Agbogbloshie: From Wetland to Wasteland

Agbogbloshie is a suburb of Accra, Ghana that has went from lush mangrove to a man-killer in the span of a few decades. What used to be a sparsely populated wetland along the southern coast of Ghana has quickly gained a reputation for itself, but not for beautiful beaches, attractive wildlife or even a booming coastal economy. Agbogbloshie is now known as one of the world’s largest E-Waste dumping sites as a shadow economy has emerged through the ‘recycling’ business, and you have probably never heard of this horror until now.

Given the nickname of ‘Sodom’ or ‘Gomorra’ which are two biblical cities in which divine judgment was passed onto as the cities went up in flames and were destroyed for their impurity in the eyes of the Lord. Agbogbloshie is known as a ‘Hell on Earth’ but is a mecca for western civilization to dump electronics that they can no longer use. People of all ages migrate to this area for work, be it selling water and food to picking through the 20-acre dumping ground in order to scrap some metal in order to make a dollar or two to feed your family, doesn’t sound awful right? That’s only the beginning, from crime and destruction of the surrounding ghetto, to harmful and borderline poisonous toxins being breathed in… Agbogbloshie definitely lives up to its ghastly reputation.

The history of the area is interesting and I think that a quote from an NPR article I read within my research sums it up pretty well as to what has happened since the ‘60s. They posted an article where they interviewed one Arun Rath who has grown up in that region, when asked on what the area used to look like this is how she responded:

“I’ve heard from my grandfather and my grand uncles that it used to be a massive swamp, right in the middle of central Accra. And it’s on one side of a lagoon which is like the drainage basin for the whole of the capital city of Ghana. And it was a colonial-era football field — it was where the national stadium was until it flooded horribly in the sixties and lots of people died. And so the government decided to turn it into an industrial area and then there was a series of military coups and that was abandoned and it slowly got taken over by this market district.”  –Arun Rath, NPR

What used to be a wetland filled with wildlife and recreational activities has now become a wasteland of rusting electronics, burning piles of plastic and un-sellable metal all exhuming toxins into the surrounding air supply. The worst part of this situation to me is the fact that the local Agbogbloshie residents know that the air is killing them, but it is the only way to make money in the area. When you have a family to provide for or an education to obtain there are risks you have to take. In this case, those risks can be deadly. Kids as young as 10-12 years old have been seen picking through the electronic graveyard looking for anything they can extract from the used appliances in order to sell for a few cents. Usually you would scavenge for hours within the junk yard and only come up with a few dollars worth of sellable metals. To put a mental picture in your head, think Mad Max or even Rey in the beginning of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

So whose stuff has been shipped off to this wasteland? To put it pretty blunt, it’s ours. Experts have said that the United States is one of the largest contributors to the problem with the United Kingdom being up there in terms of waste dumped onto the land. There are policies set in place to restrict this trade such as the Basel Convention of 1989. This created a treaty that restricted the trade of E-Waste to other countries; shockingly (not really) United States Congress never ratified the treaty as the U.S. signed it in 1990 basically making it non-compulsory for U.S. business to comply.

“According to State Department policy, shipping electronics for repair, refurbishment or remanufacturing “does not constitute movement of waste, and thus is not impacted by the Convention or its procedures.” In addition, it says, the Convention lacks authority to enforce its own policy.” – Jeremy Kaplan, Fox News

 What most of the toxic waste comes from is the burning of certain cables and appliances in order to expose the metals that are worth money to the scavengers. Due to what resources are available to them in order to obtain the valuable parts of certain electronics. This releases toxins into the air that are breathed in by the populous of the ghetto. They also melt down larger appliances on top of old car tires, this results in mostly the tire being burned and giving off the smoke that clouds Agbogbloshie.

There a constant ‘thickness’ of the air due to the smoke, also there are other health risks that many face while working in Agbogbloshie. Due to the nature of the work being done and the lack of proper equipment the actual bodies of the people working are torn and tattered, without medical care many get infected on top of wounds. Playing with fire, you are going to get burned! Many are also subject to explosions coming from setting certain things on fire. These working conditions are not suitable for a properly equipped man, let alone kids running around in flip-flops and shorts on.

Not only are living conditions next to uninhabitable within the city, crime is also a pressing issue. Prostitution, homicide and armed robbery are a few of the many issues that authorities have to deal with, at the end of the day Agbogbloshie is a ghetto and has been since the 1980’s. National Public Radio (NPR) has a great article written by a mystery writer from the area that says ‘It is easy to get murdered in Accra’ (Agbogbloshie) and you can find it here… (https://tinyurl.com/k8m6owv). Imagine living in a place where you have to always keep in mind that not only is the air slowly killing you, but also there is a higher chance to be involved in violent crime due to the area you reside in. It’s a vicious circle if you ask me; you need money to live, the only work within the area is in this area where your chances of death or serious illness/injury increase dramatically. Realistically you live in a place have no other choice but to go and risk your life for a few dollars each day.

Believe it or not, there is hope. I know this whole situation sounds pretty depressing, a company by the name of Pure Earth has recently opened a proper E-Waste recycling plant near Agbogbloshie. They are trying to put a plan in place to attempt to clean up the area and are attempting to limit the fires in the area by installing wire-stripping mechanisms. Although they are running into a few problems, it is a start to say the least. Back in 2014 Pure Earth went through Agbogbloshie with a 20 foot banner letting the people know that change was coming. The start of a project like this could change the lives of these people forever and for the good. The main idea behind the recycling is to limit the burning of materials that give of toxins into the air; this would greatly reduce the health risks associated with working in the area. They also painted their facilities a bright, welcoming blue in order to stick out in the burnt and depressing area that Agbogbloshie has come to be and it seems to be working.

There is hope for the citizens that call Agbogbloshie home, and Pure Earth is trying to bring it to them as they are backed by multiple agencies such as the European Commission, the United nations industrial Development Organization and the Global Alliance for Health and Pollution. Will their efforts go unnoticed, or will they change the lives for thousands of people through their efforts. Only time will tell, thanks for reading! If you want to learn more about the subject or figure out how to help follow some of the links in my source list!

 

Sources:

http://www.npr.org/2015/01/04/374780916/a-shadow-economy-lurks-in-an-electronics-graveyard

http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2014/03/06/welcome-to-hell-photographer-documents-africas-e-waste-nightmare.html

https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/inside-the-worlds-biggest-e-waste-dump

http://www.pureearth.org/blog/photos-transforming-agbogbloshie-from-toxic-e-waste-dump-into-model-recycling-center/

http://www.npr.org/2014/09/01/344239617/ghanaian-mystery-writer-says-its-easy-to-get-murdered-in-accra

Pure Earth Project Website:

http://www.pureearth.org/project/agbobloshie-e-waste/

Image:

http://www.pureearth.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Agbogbloshie_Ghana_girls-in-wheelbarrow-1.jpg

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