Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"The Underbelly of Globalization"

Nat-Wu brought this troubling story in the NY Times to my attention:

It was his infant son’s cries, gasping and insistent, that first woke Salif Oudrawogol one night last month. The smell hit him moments later, wafting into the family’s hut, a noxious mélange reminiscent of rotten eggs, garlic and petroleum. Mr. Oudrawogol went outside to investigate. Beside the family’s compound, near his manioc and corn fields, he saw a stinking slick of black sludge.

“The smell was so bad we were afraid,” Mr. Oudrawogol said. “It burned our noses and eyes.”

Over the next few days, the skin of his 6-month-old son, Salam, bloomed with blisters, which burst into weeping sores all over his body. The whole family suffered headaches, nosebleeds and stomach aches.

What was this toxic and menacing substance, and how did it get in this man's field?The tale of the sludge can be traced to July 2, when a rust-streaked tanker, the Probo Koala, arrived in Amsterdam after a lengthy stay in the Mediterranean. Leased by Trafigura, a global oil and metals trading company, it was pausing on its way to Estonia to unload what the company said was 250 tons of “marslops” or “regular slops.” That is the wash water from cleaning a ship’s holds, which would normally be laced with oil, gasoline, caustic soda or other chemicals.

Exactly where the waste originated remains unclear. A spokesman for Trafigura, Jan Maat, said the Probo Koala had served in the Mediterranean “as a floating storage tank” and had taken on loads from several different ships, but he declined to give details.

After analyzing the waste, Amsterdam Port Services told Trafigura’s London office that the price to treat and dispose of it would now be much more expensive, close to $300,000. Trafigura, which in 2005 had revenue of $28 billion dollars, balked at the cost.

From Amsterdam, the Probo Koala sailed to Estonia and took on Russian oil products. After delivering them to Nigeria, it continued to Abidjan, where it arrived on Aug. 19. Mr. Maat said Trafigura’s London office had advised the Ivory Coast port authorities and the Transportation Ministry that it was delivering chemical waste requiring special treatment and close supervision, and hired a local company, Tommy.

Tommy hired more than a dozen tanker trucks, into which it pumped the sludge. The trucks fanned out, at night, to at least 18 sites across the city, according to witnesses in several neighborhoods where the material was dumped, as well as the French cleanup crew.

In case you're thinking it was mere providence that landed the waste on the streets and fields of an African town:

Africa has long been a dumping ground for all sorts of things the developed world has no use for. “This is the underbelly of globalization,” said Jim Puckett, an activist at the Basel Action Network, an environmental group that fights toxic waste dumping. “Environmental regulations in the north have made disposing of waste expensive, so corporations look south.”

Lack of regulations, lack of accountability, lack of enforcement power...and the result is poor people who bear the burden of sickness and disease. And as I noted to Nat-Wu in an email, there's not much chance these people will be able to go down to the local courthouse and file a class action lawsuit or anything.

But the article also reminded me of something else I read, an article in the September 2003 Atlantic monthly by William Langenwiesche about the many consequences of this sort of lawlessness at sea. It's worth quoting at length:

No one pretends that a ship comes from the home port painted on its stern, or that it has ever been anywhere near. Panama is the largest maritime nation on earth, and is followed by bloody Liberia, which hardly exists. No coastline is required either. There are ships that hail from La Paz, in landlocked Bolivia. There are ships that hail from the Mongolian desert. The registries themselves are rarely based in the countries whose name they carry: Panama is considered to be an old-fashioned "flag", because its consulates collect the registration fees, but "Liberia" is run bya company in Virginia, "Cambodia" by another in South Korea, and the proud "Bahamas" by a group in the City of London. The system, generally known as "flags of convenience", began around World War II, but its big expansion occurred only in the 1990's-and in direct reaction to an international attempt to impose controls. By shopping globally, shipowners found that they could choose the laws that were applied to them reather than haplessly submitting as ordinary citiznes must to the arbitrary jurisdictions of their native states. The effect was to lower operating costs...the advantages were so great that even the most conservative and well-establishes shipowners...found they had no choice but to [play along].

...The efficiencies are accompanied by global problems, too, including the playing of the poor against the poor, the persistence of huge fleets of dangersou ships, the pollution they cause, the implicity disposability of the crews who work aboard, and the parallel growth of two particularly resilient pathogens that exist now in the ocean--the first being a modern and sophisticated strain of piracy, and the second its politicized cousin, the maritime from of the new stateless terrorism.

And he's not kidding about the latter, as he recounts for the reader stories of highly sophisticated pirates hijacking large vessels at sea and then "disappearing" them, and an entirely plausible scenario whereby terrorists drive a ship into a port to inflict as maximum damage as possible. And those problems lie on top of the already pernacious problem of ships patrolling around the oceans dumping pollution or otherwise making environmental hazards out of themselves, without anyone watching who can stop them.

In short, the system as it exists is untenable in the long-run, but at the same time there's little motivation to change it where just about everyone involved (except the people having pollution dumped on their homes) is making a buck. What happened is Abidjan is certainly on the most egregious in a long line of similar and problem unrecorded incidents.

1 comment:

Nat-Wu said...

There's got to be some better system of international maritime law than what we have. The difficulty of criminally prosecuting anyone makes it near impossible.