Bullyboy II: Meet an Innocent Man HR2284

At the Las Vegas E-Waste Summit last November, Jim Puckett of BAN and I each gave presentations on the export of used electronics for reuse and repair.  Jim's powerpoint had a slide showing this UK Independent journalist's (Cahal Milmo) 2009 article on the arrest of "Nigerian Exporters".

Milmo took a 2013 victory lap recently, alluding to his role in the 2009 seizures of Benson's electronics.
"Owners and employees of a string of waste disposal companies have been fined more than £200,000 following Britain's largest investigation into the illegal export of toxic dumped electronics to the developing world.

"The eight men, whose firm’s operated across the country, were found to have been at the heart of a lucrative trade which sends tonnes of waste computers and other consumer durables to west Africa and Asia every year to be stripped of valuable metals in grim conditions, often by children.
"One of the company owners, Joseph Benson, whose BJ Electronics toured civic waste sites picking up electronic goods to be sent illegally to Nigeria from east London, was convicted following an investigation by The Independent, Sky News and Greenpeace."
Puckett (a former employee of Greenpeace in Europe) showed the article in his slide show between photos of kids at dumps.   I raised my hand and asked him why he was applauding the arrest of Joseph Benson, when the UNEP found Benson's containers to be 91% working?  Puckett said "I don't know that name".   I referred him to his own slide.  And reminded him afterwards.  People have names.

The Independent and Sky News coverage would have been ludicrous, except for the pictures of children burning scrap in horrid conditions. The NGOs said that "80%" of the imports of used electronics in Africa were dumped, burned by "scrap boy" children, in primitive circumstances.  (Sky News is owned by Rupert Murdoch... they cut a copper wire in a TV, gave it to Benson, and tracked it to Lagos, then bought it for 70 British pounds, and showed the cut wire.  My 11 year old could fix that TV.  If they think there is $107 in copper in a junk TV, have I got a deal for them).  (Correction:  I confused the Sky News TV with the BBC Track My Trash TV.  Sky News removed a part and bought the TV back for 40 British Pounds, about $62.  BBC cut the wire and bought their TV back in Lagos for 70 Pounds or $107).

The UNEP study showed that most of what the kids were burning was sourced from waste generated in Lagos.  Nigeria had 6,900,000 households with tellies in 2007 (World Bank).  The used electronics trade was already decades old, and was responsible for the development of communications infrastructure in Africa.   70% of all purchase of electronics in Nigeria, a nation of 170M, are used goods sold by people like Benson.

My first meeting with Joe Benson (Environmental Malpractice 6.1) in London was just a few days ago.  Unlike other factories and traders I've written about, I had never met, never sold to, bought from, or spoken with Benson.  This was a cold call.

Like the character Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, Benson was at first awkward and not very talkative.   Like Robinson, Benson seemed overwhelmed by the system of accusations leading to seizures and fines, without assessment of the veracity of the allegation.  Another recycler, clubbed to death in 2010.

My pidgin English is very very rusty, but I opened with a few words in pidgin just to hopefully make Benson and his three friends know I was a different kind of environmentalist.  That got a chuckle, but fell a bit flat, and we resumed the conversation in Queens English.

As he warmed up, Mr. Benson conveyed surprise and shock.  He didn't know who these people were, the "Basel Actions", and why they seemed to have so much power over his life and business. During the first enforcement, he seemed to have been bewildered by the chain of nested authorities, from international Basel Convention, to Interpol, to UK recycling regulators, and NGOs with UN-sounding names.  But when he spoke about his homeland, Nigeria, he was confident.  "They know me there!" he said.  "They never accused me of anything in Nigeria."  Funny that, since Nigeria, after all, is supposed to be the scene of BAN-crime.
"Although there is a lawful trade in functioning second-hand goods, it is illegal under European and international law to export electronic goods which no longer function." - Cahal Milmo, UK Independent
Well, no, Mr. Milmo.  I told you that in 2010.   The Basel Convention, in Annex IX, Section B 1110, specifically states that export for repair and refurbishment is completely legal.   For Benson to have committed a #wastecrime, he would have to participate in the release of toxics into the environment - in other words, the goods would have to be destined for the dump.  They weren't, and by paying $107 for the television with the cut wire, Sky News basically proved it wasn't sold for scrap.

But did the men export a percentage of the TVs for dumping?  Benson, Dorson and Adamou vehemently denied it, and told me there had never even been evidence for them to examine and exonerate themselves, to demonstrate the goods they shipped were working and repairable.  The fact they exported used electronics - openly and transparently - was enough, apparently, to destroy their business.  They purchased goods and shipped them, and a small NGO in Seattle Washington said the goods were 80-90% waste.   "Where is the proof?  Where is the evidence?  How can I defend myself?"

This is quite, quite different from Executive Recycling and others who swore never to export (convicted for fraud based on that claim, not for "exporting").  These African men were doing what they've been doing for decades, not even suspecting it was controversial.

They found the allegations ridiculous, prima facia, on face value - that they would take money from other Africans, combine it with their own money, and go into recycling depots in London, and test and cherry pick the best, working, and most repairable units - and that he'd pay Lagos and Accra customs duties, and thousands of dollars in shipping, in order to dump the TVs in Africa and poison children.  "I never did that!  Why? How?  It makes no sense!" Benson said.

Last year, the report by the United Nations Environmental Programme finally release the statistics about what was inside the 2010 sea containers shipped by Benson and others.   91% Reuse.  That is a higher rate than brand new product.  Jim Puckett of Basel Action Network applauded the study a few weeks ago:
"I am very satisfied with the quality of the UNEP studies. I know well the authors and have worked with them and discussed findings with them.   These studies were funded due to our film Digital Dump which was shown at the Basel meeting whereafter the EU donated 1 million Euros to assist Africa in solving the e-waste crisis.  
What the study said?
"The majority of refurbished products stem from imports via the ports of Lagos. The interim results from project component 2, the Nigerian e-Waste Country Assessment, show that 70% of all the imported used equipment is functional and is sold to consumers after testing. 70% of the non-functional share can be repaired within the major markets and is also sold to consumers. 9% of the total imports of used equipment is non-repairable and is directly passed on to collectors and recyclers." Final report of the UNEP SBC, E-waste Africa Project,  Lagos & Freiburg, June 2011 
With this conclusion:
"Refurbishing of EEE and the sales of used EEE is an important economic sector (e.g. Alaba market in Lagos). It is a well-organized and  a dynamic  sector that holds the potential for further industrial development. Indirectly, the sector has another important economic role, as it supplies low and middle income households with affordable ICT equipment and other EEE. In the view of the sector’s positive socio-economic performance, all policy measures aiming to improve e-waste management in Nigeria should refrain from undifferentiated banning of  second-hand imports and refurbishing activities and strive for a co-operative approach by including the market and sector associations."
I was prepared to discuss all of this big high falluting research, but the Africans found it obvious, and boring, and seemed distrustful of any information coming out of the international bureaucracy.  While their accusation was trumpeted, there has been no coverage of the subsequent exoneration.  If the study wasn't in the newspapers and television, it wasn't very helpful.  They learned of the allegations of their guilt in the press, and if the press didn't cover its mistake, no one else was going to come tell them.

These were simple, apparently honest people, who had found good enough product in the white man's trash.  They naturally avoid the spotlight, avoid attention, avoid anything that would look like bragging.  The parable in China is, "don't be a crane among the chickens".  In the USA, perhaps it's "no good deed goes unpunished."  White men with cameras are as spooky to the traders as elephants find men carrying guns.

I don't want to exoticize Benson.  For years, he's been a successful businessman in England.  BJ Electronics, his company, buys and sells both new and used electronics, parts and software.   Benson has lived for a long time in the UK. He's originally from Lagos, which itself is not exactly a village (like Fred Somda's experience in Burkina Faso, or Yadji Moussa's life in Yenwa).  Nigeria is one of the largest nations in world population, at over 170 million, and 50% of that population is urban (city dwellers), with that urbanization growth rate of 1.3% per year.  Cities like Lagos are considered important bellweathers for African trends (e.g., use of Chrome browser is steadily growing (#2), though Firefox remains #1).  This is not a man from the jungle, and his home has been London for decades.

According to Benson's friend Jacques, Joseph had not responded to my previous attempts to reach him because he's never been to school.  He's not a policy wonk.  In a way, he sounds like the people I knew in Cameroon, who my best friend Yadji ran to protect from "tax collectors", "functionaires", and "government regulators".   For all the huge number of sea containers he sells, and has been accused of dumping on children, Benson seemed very self-deprecating and deferential.

And this is a story which American defense attorneys, like Atticus Finch, know well.   The accused need an attorney because they are statistically more likely to feel powerless, to give up, to falsely admit guilt, or to panic and hide (like Tom Robinson).

But at the end of the meeting, Joseph Benson summed up his experience, being accused of dumping TVs to be burned by African children.   And I've chosen a key word, a Pidgin word, which I heard Benson use over and over when he was describing what had happened.


"Bullyboy" is in the dictionary, but it's one of those words, like "chop" and "trouser" which is much more commonly used in West African creole or pidgin.

A black man accused of "dumping e-waste" or creating a crime of "toxics" is charged, it's electric.  This is because Jim Puckett, more than any other person, has successfully exoticized and demonized the trade, with words like "witches brew" and "skeletons" and other purile, halloween-language descriptions of Joseph Benson's home and business.  And Pieter Hugo provides hyenas.

Through the eyes of Scout Finch, we can almost understand the white Alabama jury's conviction of Tom Robinson in Mockingbird.  The crime of rape, and the crime of a rape of a white girl by a black man, seems a little too scary to risk an acquittal.  The presumption of guilt pivots on race and education.  Like Tom Robinson, Joe Benson never attended school and does not read or write.

The crime of dumping toxics on children, however, is one that he understands clearly.  It's a crime, like rape, which touches a nerve in every culture.

Here is Harper Lee's definition of waste.
"The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash."
This is the kind of crime the Green Thompson E-Waste Recycling bill would involve us in.  It shifts the burden of proof.  It's built on testimony that 80% of the exports are dumped, and that men like Benson, Dorson, and Adamou are guilty.  I guess you don't need the evidence if you already have the profile.

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