Toxic trade in disguise

Feature story - 19 June, 2003
During June four representatives from ship breaking yards in India and Bangladesh are touring through Europe. They aim to present the impact of the current polluting practices at the breaking yards to ship owners and discuss working towards a real solution to these problems. Bells from the shipbreaking yards in Alang, India, accompany them to remind ship owners of the dramatic effects of breaking ships on Asian beaches. The sound of each bell echoes the calls of the people in Asia for a cleaner environment and safer work. Here are personal stories from the trip in Europe:

Ship being scrapped at Alang shipbreaking yard.

2 June 2003

Two Asian representatives arrive in the Netherlands to participate in a seminar on ship breaking. Mr Salim works at a Bangladeshi breaking yard. Mr Shakir is a lawyer at the Supreme Court in Bangladesh. The seminar 'Scrapping ships in Asia and liability' is organised by Greenpeace and the International Institute for Asia Studies in the Amsterdam Maritime Museum. It attracts a mixed group of lawyers, shipbreakers, ship owners and trade unions. But also Greenpeace campaigners, academics, students and asbestos firms.

All participants express the hope that the current pollution and high rate of accidents will end soon. As a first step mandatory rules for all stakeholders involved should be set up. Mr Shakir agrees as no country can solve the problem in splendid isolation. Certainly not a developing country like Bangladesh. Mr Salim agrees as he has experienced the dramatic consequences of the current inaction when 'solutions' depend on the voluntary initiatives of individual ship breakers and ship owners.

3 June 2003

Ramapati Kumar, our Indian campaigner visits the Dutch Minister of Environment. He frequently visits the shipbreaking yards in India. Despite many promises and beautiful words by ship owners or their organisations, he has not seen much improvement during the last year. He has witnessed men in suits preparing documents and voluntary guidelines. Meanwhile men on bare feet with cutting torches go into ships that have explosive gases inside. The men in suits talk diplomatic language but Ramapati has seen first hand the remains of the people who die in explosions at the shipbreaking yards.

The Dutch minister listens carefully. He wants an end to the current status quo. However, most Dutch ship owners continue to send ships to the breaking yards. They pay no attention to the hazardous substances on board of their vessels, with the notable exception of one company. Ramapati tells the minister there is only one way to guarantee a better and cleaner future. All ship owners should follow the same mandatory rules. The minister seems willing to call on the Dutch Association of Ship Owners to co-operate. After all he is responsible for the implementation of the Basel Convention, which controls hazardous waste export from developed countries, like the Netherlands, to developing countries such as India and Bangladesh.

4 - 6 June 2003

Next stop is Greece. This country has a large commercial fleet. Part of that fleet is in the hands of ship owners who fly their national flag proudly. The rest choose a different flag for the convenience of lax tax, safety and environmental controls. The participants in the shipbreaking tour have mixed feelings about visiting Greece. Only recently the 'Amina' - owned by the Greek company Chandris - exploded in Alang. Ten people died.

In Greece Mr Ganguly plays an important role. He represents one of the largest trade unions in India. In the 40 years of his work he has met many industry leaders. But in Piraeus he is surprised: all four ship owners he meets react in a different way. After the meetings he compares the companies to the brothers of one family. One brother is very defensive and will only follow the rules. If there are no rules he will not take a single extra step, despite the good and green reputation he is said to have. The other brother might not have such a good reputation, but he clearly sees the need for change. He is even willing to play a part in this change. A third brother is outspoken in the need for change and is willing to tell this to people outside the family as well. Another brother has done good things in the past. Yet he is by nature inclined to wait for further steps to be taken by the government and the IMO. 'The family has not made up its mind yet', Mr Ganguly says. 'It takes a good and wise father to keep the family intact and to move the family forward. Maybe the Greek Minister of Mercantile Marine is a wise man in this respect. Maybe he has the wisdom and authority to move the family in the right direction.' During the meeting with the Minister it seems there is a chance he will use his wisdom wisely. Perhaps it is at the short-term detriment of one brother. But it certainly is in the interest of the world outside this family.

7 - 8 June 2003

After visiting Greece the representatives board a small Greenpeace vessel for a couple of days. In the port of Antwerp, Belgium, they visit several ships from a large variety of ship owners. Captains and crew on board are informed about the current situation in India and Bangladesh. They are asked to bring this to the attention of the vessel's owner. After all, he needs to take appropriate action. One of the ship owners is Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC). The safety and environment manager of MSC seems quite willing to listen to the demands. Next week there will be a meeting with the company's top managers in Switzerland. What will their decisions mean for the people and environment in India and Bangladesh?

Discover what reception awaits the team in Switzerland and how they get a slap in the face in London. All in Part 2.

Learn More:

These diaries are published in full on our shipbreaking site. Find out about the problems of shipbreaking and the solutions. Also in Francias, Nederlands.