Environmental Racism: Our Impact Overseas

Environmental racism is a big problem in the US, but it happens on an international scale as well. These are situations in which wealthy nations externalize their burden of pollution to poorer nations, without regard for the health of the people living there. The populations of these poor nations are uniformally majority non-white. These nations are usually former colonies or territories of powerful European nations, and colonialism has left them economically vulnerable.

Somalia: Toxic Waste, Fishermen, and Pirates

In the 2000s, the western world was inundated with the news of pirate activity in Somali waters. The pirates used speed boats to take larger international ships hostage, demanding large ransoms.

But what didn’t get talked about on the news was how this piracy started.

The Somali government collapsed in 1991, leading to years of chaos as multiple factions vied to take power. With no government to police Somalia’s waters, western nations dumped toxic and nuclear waste, and fished there illegally, leaving with holds full of tuna for sale to western nations.

According to Ahmedou Ould-Sbdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, there was nuclear material left there by western powers, along with waste containing other toxic materials, like lead, cadmium, and mercury.

In the wake of this dumping, coastal populations in Somalia began to get sick. People would get rashes, unexplained nausea, and children were born with severe birth defects.

Somalia depended on fishing as a way of life. With fish stocks dwindling due to both the poisoning of the waters and illegal fishing, they took to the sea in an attempt to protect their sea. In fact, early Somali “pirates” actually referred to themselves as the “Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia,” and they took to the water to dissuade these illegal acts, or at least extract a “tax” from the criminals involved.

Some western nations even “paid” for the right to dump by bringing guns to warring factions in Somalia, intensifying and protracting the Somali civil war.

Somalia is a former colony of Italy.

Nigeria: A River of Oil

A man stands in a landscape devastated by oil spills, his hand outstretched to show the damage.

Image from Amnesty International.

When asked to think about the most polluted places on earth, you might think about the exclusion zone around the old Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine. You might not think about the Niger Delta.

Oil extraction operations headed by Shell Oil, an Anglo-Dutch company, and Eni, an Italian gas and oil company, have left the delta poisoned with oil spills. The companies claim that the oil spills are due to vandalism and theft, but analysis of the photos provided by the oil company seems to contradict these claims.

In Bayelsa, a state in the Niger Delta, three quarters of the estimated 2 million people depend on fishing or farming to support themselves. Oil extraction has poisoned the water and the land, contaminating crops and killing the fish that the locals need to survive. The air is polluted by gas plumes that burn off the unwanted natural gas that comes up with the oil. The air pollution causes acid rain.

Amnesty International estimates a total of 21 million liters of oil spilled at the delta, the equivalent of nine olympic swimming pools, between 2011 and 2017. Often, there are few to no efforts toward cleaning up spills.

The oil spills lead to decreased food security and increased child malnutrition. The average life expectancy has reduced, in some areas to as low as 45. There is an increased number of cancers and disease of the liver. Exposure to hydrocarbons poses risks to fetal development, and may significantly increase infant mortality rates long after the spill has occurred.

A group of farmers launched a legal case against Shell Nigeria in 2008, and a Dutch appeals court ruled just a week ago that the company will have to pay compensation to Nigerian farmers and install equipment that would prevent further spills.

This is a victory for those seeking justice, but the compensation only covers spills from 2004-2008, and the leaking of oil into the delta continues to this day. Even if the oil company improves maintenance and prevents leaks, the existing pollution will harm the land and human health for years to come.

Nigeria is a former British colony.

Ghana: Electronics From the West

An image of Agbogbloshie Dump in Ghana, Africa.

Electronics are a vital part of modern life in the west, from the smartphone to the laptop to the refrigerator. But few of us think about our broken or obsolete electronics apart from dropping them off at a recycling facility.

The EPA estimates that the US only recycles 12.5% of our electronics waste (or e-waste). The UK’s rate is higher, but still only around 38%. The United States is the world’s largest producer of e-waste (about 3.14 million tons in 2016 and climbing), and the UN estimates that in between 10% and 40% of that waste is exported illegally. Our recycling rates are so low because recycling electronic components is becoming more expensive and less profitable as our electronics change.

Electronics cannot be disposed of in the same way that normal garbage is. They contain toxic chemicals; lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic are just a few. These chemicals can poison the soil and water, and burning them releases pollutants into the air.

So where do our old electronics go?

What doesn’t get recycled is often shipped out to poorer, developing nations. 

One of the world’s largest destinations for electronic waste is the Agbogbloshie dump in Ghana. This is an open dump site, where thousands of workers pick through the garbage. They collect scrap metals from the garbage, including precious metals from electronics, and sell them in order to earn a living. On a good day, they can earn around $10 from this process. Insulated wires are burned to recover copper, and the air pollution is terrible, resulting in respiratory disease. The toxics from the waste enter the food chain as the chemicals seep into the ground and livestock graze in the dump. One free range chicken egg was found to have 220 times the European Food Safety limit of chlorinated dioxins, a chemical known to cause cancer and to damage the immune system.

Ghana is a former British colony, and didn’t attain independence until 1957.

What Can We Do?

The export of pollution from rich white nations to poor non-white nations is a huge problem, and it’s one that’s difficult to solve. There are some steps that we can take to help, though.

  • Throw Out Less - there’s a reason that reduce is the first word in “reduce, reuse, recycle.” It’s the most effective way to reduce waste. Don’t get a new phone every year just so you have the latest and greatest, and when you do upgrade your electronics, try to make sure that the old electronics go to an organization that will reuse or recycle them. Some phones can easily be refurbished if broken, and reused.
  • Support Organizations Pursuing International Environmental Justice - supporting organizations like Amnesty International, who helped seek justice on the behalf of residents of the Niger Delta, can help those impacted by this kind of pollution find justice. They are an organization that supports human rights and universal justice across the globe.
  • Encourage Companies to Build Recyclable Electronics - companies are responsible for the design of their products. Some electronics producers are trying to make their products more recyclable, taking into account the entire lifecycle of the product from cradle to grave. Use your dollar to encourage these efforts, and seek out greener alternatives to standard electronic devices.
  • Put Pressure on Companies That Pollute - Don’t do business with companies that engage in widespread pollution in other nations. Write to their parent companies and tell them why you won’t do business with them. Talk about these issues with friends and family; a lot of us aren’t aware of these problems.
  • Contact Your Legislators - companies that pollute overseas are externalizing their costs to poor, non-white nations. Ask your legislators what they’re doing to regulate this behavior. Ask why companies that engage in these practices are allowed to do business in the US. Ask them to ratify international treaties banning the export of these dangerous waste products. Your legislators care what you think.

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