Jim Puckett is Coordinator of the Basel Action Network (BAN), an international
alliance of activists working to prevent the globalization of the toxics crisis worldwide.
Here, he argues that, far from being resolved, the toxic waste case in Sihanoukville
may only be the beginning of Cambodia's troubles.
The United States, the country that produces the most toxic waste in the world, has
nominated a new Treasurer - Mr. Lawrence Summers.
This is the man who will be in charge of the finances of the richest country in the
world. It will be his name that will be scrawled on all American bills. But Mr. Summers'
name will also forever be inextricably linked to some words he penned in 1991 which
sent shock waves around the world.
At that time, Mr. Summers, then Chief Economist of the World Bank, wrote in an internal
memo, "I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the
lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that."
While the world expressed its outrage at these words after they were leaked to the
global press, the real, lasting outrage is that these words are frighteningly true.
Hazardous waste if left to free market forces, will, inevitably flow on a path of
least resistance from rich, heavily industrialized countries to poorer countries.
Six months ago Cambodia was rudely introduced to the "impeccable logic"
of the international trade in hazardous waste with the dumping of 3,000 tonnes of
mercury contaminated industrial wastes by one of the world's largest chemical companies.
The dumping was far more than a mere insult to an already beleaguered nation. It
As a result of the chemical violence by the rich arrogant company from a far-away
land, Cambodian citizens became ill and died, Cambodian property was destroyed, others
died in the panic that ensued, soil was contaminated, businesses suffered, governments
and armies mobilized, many were arrested, and great monetary expense incurred for
the parties involved.
While the cause and effect relationship of the deaths and illnesses will likely remain
unproved, only a fool would claim that these events would have happened if Formosa
Plastics Group (FPG) had taken responsibility for their own wastes at home rather
than dump them on an unsuspecting nation.
Today, the toxic waste has been returned to Taiwan, persons have been arrested, and
all is normal again along the white beaches of Sihanoukville. Newspapers now report
on other troubles and life in Cambodia goes on.
But if Cambodians are at all numbed into forgetting the occurrence at Sihanoukville,
or are tempted to dismiss it as an anomalous, one-time event, they do so at their
After all, the economic logic is impeccable. And the toxic waste mountains around
the world are growing - particularly in Asia.
Indeed the repetition of this unwanted free trade in hazardous wastes to the shores
of Cambodia should be considered inevitable unless Cambodians take the necessary
steps to minimize the opportunities that might be available to unscrupulous waste
Cambodia has already taken one of these steps, but two steps are necessary:
First, Cambodia must ban the import of all hazardous wastes into the territory of
Cambodia. We understand that a solid waste sub-decree has just been signed that accomplishes
We applaud the passage of this sub-decree and hope that it provides for no exceptions
and has sufficient "teeth" in stiff penalties for those caught profiting
from the import of toxic wastes.
Second, Cambodia must now accede to the Basel Convention and ratify the Basel Ban
Ammendment to that Convention, which bans all exports of hazardous wastes from the
29 richest, most highly industrialized countries - the member states of the Organization
of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), to the rest of the world.
After all, the Basel Convention is the global response to Mr. Summers' "impeccable
logic." The Basel Convention applies legal constraints to contain the obvious
abuses inherent in a free trade in hazardous wastes.
Already the Basel Convention has over 120 members. Remaining non-member countries
like Cambodia are in the clear minority and will be seen as targets by waste traffickers.
The Basel Ban Amendment which dramatically strengthened the Basel Convention by placing
the burden for prevention on the countries which produce the vast majority of the
world's toxic waste, will go into the force of international law after it receives
the necessary 62 ratifications.
Cambodia's ratification will not only hasten this process but will send a signal
to the entire world that Cambodia is off-limits and is serious about cooperating
to end this global scourge.
The advantages of joining the Basel Convention and Ban are compelling and include:
* Once the Basel Ban Amendment enters into force, the OECD countries, which
produce an estimated 90% of the global load of toxic waste will be forbidden from
exporting their wastes to Cambodia and all other non-OECD countries. Cambodia's ratification
will hasten this process.
* By becoming a Party to the Basel Convention, non-Party states such as Taiwan
will be forbidden by international law from trading their wastes with Party States
(such as Cambodia).
* All Basel Parties will be required to recognize Cambodia's import ban, and
forbid export of hazardous wastes to Cambodia.
* The Basel Convention obligates all Parties to consider illegal traffic in
hazardous wastes a criminal offence. As such it will in most cases be punishable
by jail time rather than mere fines.
* The Basel Convention is in the process of adopting a special protocol on
liability and compensation which will ensure that in the future, companies such as
FPG will be liable for their illegal dumping and be forced to pay compensation to
the victims and country of Cambodia.
Cambodia will be eligible for technical assistance regarding domestically produced
hazardous wastes as well as training for customs officials to identify hazardous
waste cargo, from the regional cleaner production centers of the Basel Convention.
Cambodia can ill afford to indulge in wishfully thinking that the Sihanoukville crisis
was an anomaly. As was stated by T.J. Wu of the Green Formosa Front in Taiwan, "I
think this situation will happen again in Cambodia, Burma, Laos, Vietnam." And
her statement refers to the stockpiles of Taiwanese hazardous wastes alone.
When one realizes that Taiwan is but one of over 30 heavily industrialized countries
with a huge economic incentive to export their problems rather than solve them at
home, it becomes obvious that without safeguards, Cambodia will surely be victimized
again and again. For that reason the Cambodian Parliament must move now to ratify
the Basel Convention and the Basel Ban Amendment.
As horrible as the Sihanoukville dumping tragedy has been, the greater tragedy would
be a lesson unlearned - a country's failure to take the simple, practical steps to
counter the "impeccable logic" of the toxic waste trade and say "never