Academic journal article Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum

International Environmental Justice on Hold: Revisiting the Basel Ban from a Philippine Perspective

Academic journal article Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum

International Environmental Justice on Hold: Revisiting the Basel Ban from a Philippine Perspective

Article excerpt


The Basel Ban Amendment [the Basel Ban] has been hailed as a triumph of international environmental justice by some sectors and criticized by others as counterproductive to environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes. Its role in international law, particularly in the Basel convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal [Basel convention] has been both polarizing and empowering.

The Basel Ban has polarized developed countries such as the US and Japan from developing countries in their steadfast opposition to it. However, the Basel Ban has also greatly empowered developing countries in asserting their sovereignty against toxic waste dumping and has forced developed countries to re-evaluate their policies on toxic waste trade.

This section briefly looks into the principles that helped define the Basel Ban.

Toxic Waste Dumping and Environmental Justice

The 1970s and 1980s were a period that saw heightened public concern about hazardous waste in the United States (US) and in the world. (1) The heightened awareness resulted in increasing public resistance to the location of disposal sites for unwanted wastes, particularly those classified as hazardous, and the appreciable increase in disposal costs for these types of wastes. (2) The advent of global trade combined with these two factors helped push waste traders to seek cheap dumping sites around the world.

Toxic waste dumping from developed to poorer countries became a major concern, due in part to highly publicized dumping cases. The case of the Khian Sea, a barge transporting 14,000 tons of incinerator ash from Pennsylvania that was refused entry to New Jersey, was one of the leading cases in the 1980s. (3)

Another highly publicized case was the Koko Beach incident in 1987 wherein an Italian businessman, illegally exported 4,000 tonnes of chemical waste (including 150 tons of polychlorinated biphenyl) from Italy to Nigeria over an 18-month period resulting in the loss of lives and environmental damage in the area. (4)

The logic of the waste export paradigm that defined the period was given a voice by then World Bank Chief Economist Larry Summers, when he issued an internal memo to his colleagues, stating that "the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable...." (5) Mr. Summers defended his logic in the following manner:

1) The measurement of the costs of health impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages ... .

2) The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I've always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City ... .

3) The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have a very high-income elasticity. (6)

The undercurrent of Summers' logic is the recognition of inequalities in the world and to take full advantage of them. In the realm of toxic waste trade, there was and continues a clear divide between developed and poorer countries from environmental and labor standards to technical capacity and other social elements.

In the 1970's and the decades following, only a handful of industrialized or developed countries produce 95% of the world's toxic wastes. (7) Much of the toxic waste trade occurs among developed countries, where the waste originated. However, significant portion of the trade have found their way to developing countries. (8) Thus, the Khian Sea, Koko Beach, and similar toxic waste dumping cases echoed the inequalities faced by poorer countries and the growing threat of toxic waste in the global environment. …

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