Demonstrations against Transfer of French Warship to India for Asbestos Removal

views updated

Demonstrations against Transfer of French Warship to India for Asbestos Removal


By: Jean Ayissi

Date: February 12, 2006

Source: Getty Images

About the Photographer: Jean Ayissi is a journalist for the AFP news agency. This photo was taken during a demonstration in Paris on February 12, 2006.


The Clémenceau is a French aircraft carrier that was launched in 1957. It was decommissioned in 1997 and parked at the port of Toulon for asbestos removal. According to the French government, approximately 115 tons (104 metric tons) of asbestos were removed from the ship. However, the environmental group Greenpeace claims that Technopure, the company removing the asbestos, left over 500 tons (454 metric tons) of asbestos on board—at least 80 percent of the original amount. Asbestos, a potent carcinogen, has been banned in recent years in twenty-six countries, including France.

In 2005, the French government made arrangements to have the Clémenceau towed to India under military escort for disposal. The journey began in December. However, protestors from Greenpeace and other environmental groups objected to the transfer, arguing that it constituted a shipment of toxic waste (asbestos) to a vulnerable Third World nation. They contended that such a shipment would be illegal under the international treaty known as the Basel Convention. Greenpeace protestors boarded the ship in the Mediterranean on January 12, 2006, and climbed its mast to hang a banner reading "Asbestos carrier stay out of India." The French phrase on the protestor's sign in the photo, porte amiante, means "asbestos carrier," a pun on the fact that the Clémenceau is an aircraft carrier (porte-avion).



See primary source image.


The Clémenceau was sent to India to undergo "shipbreaking." Shipbreaking is the process of breaking a ship to pieces to recover its steel, a valuable commodity (about 95 percent of a modern ship is steel by weight). About six hundred to seven hundred large seagoing ships meet this fate every year, sixty percent of them in India. Most seagoing vessels are ready to be scrapped after about 25-30 years at sea; vessels that are kept at sea too long can literally fall apart, endangering their crews and spilling pollution. Since the 1970s, most shipbreaking has moved from European dockyards to beaches on the shores of Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan, and Turkey. Low-paid workers with no protection against toxic materials take the ships to pieces and dump any toxins into the local environment. Toxins can include asbestos and oil.

Large ships are not the only form of unsavory waste to be exported by industrialized countries to poorer countries. The United States has exported incinerator ash to Haiti, and it is estimated that from 1997 to 2007 the United States alone will generate 500 million obsolete computers. These will contain 6.32 billion pounds (2.87 billion kilograms) of plastics, 1.58 billion pounds (717 million kilograms) of lead, 3 million pounds (1.36 million kilograms) of cadmium, 1.9 million pounds (862,000 kilograms) of chromium, and 632,000 pounds (287,000 kilograms) of mercury. It is illegal in the U.S. for large corporations and other institutions to dump computers in many landfills (though many millions of units from individual owners will in fact end up in U.S. landfills), so many look abroad for disposal. Millions of obsolete computers are sent to China, where barehanded laborers earning $1.50 a day break them to pieces in open fields and pour acid on circuit parts to extract tiny amounts of silver and gold. They also burn wiring to remove the plastic insulation so that the copper can be resold. These processes are intensely polluting for both the air and water: one river in the area of a waste site was found to contain 190 times as much pollution as allowed by World Health Organization guidelines (a U.N. body).

The economic logic behind these transfers (and similar ones) is not hard to discern: environmental standards are more lax in poorer countries because the people there are desperate for employment. This reasoning was laid out in an extraordinary 1991 memo signed by Larry Summers (1954–), then chief economist of the World Bank. The memo asked, "shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the [less developed countries]?" and went on to say that "the demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity"—that is, the poorer you are, the more ugliness and disease you can be forced to put up with. "I think," the document went on to say, "the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that." Summers later became Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton and was president of Harvard University from 2001 to 2006. He maintained that the memo was meant as a "sardonic counterpoint," not seriously: in any case, it describes the reasoning operative in actual waste transfer to poor countries.

The transfer of toxic waste to developing countries was banned by the treaty known as the Basel Convention, which entered into force in May of 1992 (but has been far from universally honored). One hundred and sixty-six nations have signed the treaty: Afghanistan, Haiti, and the United States have signed but not ratified the treaty. Those protesting the transfer of the Clémenceau to India argued that the transfer was illegal under the Basel Convention.

On February 15, 2006, French President Chirac announced that the Clémenceau would be towed back to France. In an disturbing footnote, the Indian Supreme Court banned all protests and discussion in the (Indian) media about the fate of the Clémenceau, asserting that any discussion of the issue whatever—"pro or against or a middle line"—constituted a challenge to the Court's right to decide the fate of the ship.



"Much Toxic Computer Waste Lands in Third World." USA Today (February 25, 2002). 〈〉 (accessed February 24, 2006).

"U.S. Waste is Third World Hazard." Associated Press (September 25, 2002).

Web sites

Puckett, Jim, et al. "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia." Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, February 25, 2002. 〈〉 (accessed February 24, 2006).

Secretariat of the Basel Convention: United Nations Environment Programme. 〈〉 (accessed February 24, 2006).

Vallette, Jim. "Larry Summers' War Against the Earth." Counterpunch. 〈〉 (accessed Feb. 24, 2006).