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ENVIRONMENT: 'Capital Shapes the Creation of Waste'

Kristin Palitza interviews BOBBY PEEK, director of South African environmental justice NGO groundWork

DURBAN, Mar 13 2009 (IPS) - The South African government has been heavily criticised by environmental justice NGO groundWork for failing to produce accurate data on the production of waste in the country.

Bobby Peek: Mining generates 83 percent of South Africa's waste - much of it highly toxic - but will be exempt from new regulations. Credit:  groundWork

Bobby Peek: Mining generates 83 percent of South Africa's waste - much of it highly toxic - but will be exempt from new regulations. Credit: groundWork

This comes at a time when government is discussing amendments to the National Environmental Management Waste Bill.

The new waste legislation is "a process of deferred action rather than clear guidance and regulations", groundWork lamented. The organisation claims South African waste politics is undemocratic, fosters the creation of a disposal society, further impoverishes the poor and toxifies the environment. It lobbies for policies that put people and the environment first, not industry.

IPS: What is the state of environmental justice in South Africa? Bobby Peek: Since apartheid, the South African government has claimed the departure point for its politics is development. Yet, the development projects government supports have no relevance to people’s needs on the ground.

South African development strategies are geared towards supporting industrial and economic growth. They are not people-centred and don’t service the people. In fact, they infringe on people’s rights to property, land, health and so on.

IPS: What will the new National Environmental Management Waste Bill bring – good or bad? BP: The Waste Bill will ensure that government regulates industry so that its waste doesn’t impact on people’s lives. It is a step forward, but it comes far too late. We have been lobbying for this type of legislation since 1994.

The Bill will, for instance, make sure that municipalities provide waste removal services, not only in urban, but also in outlying and rural areas. Once it is passed, environmental justice organisations, such as groundWork, will make sure it’s implemented, and if it isn’t, we will make sure municipalities are held accountable.

Unfortunately, as these processes go, it will take another couple of years until the Bill will be fully enforced.

IPS: What are South Africa’s waste politics? Do they link into long-term, sustainable development? BP: South African government doesn’t give environmental issues importance, because environmental development clashes with the interests of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Minerals and Energy.

The government is against environmental impact legislation and assessment processes [because government’s main interest is] to make it easy for industry to operate without having to pay attention to environmental damage they might cause. South African waste politics are basically wasting the nation, because they drown society in waste.

All this means that South Africa will fail to meet Millennium Development Goal 7, which aims at creating long-term environmental sustainability.

IPS: In groundWork’s report on waste management, you say "capital shapes the creation of waste" in South Africa. What do you mean? BP: To give you an example, 83 percent of South African waste is produced by mining companies, but, ironically, they have been excluded from the Waste Bill and won’t have to adhere to its regulations. Yet, mining dumps are killing people because they severely contaminate our groundwater with uranium. But government is not willing to challenge this because of the capital the mining industry generates.

IPS: Is there a link between creating waste and increasing poverty? BP: Poor, rural communities suffer most, because waste is dumped in areas where people are already marginalised and don’t have a voice to defend themselves.

When we create waste, we create an impact on the environment, and people need a clean environment to be able to stay healthy. One of our studies has shown that South Africans lose nine working days per year due to health problems caused by air pollution. Most of these people don’t have an income if they cannot work.

What makes matters worse is that people lack access to health services, and we don’t have good enough health systems to support their physical well-being.

IPS: What are the key health issues caused by waste in South Africa? BP: As a result of the amount of waste we produce, we accumulate a huge burden of toxins in our bodies, particularly dioxins and heavy metals. Those toxins have a negative effect on our immune, endocrine and reproductive systems.

Mercury waste, for example, that is created by coal-fired power stations throughout the country, has a direct negative impact on foetuses and causes deformation. Lead pollution slows down the cognitive development of children.

Air pollution in highly industrial areas, such as the South Durban Basin in KwaZulu-Natal, causes asthma, skin diseases and cancer. The instances of leukaemia in the area are 24 times higher than the national average.


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