Reversing Environmental Racism: Owning Your Stereotypes and Profiles

We are on the verge of turning the page on EuroCentric #CircularEconomy.  Several professionals in the European Union (and UK) have understood that Copernicus and Galileo were right, and the sustainable economy does not "revolve around" the OECD.

Five years after the IERC conference gave an Award to Jim Puckett of BAN for his "pioneering and breathless work to prevent the globalization" of used electronics management, the conference has invited Emmanuel Eric Nyalete - a native Ghanaian, Georgia Tech Coder, and former reuse department head at Good Point Recycling - to address the conference and tell them about Ghana's imports from the Tech Sector's point of view.

How did we get here?  And why did it take ten years (since publication of Greenpeace's report on Agbogbloshie) to get experts like Emmanuel, Grace Akese (of MUN), Jenna Burrell, Josh Lepawsky, and others to the podium?  And is it possible that Europe will actually contribute financially to welcome Africa's Tech Sector back to the table, and partner with them to make the world better for future generations of all races, languages, and creeds?

How did we get past the collateral damage and friendly fire from photojournalist extremism about the "largest e-waste dump on earth" (all 35 people)?  And how do we balance the de-sensationalism and anti-exoticism with the needs and financial pressures of Africa's recycling workers?  There's a way for Europe to save face, and in the process introduce more of Africa's best and brightest into the discourse.  By introducing natives into the policy discussion (who were left out of the Basel Convention PACE discussions that led to the rules that arrested Joe Benson), Europe can let them own their own story, control their own stereotypes, and learn from one another.

In 2012, WR3A sent two representatives to an Basel Convention and Interpol-led "Pan African Forum on E-waste" conference in Nairobi, Kenya, Jim Puckett of Basel Action Network was there.  He addressed the forum, referring to his essay "A Place Called Away", which he had penned in 2010 to describe the horrid conditions he said were brought upon the Agbogbloshie slum in Ghana by illegal shipments of waste electronics.

Our Fair Trade Recycling representatives (Oscar A. Orta of Mexico and Nate Hutnak of USA) did their best to balance BAN's pugnacious profiling of Africa's Tech Sector as "primitive".  Oscar told me that one of the representatives of StEP (Soving the E-Waste Problem) in the Netherlands pulled him aside and said that while of course Jim was exaggerating, that we all had to give him credit.  The funding for the whole conference came from BAN's success at elevating the topic of "illegal e-waste dumping" in the press, and research projects then underway in Ghana and Nigeria (Basel Convention "E-Waste Assessments" studies would never have been funded without Jim.

"Without him, we wouldn't even be here", said the StEP rep in Nairobi.  A few months later, at the January 2013 IERC conference in Salzburg, Austria, Jim would be given an honorary achievement award for the same reason.

Fair enough. But so far, all the benefits have gone to white people. How do we give Africa's Tech Sector a slice of that pie?  First, let someone who grew up near Agbogbloshie tell you what it actually looks like, and how it's not a halloweeny stereotype.

Here is part of BAN's description of Agbogbloshie Market
"In these global waysides that we might only know as “away”, as in “we threw it -- away”, the questions beg answers from each of us, sitting comfortably (as I do now) from behind LCD screens, tapping our keyboards and touch-pads. They cry out ghoulishly from these bone yards where these fallen icons of our proud Information Age lie as rotting fruit, the progeny of centuries of technological advancement, the offspring of Newton, Einstein and Samuel Morse. Indeed, what have we wrought?"  - Jim Puckett, A Place Called Away, 2010.
And he goes on...
"Machines that could, just months before, process a billion instructions per second, send a message clear around the world with the stroke of a key, or hold a library of books in a palm-sized drive, have found their end as metal and plastic skeletons, in the world’s most sorrowfully poor communities to be subjected to hammer and fire, emitting deadly smoke and fume. Shouldn’t there be a law?"...
"It is here that the relics of the Information Age, with their miraculous microscopic circuits, transistors, capacitors and semi-conductors, are bludgeoned and torched with Stone Age technology. For the residents in this squalor and filth make their living, first by hauling and then by smashing, gutting and burning the televisions and computers in a most un-green form of “recycling” to recover metals — copper, steel and aluminium.
Stone age, skeletons, ghoulishly, squalor and filth, bludgeoned and torched, boneyards, rotting fruit... The annual report published by BAN and E-Stewards used photos to shock and alarm donors.

"Thank you for your support" reads the tagline on the photo (above) which references "Away is a Place" [sic - Title is actually "A Place Called Away"]  BAN would raise millions of dollars this decade, using photos of young people and children, not sharing a single dime with any African in the photos.

Five years ago this month, in response to the escalating rhetoric about Africa's Scrap and Tech Sector, I wrote one of my favorite blogs, "Halloween Images Of Scary Black People".  The blog parallels 1970s OECD and 1970s Africa in a way that makes use poignantly similar, rather than exotically different.

As Africans were rocking to Prince Nico Mbarga and Europeans were rocking to Elton John and the Who, television stations were broadcasting across Africa. According to BBC Africa technician Graham Mytton, Africans erected their 250th Television broadcasting station in 1977, making both Elton John and Prince Nico Mbarga's music videos available in urban areas across the continent.

Still, the StEP Representative had made a valid point. The "poster children" of Agbogbloshie had stirred up a potent mixture of post colonialism white guilt and consumerism.  This very blog owes its readership to the exaggerations.  As Arlo Guthrie once said "You can't have a light without a dark to put it in".

So now the challenge is how to use the attention E-Waste Hoaxes have brought to Ghana in a way that empowers Ghanaians.  I've submitted a proposal to hire Ghanaian consultants Grace Akese, Emmanuel Nyaletey, Evans Quaye, and Wahab Odoi Muhammed to put together recommendations on how to "save" their own country.  Ironic that the photojournalism of Bellini and McElvaney may finally put money into Africa Tech Sector's pocket... but not unheard of.

If your poverty has been profiled and elevated to fantastic levels of exaggeration, to a point where people like "Hurricane" Joseph Benson of BJ Electronics are actually placed in British prison cells for the crime of electronics repair, it may be an opportunity to go with the flow.

Remember "The Beverly Hillbillies"?  Branson Missouri made a tourism fortune from the yellow journalism and muckraking depictions of the Ozarks in the 1920s press.  People dressed up as they were depicted in the big city magazines.  As documented by Anthony Harkins in February 2001 Western Kentucky publication "Top Scholar", the way rural America was launched into the American consciousness via television programming, I think the next step, over the  next 5 years, is for "Nollywood", Nigeria's burgeoning television production companies, to tell their own story.  When they  look for a protagonist, their own Joseph Benson may make a great Jed Clampett.

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