests and detentions of journalists, closing of radio and TV stations, and other repression” which has been documented by a half-dozen international human rights organizations including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders. In mid July, the Committee of Family Members of Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) published a report detailing over a thousand human rights abuses committed by the coup regime.

Yet representatives of the Micheletti government have been free to visit the United States, and General Romeo Vasquez Velásquez—head of the Honduran Armed Forces—had planned to speak in Miami last weekend. Clinton spoke briefly with Micheletti over the phone in late July and communication has been open between the Micheletti government and the U.S. Embassy in Honduras.

The White House says these conversations have been aimed at pressuring the Micheletti government to negotiate. According to the July 21 Los Angeles Times, Washington has been putting the pressure on. Clinton has said that she was “tough” in her call to Micheletti, and U.S. personnel in Honduras have been threatening consequences if Zelaya is not returned to power.

Finally, on Tuesday, July 28, Washington announced that it had cut the visas of four Hondurans working with the Micheletti regime, and that others were being evaluated. But the visa cuts were Washington’s only concrete active measures against the de facto government since it cut off the $16.5 million in military aid on Wednesday, July 8. It has now been reported that the visa cuts only pertain to their diplomatic visas— not their tourist visas—meaning the four Hondurans and their families could still travel freely to and from the United States.

Indeed, the coup plotters have some powerful friends in Washington. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Micheletti has embarked on a public relations offensive, with his supporters hiring high-profile lawyers with strong Washington connections” to lobby against sanctions. Among them are Clinton adviser Bennett Ratcliff, and Lanny J. Davis, who was a personal lawyer for President Clinton and who campaigned for Hilary Clinton. On Friday, July 10, Davis testified on Capitol Hill in support of the Micheletti de facto government.

Davis is not paid directly by the Micheletti government. He’s working for the Honduran chapter of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce (CEAL). “My main contacts are Camilo Atala and Jorge Canahuati. I'm proud to represent businessmen who are committed to the rule of law," Davis told Roberto Lovato of the American Prospect two weeks ago. Both Atala and Canahuati represent vested business interests in Honduras.

Atala is CEO of Banco Ficohsa, which according to the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation , is “the third-largest bank in terms of loan portfolio and deposits” in Honduras. Canahuati is the majority owner of two of Honduras’ largest newspapers, La Prensa and El Heraldo, both of which have supported the coup. He also happens to be on the Executive Committee of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), and head of the IAPA’s International Affairs Committee. The IAPA is an organization of newspaper tycoons, publishers and editors, which, among other things, immediately recognized both the Honduran coup and the 2002 Venezuelan coup.

In its response to the ongoing Honduran coup, the organization has criticized the censorship and loss of press freedoms, and cited “complaints from news media and journalists that they are still restricted, intimidated and attacked while they attempt to report.” The organization has not, however, blamed the de facto Micheletti government for perpetrating these acts, and when it has pointed the finger, it was at “a mob” and a “People’s Commando.”

Despite their discourse in the name of “free press,” members of the organization have a long history of supporting Latin American dictatorships and U.S. interventions.

Interestingly, the IAPA secretary is Elizabeth Ballantine, the director of the McClatchy Company since March 1998. McClatchy is the third-largest newspaper company in the United States, owning 30 papers in 29 markets, including the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald in Florida. The Washington Post is also represented. Diana Daniels was Vice President of the Washington Post Company from 1988-2006, during which time she also served a few years as IAPA President. Deputy Managing Editor of the paper, Milton Coleman, is currently serving as IAPA Treasurer.

Along with many U.S. papers, the Post has painted Zelaya as a Hugo Chávez-backed caudillo, attempting to overtake the powers of the Honduran government. The Post quickly echoed the talking points of the coup plotters that Zelaya was ripped from office because he was attempting an unconstitutional referendum to extend his term in office. In fact, the Honduran President was actually planning a non-binding referendum that according to the Spanish news agency, EFE , asked the Honduran people if “during the general elections of November 2009 there should be a fourth ballot to decide whether to hold a Constituent National Assembly that will approve a new political constitution?"

According to a legal memorandum prepared by Micheletti supporters on June 29 and available on the website of the conservative Virginia-based think tank, Americans for Limited Government, the Honduran Supreme Court had found the referendum “illegal”, because the Honduran Constitution explicitly states that certain Constitutional articles cannot be reformed; such as those that “refer to the type of government, the national territory, the presidential term and the prohibition of serving again as President of the Republic.” The Supreme Court thus inferred that since a Constituent Assembly may have attempted to reform these articles, it was unconstitutional. Therefore, they said, a referendum on the possibility of holding a Constituent Assembly was also unconstitutional.

This, of course, did not have to be the case. A reform of the Constitution could have taken place without affecting those articles. The United States knows it. According to an AP report on July 28, one of the four diplomatic visas revoked this week belonged to the “Supreme Court magistrate who ordered the arrest of ousted President Manuel Zelaya and the president of Honduras' Congress.”

The position of de facto Micheletti regime is even more ironic when we remember that in October 1985, Micheletti himself had been one of a dozen Honduran congressional representatives to back a piece of legislation calling for a Constituent Assembly in order to extend the term of then-Honduran President, Roberto Suazo Córdoba. According to a July 9 article in the Salvadoran El Faro, the representatives were looking to suspend certain articles of the Honduran Constitution. “The same [articles] that now serve the Honduran authorities to justify Zelaya’s dismissal.”

Meanwhile, Nike, Adidas, Gap and Knights Apparel, who all manufacture clothing in Honduran factories, wrote to Clinton to call for the "restoration of democracy in Honduras." Honduran military has now thrown its support behind a possible negotiated solution in which Zelaya would return, albeit with limited powers. And Micheletti has hinted that he may be willing to back the San Jose accords, which would allow for Zelaya’s return.

These pronouncements could help produce a settlement. But the roots of the problem remain. As COFADEH director, Bertha Oliva, told a delegation of U.S. activists to Honduras the week after the coup, "This is a coup not only to Honduras, but to all of Latin America." It was a coup against Latin America’s leftward shift; against the possibility of a Constituent Assembly that might redistribute the scant resources in this tiny country of eight million people, where more than half the population is under the poverty line.


For extended versions of this article visit:

The Honduran Coup as Overture from Counterpunch
and Honduras and Washington: Semantics and Contradictions from Upside Down World