Bhopal Remembered in Togo, West Africa

From April 7-9, 2005, Young Volunteers for the Environment of Togo, Africa, the biggest-ever youth environmental organization in the sub region, organized a successful Forum that memorialized Bhopal in Kpémé, Togo. The event included conferences and debates on pesticides, public meetings, video presentation on the Bhopal tragedy and other cultural activities (theatre play). The population of the host city, Kpémé, suffers from the impoverishing of the land left behind from phosphate mines exploitation – they were also given the opportunity to have their voice heard and show their solidarity with the Bhopal victims during the event.

Togo Forum Bhopal Memorial 2

The Bhopal memorial erected in Kpeme, flanked by the President of JVE and the Chief of Kpeme

“Where were you since? You should have came long time ago, now we are all dead alike those you picture in the powerpoint diapositive” – that was the first impression of an authority from Kpeme.
The Forum gathered around 70 national and international participants from JVE and numerous NGOs, as well as school children, villagers, school teachers, workers from the plant, media and churches. The chief of the village gave us the honour of attending the opening and closing ceremonies; authorities from the prefecture also visited the first while the police were represented at the latter.

Togo Forum Bhopal Memorial 1
Our challenge was to find a way to show the link between the Bhopal tragedy and the case of Kpémé in a way that could touch everyone who was present. We wanted the people of the village who are bearing the burden of the impacts of the phosphate exploitation and the participants who have conducted preparatory studies on the use of pesticides and social injustice in their home countries, to see why a tragedy of the past still needs our attention.
The morale behind Bhopal was communicated to participants and the people of the village through discourses, a theatre play (Bhopal 20 Years Later by Misty Seemans) and an expressive photo slide show presenting the story of Kpémé and Bhopal.
Even if the photos where showing children of Kpémé with smiling faces, the public was raged to see the damaged teeth behind their smiles. Most touching though, was seeing school children showing their support to the children of Bhopal by:
– reading poems;
– singing;
– writing postcards (that will be soon sent to groups in Bhopal); and
– making handprints on a white banner which will be sent to Bhopal.
On the closing ceremony of the Night of Bhopal, it was very touching to see children entering the stage each one with a letter which in total read: ‘Justice pour Bhopal’ (justice for Bhopal).
Other notable points included:
– attendance at times reached 700
– representatives came from at least 10 NGOs, church, media (continuous media coverage was done), peasant group, the very phosphate exploitation company, schools and hundreds of youth associations
– we established a memorial in memory of bhopal victims
– at least 12 communications were presented dealing with various topics
– field visit to the company was refused by the company, fearing our comments
– we gave at least 150 participation certificates
– we elected two bhopal ambassadors
– we had a night of souvenir with candles and children marching on the song ‘we are the world’ with letters that finally read ‘justice for bhopal’
– we had a night with songs and poems for bhopal victims
-hundreds of participants express their view on the kpeme situation
– we drafted an action plan
– a final declaration of Kpeme was drafted and read
– we visited villages and surroundings affected by the phosphate exploitation
– we produced a strong powerpoint that compared Bhopal to Kpeme with striking issues that affected seriously populations
– food and accomodation were provided to all
– we planted trees
– a souvenir gift was given to the chief and the local school authorities
– a petition was signed
– a hand print was done with hundreds of hands in memory of world victims
This symbolises the solidarity between two poverty-affected communities locating industrial plants where the greed to make huge financial income happens at the detriment of security, social and environmental impacts.
The participants leave Kpémé after a forum discussing a wide range of themes such as the environmental impacts from use of pesticides, the implementation of ISO norms for businesses, the importance of impact studies, sustainable and biological agriculture, the society of consumption, conventions related to pesticides… After each workshop, a very deep debate followed with experiences and inputs from different countries.
Representatives from Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, Niger, Liberia, Guinea, Ivory Coast also presented a report on the situation in their home countries. Generally speaking the absence of a functional institutional and juridical framework is an obstacle to effective implementation of, for instance, the Stockholm and the Rotterdam conventions, which have been ratified by the governments. Several examples were presented during the session of presentation of the national reports.
For instance the Liberian delegation focused on the use of the pesticide DDT used to fight insects vectoring harmful diseases. DDT is feared for its harmful effects on human health and for its hazardous effects on soil and water. However, compared to the consequences of malaria, the side effects of DDT are considered to be less destructive as malaria is the most deadly tropical sickness. To conclude, the representative drew attention to the need for developed countries to assist developing countries like Liberia as a case of reference to fight tropical diseases by alternative means.
Examples from Ghana stressed the danger of overuse and unsafe storage of pesticides, and the need of ensuring the implementation of the appropriate laws.
Further, case studies from Niger show a terrible example on how fluoride contamination of the drinking water has resulted in severe malformations of infants, while the Niger Government ignores their responsibility. Picture of children handicapped forever touched every participant. Oil spillage in rivers in the Niger delta ruins the local communities where fishing is the main source of living.
Another issue of social justice problematic was given through the report from the Ivory Coast, where civil war has resulted in huge environmental damages, among others a reduced diversity of the local fauna and flora. Populations were forced to leave their lands and once back lost all their living conditions.
We intend to follow up this through campaigns and lobbying coordinated by the International Network that was created during the forum. The main goal is to share common resources and exchange ideas, and in addition all the network partners should take action in the local campaigns (petitions, appeals to governments,..) which each national branch is in charge of as a part of the follow-up.
Depending on the appropriate funding, the network will be capable to conduct case studies and launch campaigns urging governments and business to take action and raising public awareness on environmental and development issues. The case of Kpeme can be the first in a long list of cases that can be brought in front of international tribunals.
All the participants and functionaries are now heading back to their local groups, but they are not leaving Kpémé without a trace. A painted graffiti (a memorial) on the wall at the front gate of the school is a reminder of the tragedy in Bhopal, while dozens of young tree plants will symbolize the start of the fight for social rights in Kpémé.
In addition we believe that each of the participants return back sharing the same impressions – a sympathy with the victims of the catastrophe of the past and a motivation for forthcoming activities and campaigns in their respective home countries.
Our greatest thanks go to Student for Bhopal for its full support (especially Ryan B), Pesticide Action Network (particularly Diana Ruiz), PAN Africa, GGF, The School of Kpeme, the local Kpeme authorities, all the media and the Minister of Interior and Security of Togo.
The fight has just started…

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