BALI, Indonesia - Poor nations welcome hazardous waste from abroad, such as old computers, rusted ships and banned pesticides, in a shortsighted bid to lift themselves out of poverty, despite the dangers to human health and the environment, a U.N. rights official said Thursday.
Okechukwu Ibeanu, a special rapporteur of the Human Rights Council, also told delegates discussing a convention on moving hazardous waste that rich nations must do their part to help developing countries build greener industries and strengthen their underfunded waste management facilities.
"Many developing countries, despite sometimes knowing the dangers of the waste, continue to accept hazardous products and toxic waste due to poverty and the quest for development," Ibeanu said.
"Is it worth the short term monetary gain? Is it worth people falling sick ... precious water sources contaminated permanently?" he asked. "I believe that we need to think of a better solution to generate income and development."
Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was created in 1989 as a response to "toxic ships" attempting to offload their cargo in poor nations. With measures allowing countries to ban imports and requiring exporters to gain consent before sending toxic materials abroad, it was seen as the best hope to end the mountains of waste that were reaching poor countries.
But almost two decades later, critics including environmentalists and African nations contend the accord has failed to stem the flow of toxic waste and keep pace with a rapidly changing trade that is increasing global in nature. They contend that insufficient funds, widespread corruption and the absence of the United States as a participant have undermined the pact, leaving millions of poor people exposed to heavy metals, PCBs and other toxins.
"We are faced with the ugly truth that the Basel Convention has been unable to accomplish even the prerequisite steps of addressing the inequities and exploitation made possible by globalization," Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, told delegates. "We have not fulfilled our mandate to end the egregious immoral form of injustice visited upon developing countries from hazardous waste."
Delegates over the next two days are expected to put forth a number of proposals to strengthen the convention, including a long-standing call to ban the export of hazardous waste, as well as proposals to factor environmental recycling into the mix. Others want to boost funding to the convention's 14 regional centers that provide technical support and training to poor nations.
They also will discuss measures aimed at better regulating the recycling of contaminated old ships, mostly in South Asia, as well as industry-supported guidelines on recycling old phones and computers.
Achim Steiner, executive director for the U.N. Environment Program, acknowledged that the convention has lagged behind the rapidly changing nature of toxic waste. He said the biggest challenge was finding a way to manage waste from the world's growing middle class -- the estimated 20 million to 50 million tons of televisions, cell phones, computers and home appliances that are sent to poor nations for recycling.
He said the international community was making progress, noting his agency was drawing up a waste strategy and had recently launched a project to implement a hazardous waste management plan for Abidjan, where a toxic spill in 2006 killed 10 people and sickened tens of thousands.
He also said developed nations had started programs to buy back outdated equipment, and that pressure from Greenpeace and other environmental groups had prompted major electronics and phone companies to start designing more environmentally friendly products.
But many delegates from the developing world want the Basel Convention to go further, arguing the only way to end the trade in toxic waste is with an all-out export ban on such materials.
"The ban is very important because that is what will reassure us that people aren't coming to dump any of these things on our shores anymore," Nigeria's Environment Minister Halima Tayo Alao said. "These products are hazardous and the lives of our people are continuously being put on the line by dumping them on our shores."
An amendment calling for a ban was first proposed in 1995, but not enough of the convention's 170 member countries have ratified it. It has resulted in some regions, including the European Union, enforcing the ban while the rest of the developed world largely ignores it.
Opponents including the U.S. say a ban would be unfair to developing countries whose recycling and scrap industries are benefiting from the booming prices of metals. But supporters including the European Union say it would ensure exporters take responsibility for their own hazardous waste.
Delegates said the two camps were deadlocked and that a ban was unlikely to gain enough support at this meeting to go into force. As a result, Indonesia has floated a proposal that would ban waste exports except in the case where a country could verify that it was capable of conducting environmentally sound recycling.
© 2008 Associated Press