Visiting the Venezuela Landfill Scavenger Recycling slide show, and the front page photo of the NYTimes this Sunday ... The cover photo shows a young Warao man at Cambalache with a bag of cans, climbing through the landfill, scavenging for steel value (photos by Meridith Kohut).
This same guy, without doubt, would be happy to find a computer with copper wire and coils to pull off. The copper value would be higher than the steel and aluminum can value.
So, the questions is, did the West dump the steel cans there? Should Del Monte, Goya and Budweiser face a call to take back the cans? And if they did, presuming the optimal effect would be a Venezuela landfill with no metals or cans or copper wires, would the Warao boy's life improve? In one photo a child eats a discarded orange. If you take away the orange, will the kid "leapfrog" to a turkey dinner?
The mix of emotions over poverty and pollution can create a cognitive dissonance which results in bad solutions. The environment is too precious, there is too little time to waste on environmental alchemy. The E-waste advocates brought national attention and guilt to bear with photos of impoverished people in Africa and Asia scavenging metals and parts from added-value electronics. Well and good so far, and we can all support less "toxics along for the ride". But in the limelight, they concocted "solutions" to problems without data or study. The solution is basically to tax orange growers and take oranges out of landfills which Warao children would eat.
"We shouldn't have to make that choice."
It is aggravating that so much of my time this past decade has been spent stemming "friendly fire" by allies. As a former Peace Corps volunteer, I assure you that the poor are the biggest scavenger-recyclers. They are actually better off scavenging from rich people than poor people, but the free market is not enough. Attacking their incomes does not reduce their poverty. Fair trade, improving the living standards and recycling standards overseas, is the right approach.
It is morally wrong to tell people you are sending cleaner scrap if all you are doing is sending less scrap.
Fair trade is morally and environmentally better than a boycott. And the excuse that it is somehow, sadly, illegal is false. The Basel Convention specficially established Annex IX in order to create a refuge for legal recycling trades, which though imperfect, are clearly different than disposal.
They say they don't respond to my fair trade entreaties because I am attacking them. But the response to my reasoned posts has been, and I quote, "Stop directing people to Basel Convention Annex IX". Stop people from reading the text of the convention???? I am feeling like Colin Powell must feel in the Republican Party (listening to him on Meet The Press right now, speaking in defense of immigration).
When environmentalists propose solutions they have not thought out, it can result in things like Kenya and China banning tested working used computers, or Egyptians shutting down the scavenging Zabaleen, the Coptic Christian recyclers I wrote about in 2009.