A vain search for justice

Richer countries have been getting away with polluting poorer countries for far too long

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Visibly famous for its surfing beaches and soothing hills, Arica is a port city in Northern Chile that became the dumping ground for 20,000 tons of toxic waste for Swedish company Boliden Mineral AB. UN experts have been deeply concerned about the consequences of such toxicants that have remained uncovered and exposed for nearly 40 years now. Nevertheless, justice has persistently slipped away from the hands of the victims of these wastes. 

It all began in the early 80s when a Chilean contractor named Promel accepted €1 million ($1.1 million) from Swedish mining giant Boliden to process approximately 20,000 tons of smelter sludge. However, instead of processing the waste, Promel chose to leave the toxicants unprotected in an industrial area that was somewhat 3km away from the then Arican residential areas. Almost a decade later, in 1994, the Chilean government erected a social housing development closer by which led to men, women, and children unknowingly bringing in toxic dust into their homes by playing or by simply walking by areas they had no idea were toxic. 

However, as time went by, children who would routinely play near those toxic wastes, began to show symptoms that were never witnessed by their family members. Strange rashes, skin diseases, and heart problems were some of the common consequences whilst many women in the community even had miscarriages. 

The NGO FIMA took a stand against this and filed a lawsuit against the Chilean Government and Promel only to find out that Promel had already become bankrupt. As for the Chilean authorities, they compensated only 365 residents when there were approximately 12,000 victims. 

As unfortunate as it may be, this has been the case for most toxic wastes that were dumped by seemingly “green” countries to countries that never attained justice. For example the export of toxic and e-wastes from European and American companies to poor African countries. 

Undoubtedly, the term “environmental racism” befits the current situation as the richer and developed countries think that it is fair to export electronic wastes to African countries by claiming that they are reusable products. This way they may have circumvented the laws (Basel Convention and Bamako Convention), but knowingly doing something wrong to a country and its citizens is beyond the scope of justification. 

However, without making demands for justice, countries like Nigeria and Ghana are now labelled by the United Nations Environmental Program as one of the top destinations for e-waste. These e-wastes include, but are not limited to, “discarded computers, television sets, mobile phones, and microwave ovens.” Back in 2010, Bangladesh was no different as no inventory was made to assess the e-waste problem in the country.

For name sake, an amendment was proposed to the Basel Convention in order to ban the export of hazardous waste; but that cannot compensate the people who have lost many of its young minds to unwanted diseases. 

To maintain an environmental balance, it is important that strict and effective legal steps are taken to avoid the discreet export of toxic wastes by richer countries. 

Inspiration can be taken from recent regulations enacted in Bangladesh that requires “manufacturers, traders, sellers, transporters, repairers, collection centres, recyclers, dismantlers, etc to register with a prescribed form to the DOE and obtain environmental clearance in accordance with the Bangladesh Environmental Protection Rules (BEPA), 1997.” If the rules are violated, the offender shall be liable to imprisonment (two years maximum) or to a fine (Tk200,000), or to both.

Although the emotional loss can never be compensated, it will at least find the culprits liable for their wrongful act. 

Anusha Islam Raha is an LLM student in the UK pursuing her career as a teacher.

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