Agbogbloshie: digital wasteland

German photographer Kevin McElvaney captures Ghana's environmental disaster

Agbogbloshie: Digital Wasteland
Kevin McElvaney

Agbogbloshie, once a fertile wetland, is now the world's largest e-waste dumpsite. Children as young as seven savalge what they can from unwanted technology dumped from China, Japan and the west. TVs, PCs and refrigerators are burned, releasing toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. The health risk is chronic with many of the workers dying from cancer in their 20s. Hamburg based Kevin McElvaney photographs the area and its workers, here Dazed speaks to him about what he saw and the action needed to fix this socio-economic and environmental disaster. 

Dazed Digital: Why did you decide to document the wasteland in Agbogbloshie?

Kevin McElvaney: At first, Agbogbloshie caught my attention because it's really photogenic, but the environmental, socio-economic, political and ethical problems there forced me to see it with my own eyes. I don’t like to judge things when I haven’t seen it for real and everything I found about Agbogbloshie on the web seemed so unreal, but after I'd been there, I realised that it's even worse. I focused my work on portraiture, not investigative journalism.

DD: Dumping is expected to double by 2020, what effect do you think this will have?

Kevin McElvaney: There are a lot of investigations and analysis about the health consequences in Agbogbloshie: cancer, lung problems and brain damages are just a few well known problems. By doubling the dumping, the problem will not just be doubled for those people in Agbogbloshie, in the long run this problem will come closer to Europe, US and Asia. You can feel the impact on the environment there. After three hours in Agbogbloshie, I was shaking and got a headache. The Odaw River is surrounding the fields of Agbogbloshie. This river is slightly bubbling, black and full of e-waste and chemicals. I wasn’t able to get closer than a few meters, because of the strong toxic smell. On my third day there, the river was more or less free/cleaned from the e-waste - it found his way straight into the Atlantic Ocean. Organisations like the Blacksmith Institute, Green Advocacy, Green Cross and last but not least the environmental activist Mike Anane, do their best to highlight these problems for many years. I worked with them during my stay.

DD: What kinds of illnesses are people getting from working in such toxic conditions?

Kevin McElvaney: The majority of people who burn in Agbogbloshie are young boys. They often cut themselves, seemed restless and weren’t able to concentrate for a long time. Almost everyone there is suffering from insomnia and heavy headaches. But these are more or less side-effects. Most of them die in their 20s.

DD: E-waste is burned to collect metal, are the locals aware of the severity of breathing these toxins, or have they just accepted that this is their only way of making a living?

Kevin McElvaney: Its a dilemma right now. I think there are other ways to work and earn money for these people, they just burn, because the e-waste is available and it’s easy money. It's too easy to just do, it’s what almost everyone is doing there, especially when you are young and without your parents. Some of them left their families just to do some work here, because there is no work and future in their hometown. It was hard to realise, that Agbogbloshie is also some kind of escape and that some people think they will have a better future here, and some do for a short period.

DD: Has the government made any plans to help these people and the environment?

Kevin McElvaney: Yes, but it's hard to find a long term solution. Exports should be stopped in the harbours, where it comes from - especially because of the Basel Convention, it usually tries to stop the transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries. I think Ghana is somehow not able to help itself here. But it's a beautiful country and these pictures just highlight the problem. No one was stopping me from taking these pictures, because I think they realised that it's important to show the world that this happens and it has to be stopped. They need help and except help.

DD: Many young people leave their families to work in Agbogbloshie, do you think they are aware of the risks?

Kevin McElvaney: I think it doesn’t matter if they are aware of the risks, because at this point its often their only solution. The agricultural north of Ghana has to deal with the climate change and extended periods of drought lead to many bad harvests. Families aren't able to feed their children and the cheap, subsidised vegetables from the EU are about to kill the local markets there. It's not just the e-waste from the developed countries that harm Africa.

“Developed countries have to stop these shipments. We can't export our problems.” 

agbogbloshie_kevin_mcelvaney_dazed_and_confused_de
Kevin McElvaney

DD: The young people working on the site often hope that they will be able to leave in the future, how likely is this?

Kevin McElvaney: I think it's not really possible to leave the vicious cycle of Agbogbloshie: Once you have "enough" money, you have to spend it on food, medicine or you try to help your friends, who are sick. Many youngsters find friends there and see each other as a family, not just a community. They help each other as long as they can. But as I said before, many boys and girls die after a few years working there.

DD: The landscape became a dumping ground during the late '90s, have you spoken to anyone who can remember what the area was like before?

Kevin McElvaney: It once was a green wetland and some kind of recreation area. As I mentioned before the Odaw river surrounds the fields of Agbogbloshie. So it was a beautiful and fertile landscape once, but now its covered with the consumerist garbage. You can still see some palms, bushes and trees on a few pictures, but that's not worth mention.

DD: The majority of the e-waste comes from Japan and western cities, how responsible are these places for Agbogbloshie? as most dumping happens illegally.

Kevin McElvaney: The problem is, that many exporters mislabel their shipping-containers as development-aid or second-hand material (donations) for the developing countries. Africa needs such products and donations, but the stupid thing is that just 10-20% of the TVs, PCs, HiFi-Systems, mobiles and so on are functioning. Most of it is scrap and the recycling companies in the developed countries don’t do their job. Interpol and other organisations try to stop this illegal trading routes.

DD: Why has the area been dubbed "Sodom and Gomorrah"?

Kevin McElvaney: The inhabitants nicknamed the place “Sodom and Gomorrah” themselves I think. It's just a metaphor for what Agbogbloshie is and looks like nowadays: a destroyed city, covered in ash, waste and fire. 

DD: What steps do you think need to be taken to help resolve the problem?

Kevin McElvaney: Developed countries have to stop these shipments and follow the Basel Convention first. We can’t export our problems. Besides that we have to learn to reduce our consumption of products. From January to March the number of containers in Tema Harbour (where the e-waste from Agbogbloshie comes from) rises from 500 to 800, because of the worldwide christmas consumption. It's no solution to just buy and replace goods. It would be helpful to repair things again and buy more quality goods. Consumers, designers and companies have to do their best to be more sustainable for the future.

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