WORLD Bank chief economist Lawrence Summers hit a raw nerve in Latin America last month when a memo he wrote on toxic waste disposal was leaked to The Economist magazine.
Focusing on the issue from a purely economic standpoint, the memo questioned whether the bank might do well to encourage waste transfer to less developed countries, where pollution and long-term threats to health have less priority than in developed countries.
The memo caused a furor in this region, which is just now beginning to address the problem of toxic waste, both locally produced and imported. Partly in response, a Brazilian official said his country will propose a ban on international toxic waste trade at the preparatory meeting being held this month in New York for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in June.
"Brazil has to adopt a new stance on the problem of dangerous waste," the official told the Brazilian business daily Gazeta Mercantil. "We have to work for the reduction of waste generation at the source." The existing international conventions do not afford enough protection, he added, exposing countries such as Brazil to smuggled toxic waste.
Many Latin American countries long subordinated environmental concerns to economic growth. Only in the last decade have water and air pollution become serious issues.
Until 1989, for example, the Brazilian government awarded operating licenses to new industries without ever asking what they planned to do with their waste. Toxic waste - dumped near industrial plants surrounded by poor neighborhoods or arriving at docks closed to public entry - was not on anyone's agenda.
Today, although many solutions are still too expensive to implement, things are beginning to change. "We have more political support from society than we had before. Politicians know we have this problem. It is an issue in the Chamber of Deputies; at the city council, it's bubbling," says Pedro Penteado de Castro Neto, the solid waste director at the Environmental Engineering Technology Company (Cetesb), a Sao Paulo state agency.
Last December, Argentina's National Congress passed a law regulating toxic waste management, transportation, and disposal, that also prohibited imports. But the law left a 90-day gap before its implementation, and, with stories of trash-laden ships making a beeline for Argentina and toxic matter lying in docked ships, local activists began collecting signatures on a petition asking for a ban on imports.
"This great mobilization of people ended well, because on Jan. 17, the president [Carlos Saul Menem] signed an emergency decree prohibiting the entry of dangerous waste, with an attached list of products that can be amended at any time," says Mario Epelman, toxic waste coordinator at the Buenos Aires office of Greenpeace. Mr. Epelman is working to include a toxic waste agreement in the framework of the Southern Common Market, a trade bloc composed of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
In Brazil, the threat posed by imports and foreign attempts to set up waste treatment and disposal operations have also spurred officials. The government has begun drafting a law that would regulate all aspects of toxic waste.
"I think we'll have something official by mid-May," says Leda Famer, coastline management director at the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, a federal agency. A resolution by the government's National Conference for the Environment last September bans the entry into Brazil of all solid waste that would be treated and disposed of locally, but leaves the door open for waste that can be recycled in an industrial process.
This appears to have shut the door on a toxic waste treatment and disposal plant that foreign firms wanted to build in northeastern Brazil. "The problem was not the plant itself, but that they wanted to bring in 2,500 tons of organic waste from the United States," says Ms. Famer. "And we already have plenty of that here in Brazil."
Brazil is also in the process of ratifying the Basel Convention on Transborder Movement of Dangerous Waste, and federal deputy Fabio Feldmann, the country's foremost environmental legislator, has introduced his own regulatory bill in the National Congress. Argentina has already ratified the convention.
As a result of all this activity, experts say, cases of first-world toxic waste exports to these countries are becoming less common. There are all kinds of contraband in this part of the world, but it has "become harder to hide" toxic waste, says Mr. Castro. The challenge now, he and others say, is taking care of the waste produced locally.
Cetesb first began to deal with this question in 1986. At that time, the 60,000 industries located in the state of Sao Paulo, which accounts for half Brazil's gross national product, presented the agency with a formidable challenge. Officials decided to focus on larger companies. "We are negotiating schedules for solutions," says Castro. "Our leverage is very limited."
According to him, German multinational companies have been the most energetic and willing to invest in disposal, followed by US multinationals, such as St. Louis-based Monsanto Company, which has a global waste disposal program.
Large Brazilian-owned companies have also been sensitive to the issue, but smaller ones lack the resources to take action.
"The multinationals and big domestic companies will create demand for private initiative to invest in [waste treatment], so small companies can use the service," he says. "If this doesn't happen, there will be no solution."