Joe Bavier, VOA News, Abidjan, September 14, 2006
The government has resigned. Top officials have been arrested. And around 16,000 people have sought treatment for symptoms believed linked to the illegal dumping of hundreds of tons of toxic waste in Ivory Coast’s main city, Abidjan. But to the residents of the village of Akouedo, the scandal that has rocked the nation is just the latest episode in a long history of misery.
A sign reads ‘forbidden zone’ marking toxic waste dumped around the city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast
A grove of banana trees grows directly out of buried garbage, a hundred meters from the entrance to the village of Akouedo. Nearby, a child scrambles up the side of a mountain of trash, scouring the rubbish for anything usable or salable.
The garbage dump, covering more than 100 hectares, is one of a dozen sites around Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, Abidjan, where tanker trucks are believed to have pumped out around 528,000 liters of liquid chemical waste more than three weeks ago.
Despite government warnings to stay at least 200 meters away from suspected dumping sites, Paul Sieh, a village resident, says the scavengers who make their living in the landfill did not stay away for long.
“When they first started dumping, many people stopped working [in the landfill],” he noted. “They sensed something was going wrong here. But those who are having problems with their rent now, they don’t know what to do. They have to come and look for something to feed their families and take care of themselves. They don’t care about their lives.”
A man points to an open drain where toxic waste was dumped, in an industrial zone of Abidjan
On Wednesday, government health officials said nearly 16,000 people have sought medical treatment for symptoms believed to be linked to the illegal dumping of the toxic waste. Officials say it was offloaded from a ship, chartered by the Dutch-based company, Trafigura Beheer BV. Health officials say six people have died after exposure to the toxic waste.
The government of Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny last week resigned over the scandal.
A team of French experts, clad head-to-toe in white protective suits, and wearing gas masks, explores the site, enveloped by an overwhelming stench that stings the eyes and attacks the sinuses.
“We have discovered about a dozen sites,” said one expert. “We will have to analyze each one, and that could take some time. So far, we are finding sulfuric chemicals, but for the moment, we do not now how serious it is.”
Akouedo village borders the landfill. Village leaders say there is a long history of suffering there.
The landfill near Akouedo opened 41 years ago. As Abidjan grew, so did the heaps of trash. It was not long before the effects were felt in the village.
Village leaders say among Akouedo’s population of 5,000, there is only one resident over the age of 70, and only 30 have survived into their 60s.
The leaders say illnesses like typhoid, yellow fever and malaria are common.
“All of us are sick,” said village elder Mathieu Aguede. “We have been sick since 1965. The state has sacrificed us.”
A local inhabitant protects his face with a piece of cloth as he pulls cart of tomatoes that were harvested in place where poisonous chemicals were dumped on open-air garbage site near Abidjan
In recent years, the village has made repeated attempts to have the landfill closed. Residents have petitioned the government, and held round table talks with officials. A site was even chosen for a new dump to replace Akouedo, but was then was blocked by villagers there.
Others in Akouedo, like Paul Sieh, are not so willing to put the whole of the blame on the government.
“It’s going to be hard,” he said. “Many times, they have started procedures to close this dump site down. But, someone always comes and talks to the village chiefs, bribes them with a little money. And they can still allow them to [dump] here.”
On August 19, the villagers took matters into their own hands. As the last of the tanker trucks carrying the toxic waste attempted to enter the Akouedo landfill, it was surrounded by angry local residents. Its driver fled.
But the freshly painted truck, owned by a recently created company remains parked near the entrance to the garbage dump, a symbol of Akouedo’s desperate protest.
Barricades were quickly erected along the road leading to the site, and, for three weeks now, the normally incessant drone of trucks coming and going has stopped. The residents of Akouedo hope it is for good.