Black smoke billows at all hours of the day in the sky above Accra’s largest slum, Agbogloshie. On the ground young men and boys break apart end-of-use electronics, and melt down electrical cords, wires and computer monitors for valuable metals that small dealers can sell on to larger ones for reprocessing.
The scrap yard looks like a jumbled heap. All the trappings of modern civilisation, the equipment necessary for a good life in the 21st century spilled across this space to be broken down into components. But there is strange sense of order to the yard. Materials are separated and organised in accordance with the value of the metals they contain — car doors and motors, bed springs, iron gates, electrical adaptors, computer chip boards and monitors, fridges, deep freezers and the innards of air-conditioners. Old industrial scales stand outside rusty shipping containers, the depots for the scraps, waiting for dealers to weigh and pay.
There is a clear hierarchy among the men and boys: those who collect scrap metal, dissemble goods and burn electronics are at the bottom; those who weigh and buy scrap metal are slightly above in stature; and then there are the anonymous men who come periodically to collect all of the scraps to transport them for reprocessing — they stand at the top. Beyond the scrap yard is an open space of land where electronic waste is burnt.
This place does not have a name. The young men stand on the ashen patch of land, moving as the slum stretches out on the other side of the black lagoon.
In wheelbarrows and metal containers the young men carry bundles of electrical cords. They tie them with single cords in different layers to show which cables belong to whom, and tilt worn tires against the bundles so they will burn faster.
This doesn’t sound or smell like wood or paper burning. The sound is liquid and dry, like a sponge burning or some strange kind of white noise. The smell is inhuman. The men stoke their piles to make sure they continue to burn. Their faces are uncovered, their hands and arms bare.
The dumping and burning of e-waste in Agbogloshie has attracted significant attention from environmental groups, researchers and journalists.
Last year the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency published the findings of an 18-month undercover investigation that found that British recycling purportedly recycling end-of-use computers and electronics given to them by companies and organisations were illegally dumping thousands of tonnes of end-of-use computers and electronics to countries such as Ghana and Nigeria. The report also said the EU produces 8 million tonnes of e-waste per year and only 75% of it unaccounted for.
Second-hand electronics dealers operating in parts of Accra often find that many of the goods they purchase from importers are faulty and they have to pass them on to scrap collectors.
The European Parliament recently voted to increase member states collection of e-waste beyond the current target of four kilograms per person per year, so that by 2016 they will instead have to collect 45 tonnes for every 100 tonnes of electronic goods put on sale three years previously. The target must rise to 65 tonnes by 2019 or member states can opt to collect 85% of total e-waste generated. The new law is an extension of the 2003 Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive.
Atiemo Sampson a researcher at the University of Ghana currently conducting a three-year long PhD research project on e-waste in Ghana and recently released his first set of results.
“We did a preliminary study and the results were frightening,” Sampson said.
Sampson collected soil samples in areas surrounding the e-waste site such as a produce market, a church headquarters, a soccer field and a school and found lead, cadmium and other health-threatening pollutants at more than 50 times normal levels.
Many of the locals living in the slum across from the lagoon that I spoke to did not understood the potential environmental and health impacts of the scrap dealers and collectors breaking down and burning electronic waste in the area.
The city council and government have been slow to act and create legislation that would make it illegal to import electronic waste, but they are consulting with environmental and civil society groups to work on developing a bill that could be passed into law later this year. But environmental groups say that the issue must be tackled carefully, in a way that addresses the environmental impact while also taking into account that people’s livelihoods are bound up in this waste. The e-waste business is lucrative for large organised scrap dealers, many of whom are Nigerian, Togolese, Chinese, Indian and Lebanese. But for the young boys and men who work on the site, who have migrated from northern Ghana, they dismantle electronics and burn electronic waste.
Yaw Amoyaw-Osei, executive director of Green Advocacy Ghana says that while Ghana must develop legislation to ban the importation of e-waste, the government and NGOs must also work to ensure that e-waste be handled safely by the scrap collectors in a way that does not impact the local communities.
The dump at Agbogloshie is a poignant symbol of many things: the excess of global consumption and the environmental degradation that underlies it, the economic divisions between global north and south, and the disregard of Western governments and multinational corporations for the impact their production and consumption of electronic goods has on the rest of the world.
But Agbogloshie points to a deeper division emerging in Ghana as a whole — namely that between the northern and southern regions.
In 2011 Ghana was among the fastest growing economies due to the commencement of oil production and rising foreign investment. While cities such as Accra are developing at a break-neck speed, gruelling poverty in the country’s arid northern region is still commonplace. Leading development economist professor Geoffrey Sachs has said that although Ghana’s economic and developmental future looks bright, bridging the north-south divide will be the toughest challenge for policy markers in the small West African nation.
For decades thousands of northerners have migrated southward in search of employment and have filled the cities slums such as Agbogloshie and Nima. According to many NGOs and civil society groups that work with the urban poor, such as Peoples Dialogue on Human Settlements, headed by Farouk Braimah, these slums are expanding as cities such as Accra grow and develop. Young people, like the men and boys who burn electronic waste, come here in search of opportunity and new beginnings, a future beyond the limits of the gruelling poverty of their home towns. When one watches these men and boys set cords and computers alight it almost appears a metaphor for their hopes and dreams: bubbling, melting, and burning, rising like the black smoke billowing over Agbogloshie.
*Clair MacDougall is a journalist currently based in Monrovia, Liberia. She was previously based in Accra, Ghana. She blogs about West Africa at North of Nowhere and more of her writing can be found here.