The case alleging that British/Dutch/Swiss firm Trafigura dumped its toxic waste in Ivory Coast, overloading capital Abidjan’s health system and injuring thousands of people, reads like something from a John Le Carré novel. Yesterday, a Dutch court found the multinational guilty of illegally exporting toxic waste from Amsterdam and concealing the nature of the cargo. Trafigura continues to deny wrongdoing and claims that the ruling is “incorrect”.
The fine amounts to €1 million, substantially more than it would have cost to have the waste dealt with correctly at the time, and it’s the first time Trafigura has faced criminal charges since the scandal struck in 2006.
This judgement is a genuine blow for justice. But it begs the question: how much more of this is going on?
Over the last thirty years we have seen (quite rightly) the growth of the FairTrade movement, aimed at giving growers and producers a price which reflects the value of their goods, rather than their weak negotiating position. But there is no FairTrade on waste. As EU laws (again, rightly) tighten up on disposal of waste on this continent, there are surely many more companies than Trafigura who eye the rubbish dumps of Africa or even Latin America as convenient places to leave their pollution, far from Western courts or the eyes of Western journalists.
Indeed, it was down to Greenpeace to bring the case, although Trafigura has paid out £104 million to the government of Ivory Coast and £32 million to individuals.
What is especially alarming in all of this is that an Ivory Coast court found two non-Trafigura employees guilty in 2008, sentencing one to 20 years in jail and the other to five years. I am not questioning their guilt — but two non-European nationals have borne the personal criminal liability with jail sentences for a crime for which they were by no means the main beneficiaries.
Here in the West, we bemoan the fact that while we put minor drug-traffickers away, we allow the big bosses to get off scot-free. The fact that no Trafigura employees are facing personal criminal convictions shows that, from the point of view of Africa, Western multi-nationals can behave exactly like those drug-traffickers.