E-Waste

   

Our life becomes more electrified. It seems that every day a new product conquers the market to make our boring days more enjoyable, efficient and entertaining.
Since we need to stay in touch with our friends at every moment of the day we have a smartphone. Lets make it two because of the important work-life balance.
When we are home we play around with our Laptops, PCs, pads and most recently added: the smartwatch (Seriously?)
Since the drums of our washing machines are no longer made from metal but from plastic, since our fridges better be energy class level A+++ and not only A, since we upgrade our computer at least every 2 years due to lack of technical understanding or because we develop a PCB-envy when our friends have this shiny new upgraded computer which allows them to run this one game or program so smooth that we start drooling, we will buy and throw away.

If we are a ‘conscious consumer’ we resell our stuff locally and feel good about ourselves. In the end it will be waste. No matter how conscious we are, when it comes to modern technology, there is an end-consumer.

When this chain has reached its end, some longer and others shorter, the waste is being thrown away. If you are lucky, your local recycling facility will take care of it and will extract the valuable resources and treat the rest as what it is: toxic waste.

Most likely someone will look at it and decide if it can still be used or repaired before it is destroyed. If that is the case, the ‘do-gooder’ awakes.

Haven’t you heard about the ‘digital divide’/’digital gap’?

Don’t you know that kids of Ethiopian pastoralists can learn way better if given a free ipad?

We need to give access to computers to everyone everywhere!

One laptop per child and everything will be fine!

Think about the sales! I mean kids!

When the idea of the digital divide came up in the 1990s as a consequence of the lack of African countries to access the global trade in information technology and the acknowledgement that without IT the African continent will be even further behind the global ‘development’ massive amounts of funds and policy makers attention went to the topic.

Today we find widely discussed programs as the OLPC (one laptop per child) initiative that started in India but is spread all over the less saturated do-gooder markets of our world.

Don’t get me wrong. Decent living conditions are an intrinsic part of my understanding of being human.

But is it necessary that everybody has a computer, TV and smartphone with internet access and high resolution display?

The fact that there is not only a global digital divide but also an national and regional, or lets say a huge divide between the income classes of a society makes it harder to tackle the problem.

Being around the more ‘global’ spots in Ghana I see people using two smartphones and an iPad nearly on a daily basis. Your phone got stolen last week? Look for it at Accra circle because it is most definitely in the hands of a guy selling it to finance his and his brother/cousin/friend’s life abroad.

The major problem is the starting position. On the one hand there is a huge lack of money to acquire products that are durable and possible to repair, on the other hand there is a huge desire to upgrade ones life. It takes modern IT technology to be part of a generation where friends are only two clicks away and drinks are always ice-cold.

If I can afford it to install an A/C in my 2 square meter shoe shop with no one inside I will do it. Why? Because I can.

The excessive use of anything that somehow seems to be modern or technological leads to the total overwhelming of a already rundown waste and sewage system.

The demand for fridges is high and the money is small. So the result is a vibrant trade in electronic goods.

Even though there is ‘a strong policy network to ensure the monitoring of the trade and reduce negative effects on the population of partner countries’, traders in countries like Germany, UK, USA, Korea, Netherlands, France and Japan find loopholes in the said policy network and declare the electronics as ‘second-hand’.

Through the growing turnover of the industry the recycling of electronics became fraudulent and lots of companies are involved in dumping and selling of used electronics.

The term waste is in my opinion misleading because it implies that it is actually worthless. It is not. And so we find all over the world waste economies specializing on the leftover of our fancy lifestyle.

One of this places is the neighborhood of Agbogbloshi in  Accra also sometimes referred to as ‘Sodom and Gomorrah due to high crime rates and prostitution. It got everything that you need: lots of internal displaced persons due to conflict in the north, swampland, neglected investment in health and other infrastructure as well as a lack of economic opportunities.

A vibrant trade has been established between the harbor town of Tema and the Agbobloshi community. An estimated amount of 122.000 tons of electronic devices is shipped into the community by big trucks. 75% of it doesn’t work any more and can’t be repaired. The remaining 91.500 tons are dismantled and separated by an uncountable number of informal workers who buy and sell small quantities of copper and aluminum to wholesalers.

Leftovers are dumped in the near lagoon.

   

The area is on the top 10 list of most toxic places in the world. Using Styrofoam and car tires to fuel the fires that burn away the coating of cables to give access to the copper inside. The released fumes are toxic and pollute the air, the land and the water of the near lagoon. High concentrations of cadmium, mercury, lead, arsenic, dioxin and brominated flame-retardants are found in all of the neighborhood. The toxins stay in food and water and are found on high concentrations of those who work the closest to the fires.

Small kids as young as 10 work on the site and try to make a living. Being able to burn your own cables is already an upgrade, since most kids just scrabble in the dirt to find the smallest pieces of metal. Mostly dragging an old stereo speaker with an attached cable in one hand and a bag in the other, it looks like they are walking their toy-dogs.
But what you see here are only the pets of poverty. Being a child in a poor community like Agbogbloshi is a costly thing and you will start working very early. The boy on the picture looks like nine years old. In fact he told me that he was twelve. His voice was so hoarse that I had difficulties to understand him as well as difficulties to breath.
The fumes released contain high amounts of the named chemicals and affect the development of the nervous system as well as organs like lungs and brain. Direct links between mercury and BFR and cancer can be found in medical literature and it is obvious that the people are not in a healthy state. The average life expectancy of a Ghanaian is 63 years and there are plenty of 80 year old.

As always everybody is friendly and nice and no one harasses me.

Seeing this site and its social and economic dynamics makes you think about the complexity of issues of international development policies.

Sitting on the skeleton of an old PC monitor I look from a distance over the field where single columns of smoke are swirling into town.

There are development plans for the area to upgrade the community and end the toxic trade. The import of used fridges is banned at the moment with police squats in the harbor waiting for those who still import them to pick up their freight and arrest them.

The argument is, that fridges are using up to 40% of the Ghanaian electricity and due to the low energy-efficiency of the old devices they got banned.

The only thing that is going to happen is that the trade with repaired fridges will boom as usually and the average citizen will not be able to afford a new one.

The trade with new devices is in the hand of few and the quality of the products from Asia is very cheap since the Ghana Standards Authority actually has no standards.

Meanwhile in Agbogbloshi Nigerian intermediaries are trading with Chinese wholesaler in the market of electronic capitals such as Guangzhou over the copper extracted from the small boys on the dump site.
Shipped to China it is molten down and new cables are made for new fridges.

Features are added and a new generation of fridges, smartphones, TVs and washing machines with touchscreens and sensors for the freshness of groceries, fish and meat is waiting to be used, neglected, replaced and recycled.

It truly is a globalized world.

Bittersweet Chocolate

Everybody knows it.
Cocoa is a dirty business.

But the creamy sweetness that runs through your mouth is so tempting.
The tickling at the side of the back of your tongue makes you forget the bitterness.
It blinds out the origin of a global product that we enjoy so much.

The fact that most of the cocoa farmers have no idea how chocolate tastes like shows how perverted the market processes are that influence the cocoa trade.

Its a highly volatile market with a commodity that is traded at the biggest stock exchanges in Chicago and London, but produced by poor farmers in the rain forests of the West African region who have no say in the trade with the big market players.

The cocoa market is divided between 5 or 6 big raw cocoa buying companies and the big multinationals like Nestlé, Mars, Unilever, Danone, Cargill, Hersheys or Cadburry who buy the processed cocoa from said raw buyers and produce what somehow became an ideogram for a merry Christmas.

The global production of cocoa is 4.100.000 t. (or 9038953480 lb for my american readers.) More than 2.000.000 t are produced in and around Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire making it a key area of attention for market player and their strategic, long-term investments into a growing market. Nevertheless the countries face difficulties that seem sometimes too big to solve.

Widespread corruption in the trade created an unequal system of beneficiaries, reaching from the harbor authorities over the policemen at the toll stations all the way to the agric traders for fertilizers and other goods that are used to boost the yield and reduce the workload. If you are not part of the circle of favorites you might not have access to fertilizers or be able to hire labor, making it impossible to grow enough cocoa to survive the year.

The Ghana Cocoa Board, which buys all the cocoa in Ghana and sells it to the world market in exchange for hybrid seeds and investment in infrastructure, is a state owned institution in the business of the cocoa trade. Long before the independence the board was involved in controlling the market and (self-proclaimed) protect the farmers from price fluctuation on the market.

Like all institutions the board has its problems with widespread corruption and malpractice. Most common are the simple neglect of rural communities when it comes to the accessibility of markets or storage facilities as well as the provision with pesticides or other chemical substitutes. In addition the cocoa farmers face huge difficulties with the fact that the imported chemicals are controlled by the Ghana Standards Authority which is not really known for its excellence and customer service.
Every now and then hazardous chemicals are found on the farms and together with the lack of education and training farm workers health is affected. Since spraying trees is not difficult, the main group of workers to do this task are children. Which leads to the next problem that is child labor, modern slavery and unsustainability of the cocoa business.

According to UNICEF there are 1.8 million children working on cocoa farms in Western Africa. Most of them are direct relatives of the farmers and are supposed to help decrease the formal labor costs.
In Cote d’Ivoire, where most of the cocoa is grown on commercial scale big farms child labor is widespread and it is connected to a perfidious system of poverty, dependency and slavery.
Begging kids are being abducted in the streets of Burkina Faso and Mali and sold to farmers in the south. Sometimes bought from the desperate families for a handful of dollars hoping that they will send home money as soon as they start working in the city, which was promised to them.
Professional child trafficking gangs sell kids for as little as 150 $ into life circumstances that are not any different than the times of slavery in the 17th and 19th century.
It is extremely hard and dangerous work that is done by this kids. 
Mostly they are used to climb the trees and cut the ripe cocoa fruit. Kids use machetes to cut and later open the fruits to access the kernels. A lack of power, coordination and nutrition based fatigue leads to common injuries of hands and lower arms as well as legs. 
As for the rest, there is tropical climate and dirt as well as a lack of access to basic medical treatment, especially if you can get a new kid for just 150 $.
Blaming the farmer is not the right approach. According to the UNCTAD, more than 95% of all cocoa farmers live under the poverty line of 1.25$/day. Buying kids and cheap labor is a necessity for them to survive in the only business they know.

There are world wide schemes to fight child labor. Long names such as the ILO’s Convention concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, one of the basic pillars of ILO’s policies that was ratified in 1999 has still to show substantial effect on the cocoa trade.

In the USA, the biggest market for chocolate worldwide, an introduction to a legislative amendment to end child slavery in cocoa business by issuing a ‘slave free chocolate’ label was first approved by the house of representatives but later crippled by lobbyists and changed into and agreement on voluntary basis that would allow the industry to react more flexible to the cause. The Harkin-Engel Protocol was set up to access data on child labor in the cocoa trade by the industry itself.
Deadlines for data collection in 2005 and 2008 were not met mostly because of a lack of independent verification of the data acquired. There is absolutely no legal binding measures and accountability due to involved institutions that are basically a mere joke in their inner structure and commitment.

The boy you see on the picture above worked in a cocoa storage facility in Hohoe when I visited the town in 2010. He was 17 and worker there for more than 3 years he told me. 

They would store about 150 tons of cocoa in that building and loading the trucks by hand as soon as they come to collect the bags.
66 kg or 130 lbs to be carried on the head. Over and over again until the 230 bags are on the truck which is a total of 15 tons. Moved by manual labor. By the hands of young men like him.

Now you might sit there and think: Thanks Julian! Now every time I eat some chocolate, not only do I feel the guilt because of my winterlovehandlesthatsoonwillbemynewyearsresolutions, but also I feel horrible because little kids starve, get beaten and cut themselves accidentally so I can have my chocolate for the cheapest prize possible.

And yes you are right. You should feel horrible.

There is no way to eat discounter-sold non-certified chocolate without eating the product of exploitation.

Look out for FAIRTRADE products. Ask your local store to stock up. If you can’t find any you can order online. If you can’t find any online which I doubt than you are too stupid to find it and you don’t deserve your chocolate.

I am not saying that fair trade labels are the ultimate solution to an intrinsic problem of market economy.

But if the problem itself is found in market economy, so is the solution.

Production methods are what you want them to be.

Merry Christmas from Ghana everybody.

 

Also: sign this petition and support them: http://makechocolatefair.org/