It's a dirty job but somebody's got to do it
Pirates of Rubbish
Our stories from Europe are a little longer but well worth the read. The stuff we want to get rid of makes some cutthroats rich and many poor people sick. The author’s books include Terror Incorporated, Insurgent Iraq, and Rogue Economics. An expert on financing of terrorism, she advises several governments on counter-terrorism. She was recently interviewed by Newsweek.com.
by Loretta NapoleoniThe new Italian president Berlusconi has promised to run the country from Naples three times per week until all the rubbish accumulated for months in the south of Italy has been cleared. Many Italians claim that this is yet another billion dollar racket of the mafia, which traditionally handles garbage in Italy. All around the world, organized crime handles toxic waste, from old cell phones to discharged batteries. Much ends up in garbage dumps in poor developing countries, contaminating the environment Those who manage this unpleasant industry are part of a new generation of globalization outlaws: the pirates of rubbish.
Following the directives of the European Union, decontaminating and disposing of toxic waste costs in the West over $1000 per ton. The pirates of rubbish offer prices ten times lower including the cost of transport beyond national borders to ‘dispose’ of the waste. This explains why 47% of European garbage, including toxic materials such as electronic waste from old computers to medical equipment, is almost completely shipped by sea to developing countries, frequently on board pirate ships.
In order to avoid controls, pirates use ‘flags of convenience’, which frequently change en route. Although international law stipulates that the country of registry is ultimately responsible for controlling the ships’ activities, some states permit vessels to fly their flag for hundreds or a few thousand dollars without any supervisions. Amongst them is Sierra Leone, a country ruled by warlords and Uzbekistan, a landlocked country.
According to the United Nations Environmental Program, the annual global production of electronic waste ranges from 20 and 50 million tons, comprising recyclable and non-recyclable material. The former generally ends up in India or China where it is auctioned to aspiring Asian industrialists; the latter ends up in the hands of pirates. Since the early 90s, the toxic waste industry has been growing at a rate never seen before. With shipping toxic waste, modern pirates also profit $16 billion dollars a year selling stolen merchandise. In the last decade, marine piracy has increased 168% and the attacks are more and more violent, warned the transport commission of the English Parliament in July of 2006. Coincidentally, this report was released shortly after two attacks on British ships carrying aid to the tsunami victims in Indonesia.
In the North the Russian mafia, which assumed control of the former Soviet fleet after the fall of the Soviet Union, runs the piracy racket. Since the early 1990s, organized crime has been roaming the Northern seas from the port of Murmansk, once the pride of the Soviet fleet. Murmansk is on the Northern Sea Route, 5000 kilometres stretching from the Baltic to the nickel mines of Norilsk. At its height in 1987, more than 7 million tons of goods transited these freezing waters.
The majority of pirates operate in the Malacca Straits, an 800 kilometre long corridor separating Indonesia from Malaysia. This is where 42% of the world’s acts of piracy take place. Buccaneers also ply the Arabian Sea, the South China Sea, and off the coast of West Africa.
“A pirate ship captured (in 1999) in Indonesia was equipped with false immigration stamps, instruments with which to falsify ship’s documents, sophisticated radar systems, and equipment for communication and satellite positioning,” reads a report from the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
Among their best clients is Japan, the Asian leader in the export of toxic materials. The most frequent destinations are Thailand, India, China, and Hong Kong. In 2006, Chinese garbage pirates dumped more than 195 million kilos of toxic powder along the Thai coast and illegally exported to China 400 tons of toxic material which had originated in hospitals, electronic and chemical plants in Japan.
The most popular destination for the unwanted and undesirable refuse of rich countries is Africa. The Basel Action Network reveals that 75% of the electronic material that arrives in Nigeria cannot be recycled and becomes polluting agents. Somalia regularly receives tons and tons of radioactive and electronic waste.
Taking advantage of the absence of government, the rubbish pirates dump their lethal cargoes at sea. Some reappeared after the 2005 December tsunami. The unveiled mess included radioactive uranium, cadmium, mercury, lead, and chemical, industrial, and hospital materials from Europe -- provoking hypocritical waves of public outrage. The shipment dated back to 1992 when a group of European companies recruited Swiss company Archair Partners and the Italian company Progresso, both specialised in the export of undesirable waste.
Between 1997 and 1998, the Italian weekly Famiglia Cristiana and the Italian branch of Greenpeace denounced such business in a series of articles. Greenpeace even managed to get hold of a copy of the agreement signed by President of Somalia Ali Mahdi Mohamed, wherein he agreed to receive 10 million tons of toxic waste in exchange for $80 million. This equates to a cost of $8 per ton against a recycling and dismantling cost in Europe of 1000 dollars per ton.
In Zambia in the 90s, radioactive meat from the ex-Soviet Union was buried; some members of the local population dug up the meat and ate it. In 2000, Zambia received as ‘donations’, cans of contaminated meat from the Czech Republic. After this discovery, the 2880 cans were buried in the village of Chongwe, east of the capital Lusaka, at a depth of 3.5 meters underground and covered with a layer of cement. The local residents did everything possible to get to the meat. Two years later a Belgian newspaper Gazet van Antwerpen reported that they had succeeded in digging it up and had eaten it all.
Out of sight, out of mind? The garbage crisis in Naples is but the tip of the iceberg of a global rogue phenomenon of which we, wealthy consumers in the global village, are unwitting business partners. Rather than dump on the unfortunate, we should learn to recycle our own waste.
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