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Burning Denmark's Good Name in Mozambique

by Jim Puckett

In a neighborhood in Delhi, India stands an ominous rusting hulk of piping, conduit and conveyors - the Taj Mahal of inappropriate technology and aid. It was never used because Danish International Development Assistance (Danida), which helped fund and promote it, never did its basic homework. The agency failed to realize that in a low consumptive society with a very high rate of scavenging and recycling, the garbage that is left simply won’t burn. The vital lesson that the Delhi incinerator should have taught Danida about inappropriate technology transfer appears to have gone unlearned some 15 years later in Africa with another Danish incinerator project.

At first glance, Danida’s plan might appear laudable. The agency proposes to deal with about 900 tonnes of deteriorating stockpiles of obsolete and aging pesticides in Mozambique by building a permanent hazardous waste station and retro-fitting a cement factory so that it can burn hazardous wastes. In fact, this project, like the Delhi debacle, is a product of northern arrogance and ignorance and is destined to cause more problems than it solves.

Danida’s first mistake was its failure to consult with non-governmental organizations and local people. The agency’s website reads: “Denmark has a long­standing tradition of actively involving individuals, non-governmental organizations and associations and businesses formally and informally in formulating and implementing environmental policies.”

Apparently, this “tradition” only applies to domestic activities. According to the translator hired for the only “hearing” that was held for this project, the burning of the hazardous wastes was not discussed at all, thus risks and alternatives were not discussed. No project documentation was made available in any language, not even the appallingly thin (32 pages) Environmental Impact Assessment. The level of awareness about the project in Mozambique was virtually nil until international and regional environmental justice groups brought noted Chemistry Professor and incineration expert Dr. Paul Connett of St. Lawrence University, New York to Maputo in August to warn of the project’s dangers. As a result of that visit, a new local advocacy group, Livaningo (meaning ‘bringing light’), was launched and is now struggling against powerful forces to fight the plan.

Livaningo is, in fact, the hub of a global coalition of environmental groups working to change Danida’s plans in Mozambique. For many months the coalition has been engaged in a long letter exchange with Danish Development Minister Poul Nielson. (These letters are available at, library section). However, to date, that dialogue has produced little more than a record of steadfast intransigence on the part of Minister Nielson.

Incineration of hazardous wastes in cement kilns actually produces the most toxic persistent organic pollutants (POPs) known - dioxins and furans - as inevitable by-products. These dangerous substances, along with heavy metal contaminants, find their way into both the cement product (clinker) and into cement kiln dusts, which are a common fallout problem around all cement factories. At the Cimentos de Mocambique cement kiln, workers were photographed this August, covered with such dust. Worldwide, cement kilns burning hazardous wastes are estimated to comprise 23 per cent of the current global source for dioxin.

But all incinerators, including municipal solid waste burners, medical waste burners, cement kilns and high temperature incinerators, are known to produce dioxins and furans. These two compounds top the list of 12 substances that are targetted for international phase-out and elimination in the current negotiations for a new global POPs treaty under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme. The Nordics have taken the lead on this treaty. It makes little sense to advocate the elimination of POPs globally, while promoting new sources of the worst of them. Incinerators are not a solution for hazardous waste - they are part of the problem.

Even historically-produced hazardous wastes, (such as obsolete pesticides) can now be dealt with using commercially available non-combustion alternatives that detoxify hazardous wastes without producing and spreading more into the atmosphere. When the environmental coalition provided the names of such companies to Minister Nielson, he replied that while these solutions might be interesting for future projects, they were not going to be considered for the Mozambique project.

Danida has also turned a blind eye to the real threat of waste trafficking in Africa. Such a permanent hazardous waste facility will likely have a magnet effect for the powerful economic forces driving the international waste trade. While belated efforts have been made to receive assurances from Mozambique officials that the cement kiln would not burn imported hazardous wastes, no actual guarantees can ever exist. Indeed, according to DT 10/98, one Danida official confirmed that incinerating waste from neighbouring countries - which implies importation - was part of the original intent of the project. Moreover, the Mozambique government recently gave authorization for the import of hazardous waste. Yet such deals were strictly outlawed in 1989 by the Lomé IV Convention. They also jeopardise the entry into force of the Basel Convention Ban - skillfully negotiated in 1994 by Danish Environment Minister Svend Auken - that bans the export of hazardous wastes from OECD to non-OECD countries.

There is still a chance for Denmark to avoid a global NGO campaign attacking its projects and practices. Indeed, there is a great opportunity for Denmark to take the environmental high ground. Danida should first hold an open and transparent public forum on the risks and possible alternatives for burning hazardous wastes in Mozambique. Second, consistent with the Danish national policy to eliminate POPs worldwide, Danida should renounce any projects that promote new POPs sources (e.g. incinerators). Finally, Denmark should regain its role as environmental leader and promote the new wave of non-combustion hazardous waste destruction methods to destroy POPs stockpiles, starting with pesticides in Mozambique.


Development Today: Nordic Outlook on Development Assistance, Business and the Environment -- 28 October 1998

-- Jim Puckett is Director of the Seattle-based Asia-Pacific Environmental Exchange (APEX) and Coordinator for the Basel Action Network (BAN), which seeks to implement the Basel Convention and end toxic trade.

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