German photographer Kai Löffelbein recently won UNICEF Photographer of the Year for his report on an electronic toxic waste dump in the neighbourhood of Agbogbloshie, in Accra in Ghana, more aptly entitled ‘Sodom & Gomorrah’. We sometimes think we have it tough…
His words best describe this gateway to hell:
The world has great problems indeed and, sad to say, many of them. One of the problems that must be solved is the problem of waste and of electronic waste especially, even more so because we are living in a world of high technology. On the one hand, electric appliances include substances that are highly toxic to the people and the ecology. While on the other, they also contain valuable materials that could be recycled like copper, silver, gold and even platinum.
In September, I travelled to Ghana. Ghana is, apart from China and India, one of the countries to which most of the electronic waste is being shipped. Some of my photos show the E-waste dump. This dump is situated in the midst of Accra, in the neighbourhood of Agbogbloshie. Here, electronic appliances that are no longer functioning are being recycled by hand in the most primitive of conditions. It is estimated that less than 30 percent of the electronic appliances imported in Ghana are operative and actually end up in second-hand shops. The other 70 percent are sent to the dump to be salvaged there. The dump where I was encompasses three to four square kilometres; the river separates it from a slum that is fittingly called “Sodom and Gomorrah” by the locals. Some older people remember the time when the river was a living watercourse full of fish. Today, only monitors and other electric devices are floating in it.
Almost all the people working at the dump are living in “Sodom and Gomorrah”. According to my estimation there may be around 800 people working there; more than half of them children and teenagers.
Some journalists I talked to during my preparation for this voyage called the dump a gateway to hell. Before I came there I had no real idea what was meant by this, but that changed when I saw the dump for the first time. Immediately, those words from my colleagues came to mind. Everywhere in the dump, small to middle-sized fires are burning.
Under unfavourable climatic conditions, the smoke does not dissolve in the atmosphere, but rather it hovers in the air like fog. In this case, one cannot see further than two metres. And while one is standing in the fog seeing almost nothing, all of a sudden people eerily emerge from the smoke only to be absorbed again by this billowing fog.
On the dump, a clear hierarchy has developed. At the lower end of this hierarchy are children like the little boy on the UNICEF award-winning picture. The boy is lucky – he has found a monitor from which the parts had not been completely extracted by the other workers at the dump. In the moment I took the photo he is lifting the heavy device to smash it to the ground in order to get hold of the aluminium frame. The dump is full of children roaming about and searching for some electronic waste that other workers have discarded negligently.
One of the worst tasks is that of the “burners”. These are the kids that separate copper cables from their rubber coating by throwing them into the fire. The fumes resulting from this process pose a serious health risk not only to the burners themselves, but also to the people living in the neighbouring slum. The dump is not a separate, eschewed area, but rather it is deeply rooted in the people’s everyday life. The dump is not just the working place of the people who are recycling the waste. Women come here to sell food and fire water to the workers and herdsmen come here to let their cattle graze. Not far from the dump is one of the biggest food markets in Ghana.
Near the dump I talked to a doctor who offers medical aid to the people working there. He confirmed that many people come to him because of acute troubles like headaches, vertigo, itching or skin spots that are directly caused by the E-waste dump. According to a Basel Action Network/Greenpeace study, the toxic smog is likely to cause sterility, asthma, cancer and neurological disorders.
Some months ago, scientists from the United Nations took soil samples. Their findings have been alarming. They found a mixture of lead, cadmium, zinc, chromium, nickel, chlorinated dioxins and other chemicals. The quantities of chemicals in soil are up to 50 times above the maximum allowable concentration. In Europe, a few millionths grams of lead are considered a health risk.
Children in some cases of no more than 6-years-old participate take part in extracting the materials. They earn less than 20 US dollars per month. The majority of the people working there are between 12 and 30 years old; they work 10 to 12 hours a day. But despite their hard labour they live in extreme poverty.
Getting access to the story is not always easy. The people at the dump are rather secretive and very distrustful. It took a lot of effort and patience to become accepted. And as there are many people at the dump I often had to start fresh every day. Only then did the people at the dump begin to tell their personal life stories.
I have been most impressed by the vital energy and optimism of the children and adolescents. Because of the harsh and inhumane living conditions at the dump, the children have very little time to play, but nevertheless, even during their work, that magical moment of childhood makes its appearance time and again.