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Page last updated at 12:53 GMT, Tuesday, 19 August 2008 13:53 UK

Ivory Coast's forgotten acrid waste

Skull and cross bones danger sign

By John James
BBC News, Abidjan

A red triangle with a skull and cross bones symbol gives the first indication that this area on the outskirts of Ivory Coast's main city Abidjan is no rural idyll.

Women may use their heads to carry wood back home while men snooze in the shade of the trees, but a slight odour hangs in the air.

In August 2006 a local company hastily fly-tipped truckload after truckload of chemical waste at around 15 locations around the city.

There are still problems. People have upset stomachs, headaches, spots all over their body
Resident Laurent Bissio Kama

The United Nations says the dumping of the 500 tonnes of waste led to at least 16 deaths and more than 100,000 other victims needing medical treatment.

Two years on it is still here.

At some sites like the one in the suburb of Abobo, the contaminated earth has since been collected into giant bags which pile up above head height over an area of two tennis courts.

The site is next to a main road, a village and a major path. The villagers, like Laurent Bissio Kama, say they have no choice but to stay here.

"There are still problems. People have upset stomachs, headaches, spots all over their body," he says.

Women carrying firewood on the heads
Residents near the contaminated site have no choice but to stay

"We've taken tablets and we drink a lot of water, but there are people you couldn't even bear to look at.

"New babies don't have the strength to resist, while for pregnant women, it's really serious."

The UN special rapporteur on the dumping of toxic waste, Professor Okechukwu Ibeanu, recently spent four days in the country speaking to officials and victims.

"After almost two years, these sites have still not been decontaminated and continue to threaten the lives and health of tens of thousands of residents, across different social spectrums in Abidjan.

"The government has informed me that it does not have the technical capacity to clean up and decontaminate the dumpsites in a timelier manner," he said in a statement.

"This should be an absolute priority."

Compensation

He called on the international community to provide more technical assistance urgently - and said much more needed to be done to provide adequate compensation.

Contaminated earth collected into giant bags
Two years on from the disaster the chemical waste still remains

Thousands of victims say they have yet to receive compensation - or say that what they have been given - around $500 (250) in the main injury category - falls short of the amount they have lost in medical bills and earnings.

The government says it is already paid compensation to the majority of the 95,000 people entitled to treatment and says it continues to encourage people to come forward to make claims.

The money that has being paid out by the government comes from a Dutch multi-national, Trafigura.

It had chartered the ship carrying the waste, which unloaded the waste in Ivory Coast, after a failure to agree deals to get it treated in the Netherlands and Nigeria.

It said it had contracted a local firm, Tommy, to handle the waste in good faith.

In an out-of-court settlement, Trafigura agreed to pay the Ivorian government around $200m (100m) in one of the largest ever payments of its kind.

The company did not admit liability and said the payment was made out of sympathy for Ivorian people.

It also disputes whether the chemical slops were the cause of the large number of medical cases.

Legal proceedings

Professor Ibeanu says more should be done to pursue criminal proceedings.

"This is to send a signal to other trans-national corporations and individuals that such crimes will not go unpunished and that Africa is not a cheap dumping ground."

Cases are still outstanding in the UK and the Netherlands.

As yet, no-one has been held responsible, despite suspicions of the involvement of influential members of Ivorian society.


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