the job

Richard Gutierrez argues that the Basel Convention has not yet vanquished insanity and ruthlessness in the toxic waste trade and calls for true partnerships to forge sustainable solutions

‘I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that... I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted.’ Lawrence Summers, 1991

‘... Perfectly logical but totally insane... a concrete example of the... social ruthlessness and arrogant ignorance of many conventional “economists” concerning the world we live in...’. Such was the Brazilian environment secretary’s retort to Mr Summers’ infamous statement, made when he was the World Bank’s chief economist. Mr Summers’ words may not have started the global trade in hazardous waste, but they did express the forces behind it.

From its inception, the Basel Convention has had to contend with the insane logic of conventional economics and the social ruthlessness of the waste trade. Any assessment of Basel’s accomplishments must be gauged on how the Parties have prevailed over these forces.

The 1980s were a decade of liberal markets and increased globalization – a breeding ground for waste traders to dump poisons in developing countries. ‘Jolly Rosso’, ‘Khian Sea’ and ‘Koko Beach’ epitomized the toxic waste trade anarchy of the decade. The Basel Convention was born of this chaos in 1989.

Toxic trade
At first the Convention teetered and almost collapsed, as it failed adequately to prevail over the toxic trade and to prohibit exports from rich to poorer countries. The African group – which initiated the Convention – was disappointed with the resulting text and refused to sign. It saw Basel as a failed instrument that legitimized waste trade through notification, instead of criminalizing it. Its sentiment was shared by other developing nations, a few European countries, and by non-governmental environment organizations.

But these diverse groups did not give up. Led by developing countries, they collaborated and established regional bans: by 1992, when the Basel Convention entered into force, more than 88 countries banned the import of hazardous wastes.

The partnership’s efforts created the momentum for progressive European countries to join in and push for what most thought Basel needed at the outset – a global trade barrier against exploiting weaker economies with toxic waste. Thus, in 1994, the Parties decided by consensus to adopt the proposal by the G-77 and China (Decision II/12) to ban the export of all hazardous wastes (including for recycling) from countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to non-OECD ones; the following year, they instated the ban as an amendment to the Convention (Decision III/1).

This was a titanic achievement. Industrialized countries, such as the United States, Japan and Canada, fought hard to prevent the global ban, but the multi-stakeholder partnership persevered, establishing the global exemplar of environmental justice.

Testament to success
By the end of the 1990s, the toxic waste barges and drums had grown fewer – a testament to the success of the export prohibitions, increased regulation and awareness brought about by the Convention and its decisions. Yet now – as the Seventh Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP7) deals with ‘Partnership for meeting the global waste challenge’, and as the Convention embarks on limited partnerships with industry – the waste trade has been increasing again, exporting, for example, disused ships and post-consumer wastes, like electronics, to developing countries. A staggering amount of toxics is being transferred. These wastes, like their predecessors, victimize some of the poorest, most desperate peoples; they receive the disproportionate burden of the poisonous effluent of the affluent.
These wastes victimize some of the poorest, most desperate peoples
Two important uncompleted tasks must be finished. First, the Basel Decisions are in great jeopardy of becoming paper tigers, since the number of ratifications needed for them to enter into force has not yet been attained. The Parties must clear up the uncertainty that hangs over this by expressing an unequivocal decision upholding the traditionally understood interpretation on the required number of ratifications. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora recently took a similar step.

Second, the amount of hazardous wastes being generated around the world must be capped and then steadily reduced. The Convention must address the outrageous fact that – 15 years after its adoption – this amount has continued to increase. If this continues, Basel will be left fruitlessly pursuing end-of-pipe solutions.

The task ahead is not easy. Once again, a broad and committed partnership involving all civil society is needed. As the Convention works with industry on electronic wastes, it must not abandon its old partners – the developing countries and non-governmental organizations – but draw them in and give them active roles in arriving at a solution. Reforging such past partnerships is essential if truly sustainable solutions are to be found. The leadership and intimate involvement of developing countries in the Basel Decisions were vital to its past success. The same is needed if new partnerships are to prevail over the waste trade’s same crazy logic and social ruthlessness.

Protecting the vulnerable
The Basel Convention brought together all nations and civil society to protect the most vulnerable – the poor and the environment. Now, more than ever, we – all the stakeholders of the world – need to face up to this fact and fulfil the promise of the Basel Convention for generations to come

Richard Gutierrez is the Toxics Policy Analyst of the Basel Action Network.

PHOTOGRAPH: Gilles Saussier/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Building partnerships, mobilizing resources | Much to discuss, much to do | Delivery time | Adolescence and money problems | Complete the job | Creating synergy | New challenges

Complementary articles in other issues:
Shunichi Suzuki: Slimming the Waste (Energy) 2003
Issue on Chemicals and the environment 2002
Jack Weinberg: Unpopular POPs (Global Environment Facility) 2002
Issue on Hazardous Waste 1999
Alemayehu Wodageneh: Trouble in store (Chemicals) 1997
Frank Wania and Don Mackay: Global Distillation (Chemicals) 1997

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