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Swedish Toxic Waste Poisons Chilean Community for 30 Years

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Arica, a port city close to the border with Peru, has expanded rapidly since the 1980s, with housing developments moving into what were previously industrial areas. FLASHPACKER TRAVELGUIDE / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Laura Sear and Leslie Steed (Arica, Chile)

Arica is a dusty, windswept port city in northern Chile. Tourists wander the city's long seafront under the shadow of a dramatic buff-colored cliff called El Morro. But the bracing sea air belies a toxic controversy that has bounced from court to court, from Chile to Sweden, in vain search of resolution.


In 1994, the Chilean government erected a social housing development next to an industrial site on the outskirts of the city. Families moved in, and children began to play on mounds of dust beside their new homes — sledging down them, modeling the dust like clay, and walking it back into their homes. What residents didn't realize was that the children's playground was in fact a toxic waste dump.

A decade before the housing development went up, Swedish mining giant Boliden paid a Chilean contractor called Promel €1 million ($1.1 million) to process some 20,000 tons of smelter sludge from copper, lead, silver and gold mines in the Scandinavian country. But Promel didn't process the waste. Instead, it was left unprotected on the industrial lot next to the company's processing plant — at that time about three kilometers from Arica homes.

Rashes, Miscarriages and Cancer

Tomas Bradanovic, an engineer from the Chilean capital of Santiago, moved to Arica in the late 1980s. "At first nobody knew the soil was toxic," he told DW, "until children showed symptoms we had never seen before, like strange rashes, and suddenly many mothers in the neighborhood started to have miscarriages. Eventually people started dying."

Marisol Vilches Maibé and her family lived next to the Promel site. She has suffered breast and gallbladder cancer, her husband heart failure, and her four boys skin diseases, learning difficulties and cancerous deformities in their bones — symptoms that tally with effects of arsenic poisoning listed by the World Health Organization.

"It was at the end of our street on the corner," Marisol said of the toxic waste. "When my husband finally received his treatment, the doctors in Santiago told us there was too much arsenic in his blood — twice the allowed amount."

In 1997, NGO Servicio Paz y Justicia investigated and found the dust to contain high levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, copper and zinc — findings later confirmed by a government toxicology report.

Chilean Authorities Neglect Victims

The Chilean authorities responded with plans to move the waste safely out of the way of residential areas. In fact, they shifted most of it a short distance to a site just 600 meters from the nearest homes — where it remains to this day, walled in but poorly protected by plastic sheets held down by rocks.

Today, the waste is walled off but still exposed to the elements, just five minutes' walk from the nearest social housing.

"The government just moved it across the street, in open trucks, spreading the chemical powder all over the city," said Tomas, who campaigns to raise awareness of the contamination. "It even landed on the rooftops of a primary school."

In 1999, NGO FIMA launched a case against the Chilean government and Promel on behalf of the communities near both the dump sites. It dragged on until 2007, when the Chilean Supreme Court finally ruled in the communities' favor.

By that time, Promel had gone bankrupt. The Chilean government compensated 365 residents, including Marisol. But a government report released two years after the Supreme Court ruling found that as many as 12,000 people may have been affected by the toxic waste.

Taking the Fight Back to Sweden

The same report outlined plans to dispose of the waste and provide healthcare to those affected. But they have never been effectively carried out, and in 2013 Arica residents took their fight back to the source of the waste — filing to sue Boliden at the mining company's local county court in Sweden.

Boliden argued that when it delivered the waste, Promel's site was still in a purely industrial zone. The Swedish court found that the company had been negligent in exporting waste that it would have known could not be safely processed, but did not find a sufficient link between the company's actions and the plaintiffs' injuries and ruled in Boliden's favor.

A subsequent appeal to the Swedish Supreme Court was rejected on the basis that too much time had elapsed since Boliden negligently exported the waste in 1984. Plaintiffs were left to pick up the company's legal bills of around €3.2 million.

Calls this year for the Swedish government to ensure the waste is brought home and safely processed on Swedish soil have gone unanswered.

An End to Toxic Offshoring?

More than 30 years after the European mining waste was dumped on the doorstep of an unsuspecting Latin American community, it may prove impossible to hold either the Swedish company or Swedish government accountable. But in the future, European companies may not be able to act with such impunity.

The waste is now just outside the impoverished Cerro Chuno neighborhood of Arica, where most residents are migrants.

On Dec. 5, an amendment to the Basel Convention will come into force, banning the export of hazardous waste from OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries to the rest of the world.

Campaigners have been fighting for such a ban for decades — decades through which people of Arica have continued to live, and fall ill, in neighborhoods and homes contaminated with arsenic and lead. For them, it has come far too late.

'What Was Done to Us Is Wrong'

Marisol said her husband still isn't getting treatment for effects of the poisoning and she has given up on anyone being held accountable. "We'll never see justice for what happened here," she said.

Yet for Tomas, the Basel Ban Amendment at least acknowledges the injustice of offshoring toxic waste and, therefore, of what was done to his community. They are still fighting for healthcare and the removal of toxins from their environment. But, Tomas said, "It is equally important to know that what was done to us is wrong."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.