Problematic vectors of globalisation run through Addis Ababa in the dumping of discarded Chinese plastic in the landfill site; and in the attempts being made to transform rubbish into electricity, writes Caroline Knowles.
The tragic collapse at the 50-year-old Koshe landfill site to the South of Addis Ababa last Sunday (March 12) killing more than 110 people and injuring dozens more exposes some of the fault-lines running through globalisation and city governance. This collapse signals a failure by those in authority to consider the realities of the lives of the Addis poor. The collapse swept away the temporary homes – makeshift tents constructed from sticks, cardboard and plastic – of those who live on the slender prospects Koshe offers in the absence of alternative opportunities in the city. The ways in which cities deal with their garbage and their poor speaks loudly about their priorities.
My first visit to Koshe was in 2013. From the highway that runs from the city this giant (36 hectares at that time), murky, grey-brown raised area of partially decomposed rubbish, with occasional bright specs of colour, came into view. I’m a sociologist working at the University of London studying how globalisation works on the ground. I’d been following the trail of plastic flip-flops from the oil fields of the Middle East, through Korean petrochemical plants, Chinese factories and China’s biggest market for plastics, which is in Ethiopia (www.flipfloptrail.com). The Koshe landfill site is where the trail ends. I was here to see what it looks like and how it works.
The site was patrolled from the air by birds of prey, diving into the rubbish. Motely crews of wild dogs gambolling and snatching at its soft surface patrol it at ground level. Smoke was rising in several places adding a layer of haze to its murky colour scheme. Yellow bulldozers nosed the heap, sifting and levelling it. Municipal rubbish trucks and flatbed trucks arrived from the city and discharge their contents. Slowly I took in the 200 or so people, dressed in the same murky hues as the heap, backs bent, and hooks in hand, were working at its surface. As I walked onto the site I sank up to my knees.
As the trucks turn off the highway a group of 5 or 6 young men jumped on the back and rode to the dumping area. This put them at an advantage for grabbing the best items as the truck discharges its load: but not without risk. The mechanism that crushes the rubbish occasionally catches a young man in its deadly and disfiguring grasp. As the young men jump off with the rubbish a line of men and women formed on both side of the truck and a scramble for valuable items of trash ensued.
Scratchers – as I learn they call themselves – are looking for anything they can use, sell, or exchange for cash with the recycling agents at the edge of the site. Women specialise in plastic bags and bottles. They refer to the bottles by the water’s brand name, ‘Highland’. Men on the whole dominate the more valuable materials of wood and metals.
Scratchers understand the social geographies of Addis through the trash. They know which trucks come from the best areas, like Bole, with the most valuable trash. I watched as a herd of goats nosed through plastic bags containing waste airline food. The international airport and the upscale residential areas generate the more valuable substances on which the Scratchers graze. Rubbish logs the city’s social inequalities and the limited possibilities of redress.
While this scene looks like a picture postcard from the global poor, as talk to the Scratchers, I start to understand that they are making the best of the limited opportunities available in the city in the absence of formal avenues of employment. I speak to a man who, aged 38, has worked on the site throughout his life. I speak to a young woman who has migrated from a village 150km away for whom this is her entry point to the capital city. She is saving to buy a visa so that, like other young women from her village, she can work as a maid in the Middle East. An aspiring transnational migrant, Koshe provides the starting point for her journey. What she earns from selling plastic bottles to recyclers in a day is more than she would earn as a waitress in the city for a month. Scratchers are resourceful people making the best of the limited opportunities the city offers them.
By the time of my visit the Koshe landfill site was shrinking as the municipal authorities attempted to regulate and eventually close it. Officials I spoke to were rightly anxious about upsetting this delicate eco-system of recycling and subsistence. In December 2015 the Koshe site was closed. The city had overhauled its garbage system and with it the lives of those who depended on it.
Four recycling sub-stations were set up to serve different parts of the city. The city-plan was to employ Scratchers in the recycling enterprise, but people are not always so easily able to move; they have commitments to places and the people in them. Construction of the new city landfill site in Sendafa, 27km North East of the city, began in January 2016. This was to take the un-recyclables as well as dry and chemical waste from factories.
In July 2016 the Sendafa community blocked the entrance of trucks to the landfill site. Controversially, the site had taken over farming land, with Oromia farmers claiming that they had not been properly compensated for their loss of land and livelihood. Even farming around the site was difficult, as toxic chemicals leeched into the soil. This story of dispossession and poisoning led the local community to block the site. Garbage accumulated on the streets of Addis for 10 days when Koshe was temporarily reopened. Even though it was closed Koshe was still being excavated by a residual band of Scratchers for its trash treasure.
This situation is a part of two bigger stories. The first is local – although replicated in cities throughout the global south. The city of Addis is growing and absorbing farmland as it grows. The ‘master plan’, more aggressively implemented from the end of 2015, is disastrous for people who share the same precarious circumstances as the Scratchers. Their informal settlements and subsistence farming is on land which is being sold to developers building upscale housing. I was surprised when I visited Koshe in 2013 to see that large detached houses were being built around the perimeter of the landfill. As the city expands, this once marginal land becomes valuable.
In October 2015 a State of Emergency was declared in order to quell the rising tide of land rights protests across Ethiopia. Many thousand have been imprisoned for their protests.
Ethiopia has one of the world’s fasted growing economies, estimated to be expanding at between seven percent and 10 percent a year since the millennium. And yet, experts report that this has not lowered levels of poverty. 20 million Ethiopians still live below the poverty line. The government selling farmland to developers for private profit removes the slender and precarious opportunities on which the poor subsist. Luxury housing for wealthy Ethiopians come at a cost born by the poor.
This local-global story has a bigger context in global profit seeking. Although the causes of the Koshe collapse have yet to be properly investigated, local people believe that the subsidence was caused by the construction of the biomass electricity plant on the site. Another plant is being constructed as Sendafa. The plan is to burn un-recyclable rubbish and turn it into electricity to be supplied to the Ethiopian national grid. Koshe will process 1,400 tons of municipal waste a day and turn it into 185 GWHr of electricity annually.
A UK company, Cambridge Industries, is involved in the design and construction of this initiative with a Chinese partner, the National Electric Engineering Company, on behalf of the Ethiopian Electric Power Company. Cambridge Industries’ website boasts that Koshe is the first instalment in a plan to develop multiple waste energy plants across Sub-Saharan African cities. We might read in these plans the prospect of further dispossession, of appropriation of subsistence farming and land redevelopment in favour of the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
Cambridge Industries website tags itself a ‘holistic waste management and renewable energy generation company’. Its ‘modern incineration plant’ we are told, safely deals with nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, dioxins and heavy metals, and operates within EU emissions policies. This remains to be seen. The people who must scratch a living in the area by whatever means may disagree with these claims and Cambridge Industries’ smug ‘green’ claims.
Some problematic vectors of globalisation run through Addis Ababa in the dumping of discarded Chinese plastic in the landfill site; and in the attempts being made to transform rubbish into electricity. Meanwhile, Cambridge Industries burnishes its green credentials and the Ethiopian Government redistributes land from farming to its wealthiest residents, and 46 of the city’s poorest residents die in the crossfire.
Ed.’s Note: Caroline Knowles is the director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research and Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is the author of Flip-Flop: a Journey Through Globalisation’s Backroads, published in 2014 by Pluto Press www.flipfloptrail.com. The views expressed in this article do necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. She can be reached @ [email protected].