Something Rotten From Denmark
by Jim Puckett, Multinational Monitor,
DECEMBER 1998 · VOLUME 19· NUMBER 12
The Incinerator "Solution" to Aid Gone Bad in Mozambique
What should Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries, do with 900 tons of donated, obsolete pesticides that are improperly stored, spread throughout the country and pose a serious public health hazard?
The Danish aid agency, Danida, believes the answer is simple: burn them. To carry out this simple-sounding plan, Danida proposes to donate and build in Mozambique a permanent hazardous waste station and to retro-fit a cement factory to enable it to burn hazardous wastes.
The Danish aid establishment insists that its incinerator plan is a sensible and progressive way to address Mozambique's obsolete pesticide problem, and also to address long-term waste management issues in the country.
But a new coalition of Mozambique non-governmental organizations, along with a number of international environmental groups, say the incinerator scheme is badly misguided. They criticize Danida for pushing a dangerous and obsolete technology on Mozambique. Cement kiln hazardous waste incineration is a leading source of dioxin creation, they note, and there are many existing, viable alternatives to incineration that do not produce persistent organic pollutants.
The critics complain as well about the process by which the plan was hatched -- Danida seemed to ignore its own guidelines for local consultation and relied on an obviously inadequate environmental impact assessment. Making the whole problem worse, in the environmentalists' eyes, is Danida's strange decision to rely on a shady South African company for critical parts of the pesticide disposal effort.
Return Don't Burn
Alarm bells about the incinerator project were first sounded by a coalition of international organizations, including the Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN), the Environmental Justice Networking Forum (EJNF) of South Africa, Essential Action (a project of Essential Information, publisher of Multinational Monitor) and Greenpeace.
In August 1998, EJNF's Bobby Peek and Essential Action's Ann Leonard traveled with St. Lawrence University chemistry professor and incineration specialist Dr. Paul Connett to Maputo, Mozambique to alert citizens in Mozambique about the Danish plan.
"Whether or not anybody actually became concerned about the issue," says Peek, "we strongly felt that we had the moral obligation to pass on what we knew about the plan, and the real risks of cement kiln incineration. They had the right to know. As we feared, almost nobody had heard about the project at all."
After asking a handful of groups to spread word of their impending visit, Peek, Leonard and Connett were pleased to find dozens of activists eager to learn about and work on toxic pollution in Mozambique.
Despite a Danida policy of "actively involving individuals, non-governmental organizations and associations and businesses formally and informally in formulating and implementing environmental policies," neither these activists nor the communities that would be most affected by the incinerator had been meaningfully consulted about the project. Nor was anyone else in Mozambique. And in the only "hearing" that was ever held in Mozambique, according to the oral translator involved, only the collection and not the burning of the pesticides was ever discussed. Risks and alternatives were not mentioned, and no documentation was made available in any language.
Few present in Maputo enjoyed the irony that only the foreign visitors had a copy of the embarrassingly scant 32-page environmental impact assessment which Danida had prepared on the project. Addressing local journalists and citizens, Connett denounced the environmental assessment of the project as being unworthy of being read even if it had been made publicly available. "In the United States or Canada, those proposing a new toxic waste facility would be obliged to fully discuss all of the alternatives, all of the risks, and would have been required to hold several public hearings before decisions could be made about a particular disposal method," he said. "The environmental assessment and public involvement in this project is a sham."
The visiting environmentalists also told their Mozambique allies about the appalling record of one of the designated contractors for the Danida project. Waste-Tech Ltd., a South African firm, is illegally seeking to import foreign waste into Africa, and is the subject of a South Africa Human Rights Commission investigation for alleged human rights abuses in connection with operating a hazardous waste site and medical waste incinerator within a few hundred meters of a poor community.
Following the visit, Mozambique activists created Livaningo (meaning to shed light), an environmental group that quickly became an active grassroots force in a war-wracked country where such civil society action has been very rare. The group has distributed petitions, displayed banners all over the city and requested hearings, debates and meetings with government officials. So far these meetings have resulted only in agreement to revise the existing environmental impact assessment. Meanwhile, Mozambique officials have been quoted in the local press as saying the project is going ahead according to plan -- while the environmental assessment is being revised. The activists have concluded that the "new and improved" environmental assessment is nothing more than a public relations exercise.
"Neither Mozambique nor Danida officials have accepted our proposal to hold a true public hearing on the issue to explore all of the risks and available alternatives," says Anabela Lemos of Livaningo. "Yet such a hearing is a prerequisite to any environmental impact assessment process."
In early October, Aurelio Gomes of Livaningo and Bobby Peek travelled to Copenhagen to address the Danish Parliament's Environment Committee. The Parliament was sympathetic but has refused to halt the project. In fact, the Finance Committee allocated more money for the project after more obsolete pesticides were discovered in Mozambique.
Incineration of hazardous wastes in cement kilns produces the most toxic persistent organic pollutants (POPs) known. These compounds, known as dioxins and furans, are inevitable byproducts of hazardous waste incineration. Together with heavy metals, these contaminants find their way into both the cement produced and into cement kiln dusts emitted into the air. Scientists estimate that cement kilns burning hazardous wastes are responsible for 23 percent of the world's newly created dioxin. Dioxin and furans top the list of 12 substances that are targeted for international phase-out in the current negotiations for a new global POPs treaty under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program.
"Considering that Denmark is one of the countries that have taken the lead on this vital treaty, it makes little sense for Denmark to advocate for an elimination of POPs globally while promoting new sources of the worst of them in Mozambique," says Jacob Hartmann of Greenpeace Denmark. "Incinerators are not a solution for hazardous waste -- they are part of the problem."
But for Danish Minister for Development Cooperation Poul Nielson, incinerators are the only solution. In a July 10, 1998 letter to the international environmental coalition opposing the Danida project, Minister Nielson justified the cement kiln burner and hazardous waste station as a form of "capacity building," to "serve" Mozambique's waste management problems long after the obsolete pesticides are burned. While clean technologies that reduce or eliminate hazardous waste production are desirable for Mozambique, he wrote, it would "be blindly ignoring realities, if one was to assume that the process of economic activities and development in Mozambique would not result in any hazardous waste problems at all." Nielson argued that a cement kiln incinerator is a good fit for Mozambique because it "is flexible in use. When there is no waste to be incinerated, the factory can and will continue its primary objective, namely to produce cement."
Livaningo, in association with its international environmental partners, rejects this perspective outright. "We do not believe that the hidden agenda of establishing a permanent hazardous waste
Danida Incinerator Debacle I
The Mozambique incinerator is not Danida's first time wading into the controversial business of exporting incinerators to the Third World.
In a neighborhood in north New Delhi, India, stands a quiet rusting hulk of piping, conduit and conveyors. The one-time incinerator was closed withing a week, after its completion in 1986 at a cost of more than $10 million. Danida, which promoted the Danish-engineered incinerator and provided the soft loan to fund it, failed to realize why incinerators were bound to fail in India. With a low consumption society and a very high rate of scavenging and recycling, what garbage is left in India is too wet to burn.
After the India and Mozambique debacles, environmentalists hope Danida will cease pushing incinerators.
handling station and a permanent incinerator is in the best interests of Mozambique," the groups wrote in a December 1998 letter, "and we cannot consider this to be a building of capacity for environmentally sound management of hazardous waste."
"It will always be more appropriate," they explained, "to first apply clean production methods to reduce and prevent hazardous waste generation rather than establish Ôcapacity' for something (hazardous wastes) that societies everywhere are realizing they can do without."
Danida admits that it has not conducted a full audit of hazardous waste generation in Mozambique, nor an assessment of which toxic wastes might be prevented through clean production methods.
Moreover, commercially available non-combustion solutions do now exist for historically produced hazardous wastes (e.g. obsolete pesticides). These technologies detoxify hazardous wastes without producing and spreading more into the atmosphere or cement products. When the environmental coalition provided the names of such enterprises and technologies to Minister Nielson, he replied that while these solutions might be interesting for future projects, they were not to be considered in Mozambique. Environmentalist critics of the incinerator scheme wonder aloud whether the Danida rush to judgment may be explained by the fact that the clear alternatives -- involving the export of the pesticides to existent disposal facilities or to non-combustion facilities -- are scenarios that will not benefit the Danish private sector providing the incineration consultancies and engineering.
Promoting Waste Trafficking
Danida's insistence on proceeding with the Mozambique incinerator raises serious concerns that Mozambique will become a magnet for hazardous waste schemes throughout the industrialized world. Indeed, according to a Nordic European journal on development, Development Today, one Danida official confessed that importation was part of the original intent of the project.
The Lome IV Convention of 1989 bars African countries from accepting hazardous waste imports, but letters signed by Mozambique's current environment and finance ministers, and recently uncovered by Greenpeace, show that Mozambique illegally authorized the import of hazardous wastes. While these agreements were renounced after they were publicly revealed, to date neither the officials of Denmark nor Mozambique can state whether or not foreign hazardous wastes have already been imported into Mozambique.
"These letters are extremely alarming. We don't know whether wastes have already been imported and are now stored somewhere in the country. We don't know whether hazardous wastes are now mixed with the pesticides scheduled for burning, and we don't know whether this frightening waste trade deal has ever really been halted," says Greenpeace Toxic Trade Researcher Roberto Ferrigno.
In recent months, Denmark has sought and received assurances from Mozambique officials that the cement kiln would not burn imported hazardous wastes, but the value of these promises is open to question given that Mozambique violated the law in the recent past.
At stake in whether Mozambique becomes a hazardous waste dumping ground is the integrity of the Basel Convention, which in 1995 -- with leadership from Denmark's environment ministry -- passed an amendment banning the export of hazardous wastes from rich to poorer countries. This historic global waste trade ban has yet to gain the necessary ratifications to enter into force, but Mozambique waste trade authorizations pose a serious threat to that process and could render the landmark Basel Ban a paper tiger.
Hoping For Change
Livaningo and its international allies remain hopeful, if not optimistic, that Danida will reverse its course. In every communication, they note Denmark's leadership role in promoting sustainable development, and they congratulate Danida for exercising leadership in the clean up of the obsolete pesticides in Mozambique -- a very serious problem.
But the level of trust for Danida is low. To regain the high ground, Livaningo says, Denmark must put the plan on hold. It must begin by holding an inclusive, transparent public forum, the group says, giving a real assessment of all of the risks and possible alternatives. And it calls on Denmark to renounce projects, anywhere in the world, which promote new POPs sources, and to instead promote the new wave of non-combustion hazardous waste destruction methods as the means to destroy POPs stockpiles.
"We have nothing against Denmark, and hope they have nothing against us," says Aurelio Gomes of Livaningo. "We just want them to understand that here in Mozambique, while we may not be wealthy, we will never compromise our health -- that is all some of us have."
Jim Puckett for many years coordinated Greenpeace International's anti-toxics campaigns. He currently is director of the Seattle-based Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange (APEX), and coordinator for the Basel Action Network (BAN), a global alliance of activists working against the trade in toxics.