Ivory Coast Tragedy Exposes Toxic Flow to Poor Two months after hundreds of tons of toxic waste were dumped in and around the West African city of Abidjan, in Ivory Coast, the putrid stench and poisonous fumes have faded. But the international scandal has not.
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Ivory Coast Tragedy Exposes Toxic Flow to Poor

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Ivory Coast Tragedy Exposes Toxic Flow to Poor

Ivory Coast Tragedy Exposes Toxic Flow to Poor

Ivory Coast Tragedy Exposes Toxic Flow to Poor

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Salame Ouedraogo's face broke out in weeping, pus-filled blisters shortly after toxic waste was dumped near his home in Djibi village, on the northern outskirts of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in August. While some of the infant's blisters have healed, new ones keep erupting. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR hide caption

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Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

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Once a beacon of peace and prosperity in turbulent West Africa, today Ivory Coast is but a shadow of its former self.

 

The dumping of hazardous waste in Abidjan, with deadly results, is the latest tragedy to befall a city once known as the "Little Paris" of Africa, says Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who moved there in 1990.

 

It also highlights the vulnerable position that developing nations can find themselves in when dealing with the industrialized world. Some call this a new slave trade of sorts. Scroll down to read Quist-Arcton's reporter's notebook.

A worker for Tredi International, the French company hired to handle clean-up, seals a metal container recently filled with pitch-black toxic waste. The company has been processing the hazardous material in Abidjan since September. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR hide caption

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Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR

Holding her head in her hands, Madame Elizabeth Awo Djeketou remembers the day she and others woke up to the poisonous smell of the toxic waste. She says some people in her village have moved away because the stench is so pervasive. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR hide caption

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Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR

Two months after hundreds of tons of toxic waste were dumped in and around the West African city of Abidjan, in Ivory Coast, the putrid stench and poisonous fumes have faded. An international scandal has not.

To date, at least 10 people are dead, 70 hospitalized and tens of thousands have been made sick. The clean-up operation began last month and continues, in a toxic waste affair whose fallout brought down the government.

Just yards away from where a French environmental-waste disposal company is cleaning up Abidjan's main landfill, an elderly woman walks towards her home nearby. Elisabeth Awo Djeketou looks down at the dump site, where professional cleaners work in white protective jumpsuits, white gloves and masks. Djeketou was one of tens of thousands of Abidjan residents who woke up one August morning to a foul smell of petroleum mixed with garlic and rotten eggs.

"It was difficult to breathe, difficult to sleep, difficult to eat and to drink," Djeketou says through a translator. "You felt like vomiting the whole time, and it burned your nostrils. This nauseating stench seeped through the whole village. It was unbearable. So many people have moved away to get away from the smell."

A Tangled Web of Globalization

The poisonous stench came from a mix of petrochemical waste transported by a Panamanian-registered tanker chartered by the Dutch firm Trafigura. The pitch-black sludge found its way from Amsterdam — via Estonia and Nigeria — to Ivory Coast aboard the Korean-built and Greek-managed Probo Koala.

And it was later illegally dumped, in the dead of night, by a local company called Tommy at open-air sites all over Abidjan — right in the yards of Djeketou and other residents.

Trafigura said in a statement that tests performed on the waste in Holland proved it was not toxic. Yet almost a dozen people have died. Dozens more have been hospitalized, and more than 100,000 have sought medical treatment.

"We cannot state that there is strictly no link between the discharge and the health consequences," says Eric de Turkheim, an executive of the Dutch company. "Obviously, we do not know if there has been any attempt to use the product in any way, shape or form which could in any way have generated eventually some toxicity."

The toxic-waste scandal has rocked Ivory Coast. Within days of the illegal dumping, the nation's interim government resigned. Public anger boiled over. Mobs of youths attacked the home of the head of Abidjan Port and dragged the deposed transport minister from his car and beat him up.

A Too Common Toxic-Waste Scheme?

Executives of Trafigura and Tommy are currently in prison in Ivory Coast. Criminal investigations have begun in Ivory Coast and Europe.

Environmental activist Jim Puckett, of the Seattle-based toxic-trade watchdog Basel Action Network, says Africa is too often chosen as an easy target for dumping hazardous waste.

"Of course, there has to be a full investigation," Puckett says. "But from the normal way of looking at things, it very much appears that this is a typical waste-trade scheme, where a company wanted to save some money and decided to save it on the backs of Africa, hoping they could get away with it. And then the waste that was dumped was, in fact, a lot more noticeable and in fact killed people — and that's why they got caught."

Meanwhile, the clean-up continues. Henri Petitgand is the spokesman for Tredi International, the French company processing the waste in Ivory Coast.

"We've treated all sorts of toxic waste, what I'd call classic waste, over the years," Petitgand says. "But the toxic industrial waste that we've found here in Ivory Coast, I have to admit, this is a first.

"But wearing the right protective gear, we moved in as quickly as we could to start work and, most importantly, to protect all the communities affected by the waste dumping."

Lasting Toll in Villages

Skepticism abounds among the residents of Dgibi village, on the northern outskirts of Abidjan.

Today, children in Dgibi are again happily playing. But not so long ago, they were coughing and complaining of head, chest and stomach aches, itchy skin, stinging eyes and nose bleeds.

Adjiratou Ouedraogo, 19, showed us the face of her infant son, Salame, still covered in weeping blisters that erupted shortly after the stinking waste appeared in their neighborhood. There are more welts on his tiny body, she said.

Dgibi residents complain that the poisonous waste hasn't yet been cleared from their area. Speaking angrily, Alfred Gnanguy Adou, a subsistence farmer, asked what the government was planning to do about their problems.

"The authorities have banned any crop harvests within a 500-yard radius of any toxic waste," Adou says. "But they dumped the stuff right by my farm. And that's how I feed my family. What am I to do? Who's going to compensate me? This is a disgraceful and scandalous affair, and the government must get to the bottom of it."

Search for Justice

A group of concerned Ivorians has set up the Toxic Waste Victims' Association. They say the authorities in Ivory Coast and in Europe must establish how the illegal and highly noxious waste ended up in Abidjan, and they must ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.

"Officially, they say only 10 persons died from this toxic waste. But it's not true," says Maurice Dakouri, a leading member of the Toxic Waste Victims' Association. "What they can say about the 10 is those who died in hospital. What about those who didn't go to hospital and who died, too?"

Dakouri says the government has been minimizing the impact of the scandal.

Officials say the cleanup operation should finish this month. The waste will eventually be shipped back to Europe, but no specific destination has been agreed to.

The Lost Glory of Ivory Coast

I moved to Ivory Coast in 1990, at the dawn of the multiparty political era in a country considered the bastion of prosperity, peace and stability in a turbulent West Africa. There were wars raging across Ivory Coast's borders in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but somehow, the cocoa capital of the world managed to remain peaceful.

In those days, the commercial capital, Abidjan, where I lived, was pristine. With its sweeping boulevards and glistening lagoons winding their way across the city, Abidjan came to be known as the Manhattan of Africa, because of its high-rise panoramic views, or as Petit Paris — "Little Paris," because it projected a chic African image of Paris, the capital city of the former colonial master, France.

The founding president of independent Ivory Coast, the late Felix Houphouet-Boigny, always used to say "La paix n'est pas un mot, c'est un comportement," or "peace is not just a word, it's a way of life." It became his mantra: Peace at all costs.

Well, peace went out the window in Ivory Coast on Christmas Eve 1999. That was when, after almost four decades of peace and independence, the West African nation suffered its first military coup d'etat.

And it's been downhill since. From a coup to disputed elections in 2000, to a rebellion two years later, in a bitter mix of political rivalry and questioning who is really Ivorian — a massive identity crisis. Since 2002, a partitioned and divided Ivory Coast — once a shining example to the whole of the region — has become a shadow of its former smart, chic self.

From Belle to 'Poubelle'

Ivory Coast is on the skids. And nowhere more than in the once-sparkling city of Abidjan. It's looking shabby and down-at-the-heel, unloved and rather unkempt. Cleanliness is no longer a priority. Unlike many other African "capitals," Abidjan's road network used to be superb. Potholes were virtually unknown. Now there are gaping craters and potholes all over the city.

Once, it was unusual to see trash heaps or stinking garbage in public places. Not any more. Abidjan La Belle has become Abidjan La Poubelle — as Abidjanais (Abidjan residents) now call it. From Abidjan the beautiful, to Abidjan the Trash Can.

Garbage now litters many parts of the city, lying in smelly piles that can sit for weeks without collection. Ivorians hold their noses as they walk, drive and cycle by. They complain bitterly that their city isn't what it once was. Indeed.

But nothing prepared the people of Abidjan for the shock, one August morning, of finding that a new kind of waste had been dumped around the city: toxic waste.

A Pox Upon a City

Putrid, poisonous and pungent, the noxious cargo was transported aboard a vessel called the Probo Koala from Amsterdam, via Estonia, from where it sailed on to Nigeria and then to Ivory Coast. There, local drivers fanned out all over Abidjan, under the cover of darkness, in tankers leased by a local company, Tommy, contracted by a bigger Dutch company, Trafigura, wanting to get rid of its waste.

And much of it was dumped illegally in public places, right by subsistence farms, where Ivorians grow their own produce. In fact, 500 tons of stinking, pitch-black sludge was dumped right in their backyards.

Professionals in and outside Ivory Coast agree that there is no company in the country with the expertise or facilities to treat such hazardous material.

The Ivorian tragedy has been linked to at least 10 deaths. Dozens of people have been hospitalized and more than 100,000 sought medical treatment. The clean-up operation to clear the illegal dump sites began in September and continues.

It is pitiful to see babies and children who suffered from weeping ulcers on their skin, from lingering coughs, from aches of the stomach, chest and head — not to speak of the pervasive stench that continues to affront the nostrils when the wind changes direction, or when it rains in Abidjan.

Echoes of the Past

Ivory Coast's waste-dumping scandal harks back to another major international scandal 20 years ago. In 1987, drums of chemical waste were dumped on Coco Beach in Nigeria's oil-producing Delta region.

The Nigerian toxic-waste affair led to the creation of international legislation — the Basel Convention, to be precise — to help prevent defenseless nations, most in the developing world, from becoming the targets of ruthless hazardous-waste dumpers, with their cargoes of industrial and chemical materials.

Yet Ivory Coast is one of the African countries that has failed to ratify the key amendment to the Basel Convention in 1995. Ironic. It was amended to include a ban on toxic waste being shipped from the rich industrial world to countries just like Ivory Coast and others in Africa and Asia.

"It is truly disheartening to see that whatever defenses were put in place have completely failed in the Probo Koala case," says commentator Nicholas Kotch, a former Reuters bureau chief who reported on the Coco Beach dumping scandal in Nigeria in 1987.

"But shouldn't this be treated like a prima facie crime against humanity —with much more energy and condemnation from the West? This really is a new slave trade," he says.

Many Ivorians agree. They feel strongly that those who connived locally with the dumpers are just the modern versions of African chiefs who sold their people down the Suwannee to slavers, and that they should be treated as such.

Criminal investigations have begun in Ivory Coast and Europe, but will the culprits be punished? And will Abidjan be able earn back its reputation as one of Africa's cleanest and exemplary cities?