GUATEMALA CITY — OLD tires for Nicaragua. Contaminated incinerator ash for El Salvador. Radioactive boxes for Honduras. Chemical "leftovers" for Guatemala. Central America has the dubious honor of being on the receiving end of a rising tide of toxic waste from the United States.
"The first wave of waste trade targeted the really poor countries of the world: Africa, Haiti, Pacific island nations. These countries currently comprise the bulk of the 89 nations which ban toxic imports. Now the trade is shifting to Central America and Latin America," says Jim Vallette, the Washington-based waste-trade campaign coordinator for the environmental group Greenpeace International.
Attempting to take advantage of lax environmental laws, ignorance, or corrupt officials, foreign com- panies peddle waste-import proposals as "development" projects that will generate cash, jobs, and often electricity. Most of the waste originates in the United States.
In the past three years, Greenpeace has cataloged 45 official proposals to dump waste in the region. "These are only the openly proposed schemes. We suspect there's a much greater trade in illegal shipments," says Erwin Garzona, head of the Greenpeace office in Guatemala City.
Thanks to a dawning awareness of the problem by environmental groups and governments all but five proposals have been stopped. Of the remaining proposals some are pending, others have been lost track of. For example, a shipment of radioactive containers sent by a Florida broker to Honduras for "recycling" in 1990, has disappeared from the docks and was presumably dumped.
A year ago, Greenpeace set up a regional office here and began coordinating a waste campaign with local ecological groups. It has held seminars, used its international network to track down information about waste brokers, and publicized findings to pressure local governments.
"We lacked the information to track the waste before. And Greenpeace carries more weight with the government," says Nelson Nuila of Unidad Ecologica Salvadorena, a San Salvador-based environmental group.
Concurrently, Central American leaders are starting to close the door to waste through treaties and legislation.
Established by a joint agreement among Central American presidents, the Central American Commission for the Environment and Development began operation in 1990. One of its aims is to develop environmental guidelines and legislation.
"We hope that this year we can implement a Central American convention to ban toxic wastes," says Jorge Arturo Cabrera Hidalgo, secretary-general of the commission, which is based here.
The model is the Bamako Convention. Signed in January 1991 by all African states except South Africa, Bamako bans trade in all hazardous wastes.
After signing an international or regional convention, each nation must pass its own laws to be in accord with the treaty. The national legislation is what counts, says Mr. Cabrera. "It's very attractive for politicians to sign an international treaty. But then nothing happens."
Panama and Guatemala passed laws in 1991 to ban waste imports. Belize passed a ban in 1989. Costa Rica implemented a partial ban in 1989, but Mr. Garzona criticizes a loophole allowing waste imports for "commercial purposes." A favorite method of skirting import restrictions is to mislabel waste or send toxic residuals to another country for "recycling." Often, wastes are not completely recycled and concentrated toxic residues are left, polluting the environment.
Meanwhile, the end of civil conflicts in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama has meant the voices of ecological interest groups are being heard now.
"People don't worry about the forests until they can stop worrying about their lives," Cabrera says. As these war-battered nations rush to reinvigorate their economies, the need for environmental development controls becomes more imperative, he says.
But Cabrera also says wealthier waste-generating nations must take more responsibility for their toxic waste. "The lack of regulations and disposal sites in the US means it has to go somewhere else. Then it becomes our problem," he says.
In the last three years, a number of bills have been introduced in the US Congress to regulate or ban hazardous waste and pesticide exports. None have passed.
The US is a signator to the recently ratified Basel Convention, an international waste treaty which requires notification and consent of recipient countries. The first meeting of the convention will be in May. But the US will not have a seat at the table unless it passes legislation to bring it into accord with the convention.
A current House bill sponsored by Rep. Edolphus Towns (D) of New York seeks a total ban on imports and exports of hazardous wastes. Although this bill has the most support, Mr. Vallette says, "I don't see Bush signing that bill." But the two other bills pending don't meet the Basel standards of government oversight and notification. "For now, it looks like a continued logjam," Vallette says.