BASEL, SWITZERLAND — AFTER months of political wrangling, the world has taken a halting step toward reining in the global traffic in hazardous waste. At a meeting here this week - attended by 116 countries - a new treaty was hammered out that sets guidelines for monitoring the trade. But even advocates admit this is just the beginning of an uphill battle.
The convention falls far short of what some countries wanted: an outright ban on waste exports. It's also not clear whether some key countries, including most African nations and the United States, are willing to ratify the treaty. Still, many diplomats say the agreement represents a ``first step'' toward getting the waste export business out into the open.
It's an urgent task. In recent years, barrels of imported waste have shown up on docks from Bangkok to Benin - angering poorer nations worried that they're becoming the industrialized world's ``dustbin.''
Often, the waste comes from countries where stiff environmental regulations have hiked disposal costs, making it profitable to send the material far away.
``We simply don't have the mechanisms to control this trade,'' says Alexandre Sambat, head of Gabon's delegation to this week's meeting.
A group of 40 African nations refused to sign the new treaty, saying they'd discuss it at a regional meeting in June. Many African and South American countries want to craft regional agreements with stricter provisions than those envisioned here.
The convention - sponsored by the UN's Environment Programme - requires waste exporters to get written approval from an importing country before any shipment is sent. It also obliges exporters to take back illegally shipped waste.
Of the countries present at this week's meeting, only 34 signed it on the spot. Many more will do so in coming months. The treaty must be formally ratified by 20 states before it can take effect.
Some 40 developing nations already ban the import of hazardous waste. But, speaking privately, many say this isn't enough to stop a trade which is often done illegally.
``This convention provides a legal framework to continue the hazardous waste trade - it doesn't do anything to reduce that trade,'' says Kevin Stairs, a waste campaigner with the environmental group Greenpeace.
Mostafa Tolba, executive director of the UN's Environment Programme, dubs the business ``immoral'' - since it can exploit the weaknesses of poorer societies. But he emphasizes that it was never the UN's intention to push for a total ban.
Dr. Tolba points out that many developing countries may need to export their own wastes in the near future - in the interest of sound environmental management.
It might make sense, for instance, for a crowded country in the tropics to send hazardous wastes to dumps in less densely populated and drier regions, where there's less chance of dangerous materials leaching into the soil. Plus, as countries industrialize, they may find they're unable to cope with their own wastes.
Indeed, some developing countries already export waste. Singapore has sent industrial waste to Thailand, while Bahrain has shipped toxic materials to Britain for treatment. ``Such movement should take place under environmentally sound conditions,'' says Tolba, regardless of who's the recipient.
Still, it's a politically thorny issue.
Many developing countries, especially in Africa, have come to view waste exports as a form of neo-colonialism. The sloppy nature of many of the deals - some of which have caused serious environmental damage - has only made the issue more sensitive. ``We've found barrels of waste dumped off on our beach,'' says Laurent Radaddy, a diplomat from Madagascar. ``How are we going to control this, unless we get stricter international measures?''
Simple economics drives much of the business.
In one extreme example, the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau was recently offered a deal by US and European waste traders that could have earned it an estimated $500 million - about three times its gross national product. The deal was turned down.
Meanwhile, not all waste trade fits the stereotype.
The largest chunk of US hazardous waste exports, for example, goes to Canada, which has a special bilateral agreement with Washington governing the trade, as does Mexico. Much of West Germany's hazardous wastes are shipped to a single dump just over the border inside East Germany.
This growing global network creates some surprising alliances. East and West Germany, for instance, tend to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on waste export issues.
In the end, however, the main division falls between industrialized and developing nations.
For instance, a proposal to require that exporters be allowed to ship only to countries with environmental regulations equal to those of the exporting country got scrapped from the convention - largely as a result of US opposition. The US argued that such a provision would effectively ban US waste exports, including those to Canada.
The US is pushing hard to keep the focus on national legislation, rather than turning the waste trade issue over to international controls.
The Bush administration vowed earlier this month to clamp down on waste exports - by banning shipments to any country that doesn't have a waste-export agreement with Washington.
Meanwhile, activists are already looking toward the first follow-up meeting of the new convention - scheduled three months after the treaty is ratified.
Many tough issues are likely to surface at coming sessions. For instance, the convention says that the first meeting will set technical guidelines for ``environmentally sound management of wastes.''
``We're at the start of a very long road,'' one UN official says.