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Greener borders

By Darryl D'Monte

The world is only just beginning to focus on environmental threats posed by legal and illegal trade, with hazardous substances crossing borders and putting human health and the environment at serious risk

One is aware of threats to the environment and human health from water, the air, and land degradation. But not from trade (illegal and legal) through international borders. At most, countries sit up and take notice when there are fears of a pandemic, like the current H1N1 virus, commonly but misleadingly known as ‘swine flu’.

With an increasingly globalised world, where goods are being transported by sea and air in ever-increasing numbers, the dangers of permitting hazardous substances to cross frontiers are also rapidly escalating.

Last month, the World Customs Organisation -- a relatively unknown inter-governmental body seeking to harmonise rules and regulations across countries -- launched the Protect the Environment global campaign and organised a five-day Green Customs workshop at the National Academy of Customs, Excise and Narcotics (NACEN) at its sprawling campus in Faridabad.

There are no fewer than 70,000 customs officials in this country who man the land, air and ports. They are being instructed on how to deal with what is sometimes referred to as “environmental crime”. However, there is no international definition of what constitutes such a crime. For instance, shipments of hazardous waste could prove to be a threat to the receiving country even as they rid the exporting country of a nuisance. Customs officials refer to “environmental offences”, in the absence of rigid distinctions in international law.

If one had to single out a major instance of such a crime in recent years, it would have to be the dumping of hazardous waste by the ship Probo Koala in residential areas of Abidjan, the capital of Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa, in 2006. As many as 17 people died, several thousands were hospitalised and around 40,000 still suffer the after-effects of the poisoning. The liquid sludge contained large quantities of hydrocarbons, contaminated with at least three substances: hydrogen sulphide, mercaptans and caustic soda, according to the Centre for Anti-Pollution Control in Cote d’Ivoire.

Two types of international legal frameworks were involved: the MARPOL legislation (the domain of the UN International Maritime Organisation) regulating waste from onboard operations on ships, and the Basel Convention together with the Basel Ban (under the UN Environment Programme, or UNEP) that regulates the generation, trade and disposal of hazardous waste. Under the Basel Ban, implemented into legally-binding EU law, exports of hazardous waste from the EU to non-OECD countries are prohibited. Under the Basel Convention and its ban, responsibility for the dumping of waste in Abidjan should be fixed on the generator of the hazardous waste, the exporter of the waste (a charterer which was a subsidiary of a Dutch company) or the country of export.

One gets a glimpse of the complexities surrounding these laws where customs officials -- among pollution control authorities and others -- have to tread carefully without being too well informed about the legalities, let alone the difficulties of identifying which chemicals are dangerous and which are not.

If one were to employ yet another category of “environmental smuggling”, which is even more imprecise, experts put the annual turnover at a whopping $20-30 billion a year. ‘Hazwaste’, as it is commonly called, constitutes the biggest component, estimated at $10-12 billion a year. Of late, this would include shipbreaking and salvaging scrap, such as happens in Alang on the Gujarat coast and even with smaller vessels in Sewri, in Mumbai. It is something of an anomaly that shipbreaking isn’t covered by the Basel Convention but by maritime laws that aren’t as stringent.

Electronic or e-waste has been piling up rapidly in recent years due to increasing use of PCs throughout the world. Indian documentary filmmakers have captured how PCs, which are a nuisance to get rid of in the West, are regularly shipped to India and other developing countries. In lanes in old Delhi there is a booming industry in recovering metals from PC components -- wires are often burnt to salvage the copper, exposing the worker to toxic fumes.

Experts refer to the “linguistic corruption” employed by exporters of e-waste in evading the law by categorising old PCs as “secondhand” rather than obsolete, thereby taking advantage of gullible countries and customs officials. A new source of e-waste is old, discarded mobile phones. Since there are no international norms to determine whether devices bought three or five years previously should be regarded as “old”, as against “secondhand”, there is considerable scope for ambiguity.

To complicate matters, as has happened in previous instances of ships carrying hazwaste to impoverished African countries, the disposal of chemical waste or city garbage can form a significant proportion of the country’s GDP. And if the country in question has no objection, should international laws come into play at all? The touchstone, in all such cases, is simply this: is there any adverse health impact on humans, either in disposing of the waste or from the dump? Laws would be easier implemented if viewed this way, rather than becoming involved in tortuous definitions of what constitutes a “legitimate recycling industry”.

For reasons best known to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, radioactive waste has been exempted from the Basel Convention, providing a loophole for unscrupulous exporters. Again, if the receiving country’s laws permit the disposal of such waste, it becomes difficult for any international intervention to implement laws to the contrary. The complexity of this trade is apparent in the fact that secondary products like recycled steel imported into Germany and Sweden have been found to contain traces of radioactivity.

Under the Basel Convention, however, the secretariat can inform all countries about shipments of hazwaste so that it can at least alert everyone concerned about the potential dangers of accepting and handling such waste. But the secretariat has rules governing private and naval ships, not those belonging to the government. One has only to remember the fate of several Soviet nuclear submarines that were dumped in the oceans and lakes by former Soviet bloc countries after the break-up of the Union simply because they couldn’t maintain them any longer.

While there have been numerous cases of hazwaste being shipped from industrial to poor countries like Cote d’Ivoire, the opposite too occasionally happens. The tiny, congested but affluent territory of Hong Kong is known to send some of its waste to Australia, where it is disposed of in accordance with the strictest and most efficient regulations. Asbestos, widely used in insulation and housing in developing countries, poses its own problems since some varieties are more harmful than others.

The international recycling industry obviously opposes all forms of regulation, either in countries of origin, at destinations, or at borders. Some countries are more alert than others when it comes to customs officials who have to decipher whether cargo is illegal or hazardous. For example, in 2008, Hong Kong intercepted as many as 200 illegal shipments and re-exported them to the countries they were sent from. This requires considerable coordination between shippers, customs agents and inspectors.

A second item in such smuggling is what the Montreal Protocol calls “ozone-depleting substances”, or ODS in environmental parlance. Thanks to the gradual phasing out by the UNEP of these substances, smuggling of the main such chemical, chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, whose manufacture and use are banned in rich countries, has dropped from around $200 million in the mid-’90s (12% of global production at the time) to between $25 and $60 million (a tenth to fifth of legitimate production).

Experts from the UNEP ozone secretariat in Paris recall how it was the picture of the atmosphere with a large hole in it, in a London newspaper, some years ago, that triggered the move to ban these global warming chemicals that have a wide range of applications in refrigeration, as aerosol propellants, cleaning solvents and the like. It is the only environmental treaty which addresses both production and consumption. Ever since the Protocol was signed in 1987, industrial countries have contributed $2.5 billion, out of which some 140 countries have received financial and technical assistance to switch to non-CFCs.

By January 1, 2010, the production and export of all CFCs, halons (used in fire extinguishers), methyl bromide (agricultural fumigants) and carbon tetrachloride (solvents) in all countries have to stop. This virtually spells the end of CFCs, which would have been the Number 1 greenhouse gas -- ahead of carbon dioxide -- had the Montreal Protocol not come into effect. It will be relatively easier for customs officials to intercept any of these chemicals after next year because there will no longer be any exemptions for developing countries.

But it is by no means the end of the story so far as other ODS are concerned. Ever since CFCs have been on the way out, countries have switched to hydro-chlorofluorocarbons or HCFCs as a transitional substance whose OD potential is lower, hence also their capacity to add to global warming. Their very success, however, has proved the undoing of the phase-out of the original culprit, CFCs. In 2006, only 34,400 tonnes of HCFCs were consumed globally, three-quarters of it for air-conditioning and refrigeration in the Asia-Pacific region. Now the figure has shot up to 500,000 tonnes -- 10 times more -- which has by and large nullified the benefits of trying to remove CFCs from the atmosphere.

The Montreal Protocol secretariat has decided that developing countries will have to freeze deadlines for the phase-out of production and consumption of HCFCs by 2013, reduce these chemicals by one-tenth by 2015, 35% by 2020, and by two-thirds by 2025, culminating in a total phase-out by 2030. Obviously, the customs has its work cut out for it.

In India, smugglers use the porous borders with Nepal and Bangladesh to bring in CFCs. While the international price is $1.5 a kilo, it is $7-8 in India. Illegal imports have hit domestic manufacturers. And, to add insult to injury, the penalties for environmental crime are negligible under the Customs Act.

Since CFCs destroy the earth’s protective ozone layer, the World Customs Organisation launched Project Sky-hole Patching in the Asia-Pacific region. The project completed its 14-month stint in November 2007 but continues to function as a reporting and monitoring mechanism for seizures of illegal consignments of ODS. Since that date, as much as 2.7 million kilos have been seized in 126 cases around the world. Such “green surveillance”, in contrast to the sporadic and uncoordinated seizures of the past, will help keep these toxic substances from crossing borders.

Another international treaty that governs the trade in hazardous chemicals is the Rotterdam Convention, which requires the prior informed consent of importing parties for receipt of such consignments.

There are an estimated 1-2 million chemical preparations that are on sale in the world today. After the automotive sector, chemicals account for most of the world’s manufacturing, with annual sales of $1.6 trillion and international trade amounting to $480 billion a year. As things are, there is poor reporting and monitoring making it difficult to estimate what part of the international trade in chemicals is hazardous to humans and the environment.

The Rotterdam Convention was initially inspired by a North-South dilemma about which wealthier countries with bans on certain life-threatening chemicals continued to sell them abroad. In recent years, according to the UNEP, South-South trade has increased between newly emerging economies like India and Brazil and poorer countries. “In both instances,” says the UNEP, “less advantaged importing countries often lack the means to manage hazardous chemicals throughout their lifecycle, from importation, through use and safe disposal.”

Among the categories that the Convention covers are industrial chemicals, pesticides and severely hazardous pesticide formulations. Included in the 28 pesticides are 2,4,5-T, DDT and parathion, which are widely used in India. Continued use of DDT is permitted for “disease vector control” as a pesticide until “safe, affordable and effective alternatives are in place”. The industrial chemicals include five forms of asbestos and the highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which harm the human reproductive system. It could well be that human fertility is being severely impaired due to the presence of these chemicals in the environment.

Similarly, the Stockholm Convention covers persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. These remain intact in the environment for long periods, become widely distributed geographically and accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans and wildlife. Prolonged exposure to them leads to cancers, birth defects, greater susceptibility to disease and even diminished intelligence. As the ‘Green Customs Guide on Multilateral Agreements’, published by the UNEP, observes: “Given their long-range transport, no one government acting alone can protect its citizens or its environment from POPs.”

Chemicals are by no means the only substances that cross borders and pose a threat to the environment. There are rare plants and animals, covered by the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety under the Convention on Biological Diversity. India has seen more than its fair share of such smuggling, ranging from tiger parts to rare orchids and butterflies from the northeast.

The UNEP launched the Green Customs Initiative as customs is the frontline of every country’s defence against trans-boundary illegal trade -- the first link in the “compliance and enforcement chain” -- and plays an important role in facilitating legal trade. With international trade growing, the threat to the environment through contraband of this nature can only increase. Eternal vigilance is the price of safety.

InfoChange News & Features, June 2009