UN environment expert: the world’s toxic wastelands have millions of residents

Young men burn electrical wires to recover copper at Agbogbloshie, an electronic dumpling ground in Accra, Ghana, in September, 2019. (Credit: Muntaka Chasant/wikimedia commons)

Six months after the UN recognised the human right to a healthy environment, a report by the UN expert on the environment shows that this is far from being the reality for some of the world’s most vulnerable.

Millions of people live, work and go to school within some of the most contaminated places on Earth and they are paying a hefty price for it, according to UN special rapporteur David Boyd. In his latest report, Boyd describes so-called sacrifice zones, areas where the air, water and soil are so polluted from toxic chemicals that cancer, liver damage, lead poisoning, respiratory diseases and many other health issues have become the norm for nearby communities.

There are thousands of these places across the world. Copper mines and smelting complexes in Bor, Serbia, have made it one of Europe’s most polluted cities, where eight in 10 metallurgical workers suffer from roughly two chronic diseases. In La Oroya, Peru, 99 per cent of children living near a lead smelter present high levels of lead in their blood. Residents of the oil polluted Niger Delta in Nigeria only live up to 40 years of age on average.

Ahead of his report presentation before the Human Rights Council on Thursday, the author told Geneva Solutions how the people living in these toxic wastelands bear the true cost of global progress.

GS News: What are sacrifice zones and why did you decide to call them that way?

David Boyd: The term sacrifice zone was first used back in the 1950s and 60s to describe communities that were devastated by nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific and in what is now Kazakhstan. Then that phrase, which is very dark and disturbing, was used by activists in the environmental justice movement in the United States to describe communities, largely black and poor, that are bearing a disproportionate and unfair burden of pollution and other forms of environmental degradation.

For me, it was actually a meeting three years ago in Geneva with an individual from Chile's National Human Rights institution who introduced me to the concept. She was speaking about a region in Chile that I highlighted in my report called Quintero-Puchuncaví and she described it as a sacrifice zone, a place where there's such a devastating volume of industrial pollution, that in effect, people's dignity, their rights and their health are being sacrificed in the name of corporate profit, economic growth and progress.

GS News: This is your first report since the right to a healthy environment was recognised by the Human Rights Council in September 2021. Why focus on chemical pollution?

Last year's resolution was a historic moment in the evolution of international human rights and a tremendous positive outcome for the future of humankind. But those beautiful words from the Human Rights Council have to be translated into action to protect people and the planet on the ground.

This is the sixth in a series of reports about the substantive elements of the right to a healthy environment – clean air, safe and sufficient water, healthy and sustainably produced food, a safe climate, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity – and the sixth substantive element is the right to live in a non toxic environment. I realised that this idea of a sacrifice zone could be quite a powerful way to juxtapose the recognition of this fundamental human right, with the fact that there are millions of people living in the most environmentally degraded, unhealthy situations imaginable. In countries north and south, east and west, rich and poor, nowhere is immune to this problem of sacrifice zones. In light of the very profound commitment of states to leave no one behind and prioritise those who are furthest behind in the sustainable development goals, these places should be their number one priority.

GS News: Who are the people that are most affected by this?

DB: I had a submission from the Marshall Islands government itself saying we believe that parts of our territory are sacrifice zones [editor’s note: Radioactive waste from US nuclear tests in the 1940s and 1950s is still causing health issues for Marshallese]. There’s a place called “Cancer Alley” in the United States. The US is the richest country in human history and yet, here's this community where you have dozens of oil refineries, petrochemical plants and styrofoam plants. It's a toxic nightmare and who lives there? Poor black people.

I visited a small indigenous community in Canada almost 15 years ago, which I mentioned in the report. If you imagine a doughnut, the indigenous community would be the hole and more than 20 major industrial facilities would be the pastry. I couldn't believe that this was taking place in Canada, a country that's renowned as a fairly green and beautiful place. I was there for half a day and I had a sore throat, my eyes were itching and I had a pounding headache and I just thought, if that's how a person from the outside feels in a few hours, what must it be like to live day in, day out, year in, year out in those incredibly horrible circumstances?

GS News: A lot of these activities – oil extraction, mining, farming – are essential for our way of life. Can we continue to produce and consume food, energy and other essential goods without causing such harm to the environment and to others?

DB: That has to be our objective. We cannot continue to abide by an economic system in which we exploit people and destroy the planet. You and I, as people who are relatively privileged and affluent, everything that we buy today is causing misery for people and environmental damage in different parts of the world. Shifting away from fossil fuels is a key part of the solution but we need to also have a just transition in place so that we won't cause more human rights violations as we shift to a sustainable society.

We also need to very rapidly shift away from this linear economy where we treat nature as just an inventory of resources for humans to use and dump for all of our weight and pollution. We need to create a circular economy where everything that we manufacture, everything that we use, can be reused, recycled and composted. And we have the technology and the ingenuity. The world is now embarking on negotiations for a new global plastic treaty. I'm really optimistic that it can be an important step towards illustrating what this circular economy, that perhaps seems abstract, actually looks like for something as important to our economy as plastic is today.

GS News: A lot of these changes will take time. Just the treaty will take at least two years to be drafted. What can be done immediately for the people living in these desperate situations?

DB: There are steps such as an absolute red line that no more polluting facilities go into these communities. Step number two is that the polluting facilities that are already there either change their processes or change their types of production in ways that substantially reduce the burden of pollution. For example, one of the sacrifice zones that I highlight is a black community in South Africa in the Mpumalanga region. Literally a dozen coal fired power plants are currently operating with such substandard technology when you can install scrubbers – a technology that’s been around for decades – on these coal plants to dramatically reduce the amount of air pollution coming out of the stack and improve the quality of life of the communities. But to be honest, some of these places are so contaminated that the only viable proposition is going to be to relocate the community, with its consent and full participation of course.

GS News: What's stopping these easier steps from being taken?

DB: There's two major issues. The first, which is probably the most important, is that a lot of these places are not well known and part of the purpose of this report is to really shine a spotlight on these situations. The second piece is that these are communities that are disadvantaged in every way socially, economically and environmentally. They have very little power, so it's been easy for our societies to target these communities with all of this pollution and waste without any repercussions.

GS News: The war in Ukraine has raised the alarm on the nuclear threat, both from the risk of nuclear weapons being deployed and from the fighting causing an accident at one of Ukraine’s many nuclear reactors. Are you worried about the environmental implications of the conflict?

DB: War has always been an environmental nightmare; just the destructiveness of the huge volumes of money that are spent every year on military equipment and militarisation, when that money could be spent for education, health care or environmental sustainability. So it's not only this war, which is potentially creating another sacrifice zone in Ukraine, but it's the broader implications of militarisation that are antithetical to sustainability. If you look at countries like Costa Rica, where they've eliminated the military and invested that money in people and the planet, they have fantastic outcomes. They have high levels of literacy, longer life expectancy, and they're global leaders in sustainable development. So we have a clear trajectory – if we want to achieve the sustainable development goals, part of the absolute precondition for that is peace and demilitarisation.