South Asia: The new target of international waste traders

by Ann Leonard

DHAKA, BANGLADESH - Following a wave of publicity in the early 1980s about the dumping of hazardous wastes from industrialized countries in Africa, targeted countries began taking action to protect themselves. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) called for a ban on international waste imports into the continent in 1988, then formalized the ban in the 1991 Bamako Convention. In the 1989 Lome Convention, 69 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries prohibited all waste imports into their countries.

 Shut out from these regions, the international waste traders began searching for more welcoming dumping grounds. However, as they entered each new region, they met strong opposition from citizens, who railed against what they referred to as "toxic terrorism" and "toxic colonialism," and from governments which quickly passed legislation prohibiting waste imports. In April 1993, an agreement went into effect among Central American governments prohibiting waste imports into the region, which had been besieged by offers to import waste. And in October 1993, parties to the Barcelona Convention, which covers environmental issues throughout the Mediterranean, agreed to finalize a protocol banning waste shipments from industrialized to developing countries in the region.

 Times are tough for the international waste brokers. In 1986, only three countries prohibited waste imports; today the number has risen to 101.

 However, one region of the Third World remains largely open to waste imports: Asia. Locked out of most of the rest of the Third World, waste traffickers are making a last-ditch effort to preserve a welcome for the industrialized world's waste in Asia.

 Southeast Asia: waste traders unwelcome here

 The waste traders' first foray into Asia was in Southeast Asia. Only a few years after they dramatically increased their presence in the region, however, Southeast Asian governments and popular organizations are rising up in resistance. The regional opposition, explains Gani Serrano, vice-president of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, reflects an understanding of the global nature of the waste creation and disposal problem. "The global merchants of poison are in a deep bind, as our global ecological space has diminished in a big way. Saying that there is money in poison, they are now desperately searching for spaces to dump what they themselves reject in their own backyards," says Serrano. "Finding their elbow room nearing the edge of exhaustion in other parts of the planet, they now look to Asia for a willing and gullible host. By all means, we should deny them every bit of space. If local communities in Asia do just that, they will be doing their important share in arresting the further downgrading of environmental quality which has long been happening everywhere."

 Last August, activist organizations from major waste-importing countries in Southeast Asia, along with activists from major waste-exporting countries, met for two regional training and strategy sessions, one in Jakarta and one in Manila, to develop campaigns to make Southeast Asia a waste trade free zone. On August 20, 1993, after the two meetings, the participants released a statement calling upon their governments to create a Southeast Asian version of Africa's Bamako Convention.

 Southeast Asian governments are beginning to respond to citizens' concern about the increased dumping. The Philippine government has already adopted a complete ban on international waste imports, although enforcement remains a problem. The same day that the Southeast Asian activists released their demand for an end to waste trade in their region, Philippine senator Orlando Mercado filed a resolution calling for a senate inquiry into why wastes continued to be imported into the Philippines, in apparent violation of the nation's waste import prohibition.

 Responding to public opposition, the Indonesian government prohibited plastic waste imports in November 1992 and is considering expanding this prohibition to include other types of waste. And in August 1992, the Malaysian government announced a new prohibition on the import of certain hazardous waste categories.

 South Asia: the waste trader's newest target

 Realizing the inevitable end to easy dumping in Southeast Asia, the waste dumpers are again shifting to areas less familiar with their practices, and thus, less likely to resist. While most of Asia has been receiving increasing amounts of waste during the past few years, it seems there is one region that the international waste traders have just discovered: South Asia.

 Plastic waste exports to South Asia have skyrocketed in the last two years, according to U.S. customs data. Bangladesh, India and Pakistan received 53 percent of total U.S. plastic waste exports in January 1993 (excluding waste sent to China or its transit point, Hong Kong). Only a year earlier, during the January to February 1992 period, the South Asian nations received only 15 percent of the U.S. plastic waste shipped abroad (again excluding China and Hong Kong). No plastic waste was shipped from the United States to Bangladesh during this period.

 Plastic is by no means the only waste shipped to South Asia, as the following partial inventory of recent waste trade schemes demonstrates. The data that follows was compiled by the Greenpeace International Toxic Trade project from the Australian Foreign Trade Interrogation Facility (AFTIF), the U.S. Port Import Export Research Service (PIERS), United Kingdom Customs and Excise Trade Statistics, Statistics Canada and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development's 1991 report "The Iron and Steel Industries in 1989." (This inventory is incomplete because of insufficient or non-existent waste export monitoring, and because of inadequate disclosure laws in both exporting and importing countries.)




 Making South Asia a waste trade free zone

 Environmentalists throughout South Asia are calling for the region to follow the lead of so many others and declare itself off limits to international waste imports. The Bangladeshi organization, UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternatives), is launching a campaign to urge governments and regional organizations, such as the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), to adopt a convention similar to Africa's Bamako Convention.

 For activists in South Asia, resisting toxic trade is more than just an environmental issue. "South Asia is a region that has suffered from great disunity in the past," explains Farhad Mazhar, managing director of UBINIG. "A campaign to end the import of toxic wastes provides the opportunity for all countries, all political parties, all communities, in fact all South Asians, to come together for our mutual benefit. By declaring South Asia a toxics free zone, we will also be laying the groundwork for increased regional unity on many other issues. At the same time, we realize that shifting the toxics to another region is not the solution, so we will work with other regional campaigns to free not only South Asia, but the whole world, from toxic wastes."

 Clean production

 When a region refuses to accept wastes from the industrialized world, the governments and industries in those countries have two choices: either encourage the development of clean production technologies to reduce hazardous waste production at home or find a new unsuspecting waste dumping ground. Although waste traffickers, supported by a number of industrialized country governments, have continually opted for the latter, they are facing increased resistance at every turn.

 With potential dumping grounds running out, the governments of all countries are going to have to start taking pollution prevention more seriously. Approximately 98 percent of the world's hazardous wastes are produced in the industrialized countries; as long as they are able to export this waste, the transformation to clean production processes will be delayed. Banning the international waste trade will not only protect recipient countries, but will also provide an impetus for all countries to develop environmentally sustainable production processes.


U.S. waste exports to South and Southeast Asia

January-July, 1992 and 1993


South Asian countries most targeted for waste imports

 Targeted Country Waste Type (metric tons) Jan-July: 1992 1993 Percent Change


  1. Bangladesh plastic waste 49.4 67.7 + 37.0 percent
  2. India plastic waste 3,974.7 7,841.8 + 97.3 percent
    1. lead ash 983.7 916.9 -06.8 percent
    2. scrap batteries 0.0 14.5 + n/a
  3. Pakistan plastic scrap 115.8 260.5 + 125.0 percent
    1. lead scrap 0.4 6.2 + 1,450 percent
Southeast Asian countries with most active peoples' campaigns against waste imports

 Targeted Country Waste Type (metric tons) Jan-July: 1992 1993 Percent Change


  1. Indonesia plastic scrap 5,352.7 43.0 -99.2 percent
  2. Malaysia plastic scrap 234.7 212.5 -9.5 percent
    1. lead scrap 493.1 133.8 -72.9 percent
  3. Philippines plastic scrap 6,161.1 5,764.2 -6.4 percent
    1. scrap batteries 513.2 300.3 -41.5 percent
    2. lead scrap 0.0 31.6 + n/a


Return to Sender

FOLLOWING A NOVEMBER 1993 PLEA BARGAIN agreement by two of the companies charged with illegally exporting toxic-waste-contaminated fertilizer to Bangladesh, there is hope the unused portion of the fertilizer will be sent back to the United States. Two thousand tons of the contaminated fertilizer now sit in Bangladeshi warehouses.

In the plea bargain, reached in a South Carolina federal district court,Gaston Copper Recycling Co. and its parent company, Southwire Corp., admitted their involvement in the waste trade scheme, pleaded guilty to the charges, and agreed to pay a $1 million fine. Part of the $1 million fine will be used for the return of the waste to the United States.

"We are thrilled that the U.S. judge agreed that the companies' fine will be used to remove the unused toxic waste fertilizer from our country." said Shima Das Shimu, a social scientist at the Dhaka- based UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternatives).

 The shipment of hazardous waste disguised as fertilizer left South Carolina for Bangladesh in late 1991. The waste which was mixed into the fertilizer contains high levels of lead, which causes serious health impacts, including decreased intelligence in children, and cadmium, which causes lung and kidney damage and may cause cancer.

 Last year the Bangladesh government formed a Special Enquiry Commission to investigate the waste import scandal and make recommendations about its resolution. The Commission warned that farming and fishing activities may have to be halted for up to several years where the toxic waste was applied and recommended that the unused portion of the waste be returned to the United States.

 "Gaston Copper and Southwire Corporation must remove their toxic wastes from Bangladesh. This is an important step towards correcting the injustices of the U.S. waste export policy," says Marcelo Furtado of Greenpeace's International Waste Trade Project, which has been collaborating with UBINIG to return the waste to the country and companies responsible for its manufacture and illegal export. "Now, the governments of the United States and other industrialized countries must act immediately to prevent such injustices from happening again by enacting laws to ban the export of their wastes."

 Gaston Copper and its parent company, Southwire Corporation, are two of four U.S. companies involved in this toxic fertilizer scheme. Gaston Copper produced the waste. A third company, Hy-Tex Marketing, transported the waste to a fourth company, Stoller Chemicals, which mixed 1,000 tons of waste into the fertilizer. The shipment was financed under a loan from the Asian Development Bank.

 During the last year, UBINIG representatives have met with officials of the U.S. government in Washington, D.C. and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila to urge them to cooperate in returning the toxics wastes to the United States. UBINIG's cll for "return to sender" has been echoed by other environmental groups in Bangladesh and the United States. Daisy Hollis, from CLEAN, an environmental group in South Carolina is also calling for the waste to be removed from Bangladesh. "Each state should be responsible for its own waste. Removing harmful toxins from the environment is the only way to do this," she said. Another U.S. organization, Global Response, organized a massive letter writing drive to the responsible U.S. corporations last year, urging them to repatriate the waste.

 - A.L.



Fury over a River

by Pradeep S. Mehta


CALCUTTA, INDIA - On paper, it promised to be India's Tennessee Valley: the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) for the benefit of one of the most dry areas of the Indian subcontinent - the Kutch, Saurashtra and north Gujarat - bringing to mind images of water for drinking and parched lands irrigated through a network of dams and canals. But while talking of obliterating the images of pain in India's dry regions, the planners of what they called the biggest ever "temple of modern India" took for granted the 800,000 indigenous people who have for centuries inhabited the lands to be submerged [see Cracks in the Dam: The World Bank in India," Multinational Monitor, December 1992 ].

 India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, wanted the indigenous people, the inevitable refugees of development, to put national interest before their own. But after scores of dams over the past five decades, which have displaced an estimated 30 million people all over the country, the anti-dam movement, scattered in numerous peripheral groups from across India, has come together to resist.

 The dam of contention over models and parameters of "development" burst when the Indian government and its partner in the project, the World Bank, parted ways. Under intense international pressure, sources within the Bank were increasingly calling for a reassessment of the project. A peeved Indian government decided in March 1993 to forego the undisbursed $170 million portion of the $450 million assistance committed by the Bank.

 "It is actually a case of sour grapes," says Medha Patkar, the frail woman heading the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA, the Save Narmada Movement). "The World Bank-appointed independent review mission [headed by former UNDP administrator Bradford Morse] vindicated our position that [dam planners allowed] considerations of engineering [to] supersede the implications to life and livelihood of Adivasis."

 Adivasis, or "ancient people," are the oldest inhabitants of India. They have long been marginalized by the "new people" and forced to live difficult lives in forests. Patkar, winner of the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) and the Goldman environmental award, points out that "the mission attacked the Bank and the Indian government for not coming up with detailed data on the population to be displaced."

 "The Bank, who was eager to go ahead even at a high human cost, was cornered. The Indian government, which still basically considers environmental issues to be nonsense when weighed against prospects of running water and electricity, now prefers to bury its head in jargons like ęself-reliance.' ... Ironically, this was farthest from their minds when the decision was taken to implement this highly unscientific and unsuitable project."

 The Narmada movement is bringing the development dilemma to every household across the length and breadth of the subcontinent, asking who are to be the beneficiaries of "progress." Unlike the immediate post-independence generation that was seduced by the Nehruvian model of big factories, bigger irrigation projects and state control of key industries, today's intelligentsia are increasingly questioning the premise that the human and environmental costs of development can be ignored.

 Significantly, Nehru's grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, India's prime minister from 1985 to 1989, first introduced the idea of evaluating development projects in ecological terms. But even he was bulldozed by the juggernaut of "progress." It was in his tenure, in April 1989, that the green light was given to the Narmada Valley Project (NVP), the consolidated project integrating three distinct ventures - the Narmada Valley Development Project, the Narmada Sagar Project (NSP) and the SSP.

 Since 1947, the year of India's independence, this largest river project in the world had been caught in various deadlocks, mostly for reasons of financial paucity. Until 1979, it was also bogged down in inter-state disputes between Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, all three big and populous central and western states of India, through which the Narmada flows.

 The project finally began to move forward after the World Bank assured credit assistance representing 15 percent of the project cost. The entire project was to be spread over 30 large, 135 medium- sized and 3,000 small dams. Gujarat's (or SSP's) share of the cake was to be the greatest - apart from dams and reservoirs, two giant hydroelectric power plants and a 75,000-kilometer canal network.

 But the World Bank came under enormous international pressure to withdraw its support for the massive dam project. According to Lori Udall, a staff attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, the Narmada project had become known worldwide as the ętest case' of the Bank's willingness and capability to adhere to its own environmental and social guidelines. "Narmada was only one example of the World Bank's negligence on environment and forcible resettlement of people."

 Ultimately, the Bank came to rethink its support for Narmada, for reasons of political expedience or otherwise. After India decided to forego Bank assistance, World Bank president Lewis Preston said, "I think it was, alas, in everybody's interest. I think we would have had an awkward time if it had come to forcing a date because of the civil strain and stress that goes with the implementation of the time table. It was a sensible thing to do."

 However, Bimal Jalan, India's executive director on the World Bank board, is confident the project will go forward without Bank support. "The Indian government will be able to go it alone." Patkar retorts that the federal and Gujarat governments are now fighting a "prestige battle." The government had always claimed that it was committed to full implementation of the action plan on resettlement and rehabilitation of the population to be displaced by the project. The government contends that it still hopes to complete the SSP by the end of the decade at a cost of about $3 billion. Some financial assistance may be coming from expatriates. Rich Gujaratis settled in Europe, Africa and the United States have come together to establish funding consortiums for Narmada in the absence of World Bank aid," says Muchkund Desai, an executive with the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, the state corporation executing the project.

 Perhaps to indicate that it is serious, in August 1993, the government decided to go ahead with the flooding of the little cluster of villages called Manibeli, bordering Maharashtra. Patkar and her activists vowed to perform Jal Samadhi (sacrificial drowning in the water) as their ultimate protest.

 The government's first response was to arrest opposition activists. But faced with mounting public outcry at the instances of police atrocities, the government was forced to announce a review of the project. Basically, it saw the impossibility of policing a 30-kilometer-wide front. Patkar herself proved elusive and the government realized that if she was successful in making her suicide statement, the SSP was as good as lost.

 The Indian federal government's pacific overture in offering to review the project gave rise to another dimension of the debate, however. The chief minister of Gujarat state, Chimanbhai Patel, notorious for his sympathies with the contractor interests behind the project, spoke out bitterly against the central government's mollification of the activists. "There can be no compromise, the SSP will be the life line of Gujarat," he asserted. The federal government views Patel as an important ally, and so, to soothe his nerves, it amended its statement.

 The federal Water Resources Minister, V.C. Shukla, assured parliamentarians from the state in early August that any change in the basic design of the SSP can only be implemented with the consent of the state government. He also said that the so-called review will not significantly change the character of the SSP.

 While wide cracks are appearing in the government's front, the opposition is experiencing major problems of its own. Together for years, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has been a loose assortment of groups unified by a variety of concerns over the SSP. Some decried the project in ecological terms, while others concentrated on the combined seismic impact of all the reservoirs. The uncertainty shrouding the fate of the indigenous people offered an emotive chord to tie them together into a somewhat cohesive movement.

 But now the government, which has gone through similar, albeit smaller-scale motions over the past five decades, is exploiting the vulnerability of the impoverished people to be affected by the project. The lure of "jobs" in the new project, cash compensation and dreams of proper homes right out of movies, have proven too much for many of them to resist. These promises often result in a sudden, though short- lived upward mobility in their lifestyles. Bandi Umrao, an adivasi villager to be eventually affected, is looking forward to an urban lifestyle complete with a motor scooter. "The government has also assured me a job in the project. A fixed salary is sometimes preferable to an uncertain life as a shepherd," he says.

 Within their community, the displaced often become subjects of envy. With goodies like transistor radios, jewelry and simple household consumables becoming a reality, many look at leaders like Patkars as characters intent upon keeping these objects out of their reach through alien concerns. The juxtaposition of this simple reasoning with allegations of "unholy pacts between giant global financial magnates and so-called environmentalists to keep India ever dependent," as raised by the leading pro- Narmada campaigner, Krishnaprasad Patel, give the government's strand a certain legitimacy.


Submergence at Sardar Sarovar


Gujarat Maharashtra Madhyq Pradesh Total


    1. Villages 19 36 193 248
    2. Families 3,322 1,358 8,854 13,534
    3. Population 10,593 11,000 45,00 66,593
    4. Forest land* 11,168 8,541 6,753 26,465
    5. Agricultural land*4,634 3,751 19,464 27,849
    6. Other land* 2,639 3,930 25,205 31,774
    7. Total land* 18,441 16,222 51,425 86,088

 Source: Vidyu Joshi in the Economic Times, 9/26/89



Displays of despair

Twenty-three river valley, thermal and hydroelectric power projects in India still have World Bank support. In August 1993, perhaps impressed by events in the Narmada, the Bank started a three-year review process of rehabilitation schemes in its funded projects. Tod Ragsdale, the Bank's representative in charge of review, received first hand experience of the despair of the people these projects purport to help. Newspapers reported that people displaced by the upcoming Vinhyachal Super Thermal Power Corporation, which the Bank is helping through the state-owned National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), often stopped Ragsdale's car as it drove through their villages, only to hold on to the steering wheel and weep.

 - P.S.M.