Magazine article Geographical

Chilling Evidence: Each Year, the Hole in the Southern Hemisphere's Ozone Layer Grows, Threatening the Health -- and Ultimately the Lives -- of the Planet's Flora and Fauna. in Response to the Danger, the World's Authorities Introduced a Ban on Chloroflurocarbons, or CFCs --Industrial Ozone-Depleting Gasses. Far from Preventing Their Use, the Ban Sparked a Black-Market Trade in CFCs That Spans Continents. (CFC Smuggling)

Magazine article Geographical

Chilling Evidence: Each Year, the Hole in the Southern Hemisphere's Ozone Layer Grows, Threatening the Health -- and Ultimately the Lives -- of the Planet's Flora and Fauna. in Response to the Danger, the World's Authorities Introduced a Ban on Chloroflurocarbons, or CFCs --Industrial Ozone-Depleting Gasses. Far from Preventing Their Use, the Ban Sparked a Black-Market Trade in CFCs That Spans Continents. (CFC Smuggling)

Article excerpt

THE RICKSHAW RATTLED UNCHALLENGED across the Indian-Nepalese border. Soon after, its driver, Sonata Shahi, disembarked at the nearby bus depot in the Indian town of Jogbani and hid his contraband -- two battered metal cylinders. Inside were neither narcotics or arms, just industrial chemicals, but these chemicals --chloroflurocarbons, or CFCs, are rapidly destroying the planet's ozone layer. Sonata mounted his rickshaw and slipped back over the border to Nepal.

In total he and his colleagues made the cross-border trip 20 times that night on behalf of the area's principle CFC smuggler -- a water storage company. At dawn, the cylinders were loaded onto a bus bound for Patna. From there, the deadly cargo was disseminated across the sub-continent to be used in the cooling systems of refrigerators and cars.

Sonata is one of the latest recruits in a swiftly expanding black market in CFC chemicals that are ensuring the systematic destruction of the ozone layer -- the fragile strip of atmosphere that shields the Earth from the harmful radiation of the sun. The ozone layer's depletion has grave consequences. Hundreds of millions of people are now poised on the threshold of a skin cancer epidemic, and the world's ecosystems are undergoing profound damage. Little wonder environmentalists describe it as a "crime against humanity".

A series of enquiries made by Geographical, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) can reveal the illegal sale of chloroflurocarbons is -- despite international agreements -- growing. The investigations expose a catalogue of legislative blunders, government inaction and lax cross-border policing that is, literally, creating a climate where the Earth's atmosphere and the fragile life systems below are under threat.

Evidence reveals a sharp upsurge in the trade of ozone-destroying CFC chemicals in the developing world, despite international orders to freeze consumption. UNEP estimates that up to 30,000 tonnes of contraband CFCs could be secretly traded this year, fuelling a black market worth more that 500million [pounds sterling].

Further enquiries confirm that customs officers and border guards are not being trained to detect the tricks of these chemical bootleggers, exposing the fact that international environmental crime remains a low priority compared with cross-border trade in arms and drugs. Sophisticated fraudsters are effectively being given the green light, smuggling contraband CFCs across international borders with relative ease.

It is all a far cry from the backslapping following the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which banned the import of ozone-depleting chemicals in Europe and the USA from 1996 and ordered developing countries to freeze consumption three later.

Yet incredibility, the Protocol chose to ignore elemental economics: the moment a substance is outlawed, its price will spiral, creating a thriving black market. Just a decade later, CFCs were second only to cocaine as the most valuable contraband smuggled through the US port of Miami. And now the CFC smuggling network has moved to fresher pastures.

Springing up all over the developing world are fly-by-night CFC dealers who are able to obtain large amounts of outlawed chemicals on a `no-questions asked' basis. Experts warn that the problem will escalate once CFCs start to be phased out in the developing world in 2005, triggering another price hike for racketeers.

Cursory enquiries by Geographical suggest it is relatively simple to obtain CFCs from the developing world. One Southeast Asian company actively promotes itself on the Internet, offering a wide range of ozone-destroying chemicals for global export.

A spate of recent cases emphasise the problem, with seizures of illegal chemicals throughout India in places such as Varanasi and Jaipur, and police raids in Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta.

Suresh Wadhwa of Gujarat Fluorochemicals Ltd -- one of the sub-continent's leading CFC producers -- admits that during the last 18 months, 131 tonnes of ozone-depleting chemicals have been smuggled into India, using false documents to baffle customs officers not briefed on the trade. …

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