South Americans Shut Door on Toxic Imports Facing a Growing Wave of Toxic Waste, Latin America Is the Latest Region to Abandon 'Development at All Costs' and Fight Back by Banning Toxic Waste Imports and Cleaning Up Pollution at Home

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WORLD Bank chief economist Lawrence Summers hit a raw nerve in Latin America last month when a memo he wrote on toxic waste disposal was leaked to The Economist magazine.

Focusing on the issue from a purely economic standpoint, the memo questioned whether the bank might do well to encourage waste transfer to less developed countries, where pollution and long-term threats to health have less priority than in developed countries.

The memo caused a furor in this region, which is just now beginning to address the problem of toxic waste, both locally produced and imported. Partly in response, a Brazilian official said his country will propose a ban on international toxic waste trade at the preparatory meeting being held this month in New York for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in June.

"Brazil has to adopt a new stance on the problem of dangerous waste," the official told the Brazilian business daily Gazeta Mercantil. "We have to work for the reduction of waste generation at the source." The existing international conventions do not afford enough protection, he added, exposing countries such as Brazil to smuggled toxic waste.

Many Latin American countries long subordinated environmental concerns to economic growth. Only in the last decade have water and air pollution become serious issues.

Until 1989, for example, the Brazilian government awarded operating licenses to new industries without ever asking what they planned to do with their waste. Toxic waste - dumped near industrial plants surrounded by poor neighborhoods or arriving at docks closed to public entry - was not on anyone's agenda.

Today, although many solutions are still too expensive to implement, things are beginning to change. "We have more political support from society than we had before. Politicians know we have this problem. It is an issue in the Chamber of Deputies; at the city council, it's bubbling," says Pedro Penteado de Castro Neto, the solid waste director at the Environmental Engineering Technology Company (Cetesb), a Sao Paulo state agency.

Last December, Argentina's National Congress passed a law regulating toxic waste management, transportation, and disposal, that also prohibited imports. But the law left a 90-day gap before its implementation, and, with stories of trash-laden ships making a beeline for Argentina and toxic matter lying in docked ships, local activists began collecting signatures on a petition asking for a ban on imports.

"This great mobilization of people ended well, because on Jan. 17, the president {Carlos Saul Menem} signed an emergency decree prohibiting the entry of dangerous waste, with an attached list of products that can be amended at any time," says Mario Epelman, toxic waste coordinator at the Buenos Aires office of Greenpeace. …