SRI LANKA and its battered citizens no doubt imagined that they had lived through the worst that life could dump on them – a bitter civil war, a tragic Tsunami and most recently an unexpected terrorist attack on churches and tourist hotels – then the most putrid consignments arrived on Sri Lanka’s shores.
A UK based-company dumped 27,685 tonnes of hazardous waste in a processing zone to the south of the country’s main international airport.
The towering columns of putrid effluence stuffed into cargo shipping containers have become a national embarrassment and have triggered deep resentment across the island.
At the centre of the row is more than a hundred shipping containers, which appear to contain human remains which were criminally disguised on export licenses as recyclable metals.
Ordinary Sri Lankans are now casually using the term “toxic colonialism” and the fingers of blame point in two different directions: firstly back to Britain, where the rogue consignment came from, and secondly to the Sri Lankan authorities, who seem to have been blasé about waste management.
Although this does not make pleasant reading it is important to understand what these rogue consignments contain: soiled mattresses stained in urine and blood, old medical waste including swabs, theatre gowns and stained bed sheets and, most repugnant of all, Britain has sent Sri Lanka, diseased tumours, cancerous growths and the human remains of either successful or possibly failed medical operations.
As the containers lie stinking in a Sri Lanka import zone, we can only speculate about the back narrative – that a company has realised it is cheaper to send hazardous waste abroad than dispose of it here; or that there is something seriously amiss in the way that health services dispose of their waste, or that in an increasingly profit-driven private health environment, too many corners have been cut to save cash.
The British consignments of cancerous waste are in clear breach of the so-called Basel Convention, or to give it its full title the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, which was agreed to prevent the transportation of hazardous waste from developed to less-developed nations.
The Sri Lankans have every right to reach for their Elvis Presley CDs and play Return to Sender.
Context has played a powerful role too. The discovery of Britain’s toxic waste comes in the aftermath of one of Sri Lanka’s most recent man-made disasters. The death of 32 people in the disaster at Meethotamulla in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city, came as a devastating comment on the unrestrained pace of the city’s urban development. This was a very global tragedy, one of growth outstripping infrastructure and of foreign capital triumphing over local needs.
There can be no death as suffocating, as sad and as darkly reflective of the era we live in than dying in a mass of festering garbage as it engulfs your home. To be choked to death by old plastic bags, snagged in baby nappies and rotten food waste is in a very real and horrific sense death by consumption. This was like Aberfan but with mountains of garbage rather than coal slides.
The waste trade is hardly new but statistics confirm that the waste generated in high-income countries is often exported to less developed countries for recycling. The comparatively high cost of processing waste and tightening environmental laws has made it tempting to simply dump the problem on others.
Nor is the “toxic colonialism” that connects Britain’s waste to Sri Lanka a unique story. The Philippines has started returning 69 shipping containers full of trash to Canada after a long-running row over waste exports that has not only strained diplomatic ties but has escalated into a full-blown international dispute, in part heightened by threats from Rodrigo Duterte, the Filipino president. Duterte has so far threatened to declare war on Canada, dump the trash in front of its embassy in Manila, or personally sail with the waste and dump it in Canadian waters.
THE horrific waste containers currently stuck in a Sri Lankan industrial zone have dominated the media there and opened up a major democratic debate about the country’s economy. This includes both its toxic colonial past with Britain and its current vulnerability as a nation seriously indebted to China and dependent for trade on the much-hyped new “silk road” to Europe.
Once a British colony known as Ceylon, the tangled modernity of the island positions it geographically between two of the greatest superpowers of the current era – India and China. Britain is the past and a decreasingly relevant part of Sri Lanka’s national story.
Ironically, the noise, blame and even self-recrimination in the Sri Lankan media contrast with near silence here in Britain.
The Daily Telegraph has been the only newspaper that has devoted serious coverage to the story. Blindsided by Brexit and by the Conservative canonisation of Boris Johnson, the vast majority of media outlets have been distracted elsewhere. We can only hope that out there a serious investigative journalist with a passion for stories about the environment and globalisation is beginning to unravel the story back to its origins.
Unless there is a criminal gang performing crude cancer operations in a lock-up garage in Peckham then logic would point to the already compromised and commercially sensitive health trusts in the south.
There may be a surprise in there yet, but I would take a calculated guess that the story of toxic colonial waste is not good news for those politicians that put their ideological faith in private medicine and the vicissitudes of the free market.
Although it is entirely coincidental, the story of Sri Lanka’s toxic waste came in the week that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was planning the TED Talk she delivered at the Edinburgh International Convention Centre.
The crux of Sturgeon’s short talk was the increasingly fashionable opinion that we should move away from the established metrics and conventions of growth – especially Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and embrace measurements that factor in well-being and sustainability.
She explained to the TED community the far-reaching implications of a “well-being economy,” which places factors such as equal pay, childcare, mental health and access to green space at its heart, and shows how this new focus could help build resolve to confront global challenges.
It is fairly clear that taking responsibility for your own cancerous tumours would fall into that vision.
The Sri Lankan waste crisis plays directly to Nicola Sturgeon’s argument. The trade in exporting repellent hazardous and plastic waste is the inevitable sad song of the era of turbo-charged GDP growth, in which develop economies look for the least expensive ways to dump the residues of growth on others.
In a blistering editorial in Sri Lanka’s Daily News, British attitudes to the traffic of waste were savaged.
“The appalling double standards of the most affluent Western nations in dumping their garbage on unsuspecting third-world countries in a cold, heartless and immoral manner, while preaching everybody about human rights, democracy, equality and moral high standards is indeed shocking,” the paper asserted.
There remains in Sri Lanka a deep resentment about being talked down to by its former colonial rulers and righteous anger against anyone from the British political system that tries to tell them how to run their lives.
We are best advised to learn a lesson this time – Sri Lanka is not a dumping ground nor is it a colony of Britain’s toxic problems.