Durban’s Bisasar Dump; Using race and class to make a profit

by Karen Rooney

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is marketed as a way for developing countries to counter their emissions by investing in emissions reduction projects around the world – wherever it is the cheapest. Beyond the fact that this system allows polluting countries to ignore the problems at home and “deal with” the problem elsewhere, the CDM is highly controversial in that there are numerous allegations of land-grabs, displacements and lack of consultation with affected communities.

Durban, South Africa, is home to one such CDM project. The Bisasar landfill was established in 1980 during the apartheid years of South Africa. Situated in a low income, Indian community, the dump is Africa’s largest and, until the 1990’s, also housed a hazardous materials and medical waste incinerator.

Opposition to the development of the Bisasar dump has been strong since its inception. However, there is renewed government interest in the dump now that it has been turned into a CDM project. In 2003, despite ongoing and significant public outcry, Durban signed a $15 million USD emissions reduction agreement with the World Bank to turn the Bisasar landfill into a methane capture and conversion facility. In 2005, the World Bank withdrew their financing due to public pressure and the hard work of many dedicated local activists.

Unfortunately that has not been enough to close the landfill. Though many promises have been made, residents have yet to see the landfill closed and the health of their community improve.

And what sorts of health issues are occurring?

The areas surrounding the Bisasar dump have become hotspots for disease. Cancer rates are skyrocketing and respiratory and other illnesses are incredibly common due to the burning of rotting waste and the methods of extracting methane from the landfill. Toxic metals and chemicals leach out into the air and residents living nearby suffer the consequences.  A recent study showed that 6 out of 10 households nearest to the dump housed someone suffering from cancer.  Due to the methane capture practices used at Bisasar, residents face even worse conditions than they did prior to this “beneficial” CDM project beginning. It’s time to recognize that CDM projects are a false solution to these problems and more often than not lead to devastating consequences for the communities involved.

If this were happening in any white, upper class suburb anywhere around the world, people would be outraged. The scathing condemnation of the government and quick official responses would probably nip something like this in the bud before it even had a chance to fully develop into a functional project. But because the issues of class and race intersect so much when it comes to CDM projects (and other profitable ventures), this has been allowed to go ahead despite years and years of outrage.

In a way, the Bisasar dump is a microcosm of the entire climate change negotiating process. The wealth generated by projects such as these is concentrated into the hands of a small few – who profit on the backs of the people they refuse to listen to. The communities who are being affected are actively ignored, or dismissed as fringe elements. There is no consultation process beyond paying lip-service when it comes to obtaining free, prior and informed consent – companies come in to handpick the residents they believe will have a favorable reaction to their proposal, make promises they do not keep, or discuss the proposals in terms the community is unfamiliar with and cannot understand.

There is no trickle down effect in situations where governments choose to put profits and polluters ahead of people. The only thing that trickles down to people, whether they live next to the Bisasar dump or the Alberta tar sands, is disease and the destruction of the environment around them.

I am outraged as I write this, at the inhumanity of this whole process. I do not believe that hope is lost – instead I am moved and actively fuelled by my anger to shift towards action, just as the residents of Bisasar have been doing for years. That is why I am writing about this today – so that their struggles and resistance can be read by people elsewhere and we know that none of us are alone.

One Response to “Durban’s Bisasar Dump; Using race and class to make a profit”
  1. Dear Karen,

    I have been applauding the Canadian Youth Delegation’s work and outstanding effectiveness at COP17 in Durban. I attended COP11 in Montreal and COP15 in Copenhagen, and have seen first hand the immense caliber of your compatriots. Though I was youth-delegation age at COP11 and just outside at COP15, I attended under the accreditation of other NGOs.

    Your message around the absolute imperative of a fair, ambitious and binding agreement, and around Canada’s responsibility to abide by its treaty obligations are bang-on. I’m with you 100% on this. However, this post on the Clean Development Mechanism, as well as Tasha’s this morning, diverge both from the spirit of the UNFCCC, and from my observations, what the majority of people active in the international climate treaty movement advocate for.

    I will perhaps not dive too deeply into why I feel that Carbon Offsets are a critical piece in the puzzle for humanity to organize itself to solve climate change. Suffice to say, offsetting gives a tool to -proactively- address reducing emissions, developing & implementing clean technology and guiding sub-national policy towards cleaner development pathways. It allows “stopping climate change” to be both the responsibility of coal plants back back home in the developed world, as well as an opportunity for NGOs, small businesses and proactive governments around the developing world.

    In addition to discussions of the utility or disutility of the Clean Development Mechanism and offsets, I think it is important for your team and the writers of this blog to clearly note that offsets are included in all (to my knowledge) discussions and negotiations taking place at the UNFCCC and COP 1-17. They are part and parcel of the Kyoto Protocol, a second commitment period of Kyoto, and any discussions of binding agreements beyond that. It is fair for you to advocate for the removal of offsetting provisions in future agreements (though I’d encourage you to explore it further in your last days in Durban as well as when back home – feel encouraged to look me up), but it is important for your readers to know that such a policy direction by the CYD_DJC diverges from that of the UNFCC, the mechanics of COP17, and from many other people working diligently to stop climate change.


    Joseph Pallant

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