Philippines lets Canada dump waste

Tonnes of household waste shipped from Canada to the Philippines will be buried or burned in the Southeast Asian country amidst protests and allegations of international treaty violations.

The Philippines government is allowing the allegedly smuggled tonnes of household and plastic scraps from Canada to be disposed within its territory amidst public protests, two years after the waste was discovered by port authorities in Manila.

Philippines president Benigno Aquino III confirmed to Filipino reporters on Friday - during his state visit to Canada - that the waste issue has been addressed by the government’s executive agencies, when asked if he felt the matter need not be raised with Canadian authorities. He said that appropriate action - whether the waste will be incinerated or buried in a landfill - will be taken once the court gives clearance to the agencies.

Aquino’s statement drew flak from environmental and public health campaign groups in the Philippines, which have been pressing Canada for more than a year now to take back the waste. 

Aileen Lucero, a coordinator with non-profit group EcoWaste Coalition, said on Monday that Aquino had let the Filipino people down for not standing up for the country’s sovereignty. “It’s a bizarre stance coming from a country with a gargantuan garbage problem to deal with and we deplore it,” she added. 

Before Aquino’s departure to Canada, Lucero’s group and other environmental campaign groups, including BAN Toxics, Greenpeace Philippines and Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, had urged the president not to “sweep the issue of Canada’s waste under the rug” and to tackle it with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper. 

The NGOs were concerned that the government agencies’s decision to dispose the waste in the country, announced by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in March this year, had been influenced by the president’s state visit and that the waste issue is being sidelined by the government so as not to hurt the two countries’s diplomatic relations. 

DENR secretary Ramon Paje confirmed this to be the case. He said in a published interview last month that the waste problem is settled for the sake of the country’s diplomatic relations with Canada. “It has been resolved. The DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) has strongly recommended it be settled diplomatically,” Paje was quoted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer as saying. 

“We still hold that the best thing to be done is that they (Canada) take it back, but what will be the effect? It will affect our diplomatic relations,” he added.

The groups were concerned that allowing the disposal locally would set a precedent to more trash dumping by richer countries like Canada, they said in a statement on May 4, prior to Aquino’s state visit. They accused Canada of putting “indirect pressure” to the Philippines government by doling out economic packages in exchange for having its violations to an international treaty against waste dumping ignored.

Abigail Aguilar, toxics campaigner from Greenpeace Philippines, said the issue of waste should be treated with equal importance by the government as other issues such as labour, infrastructure and development assistance. “There is nothing diplomatic in dumping waste to another nation and still expect a friendly stance from them,” stressed Aguilar. 

The alleged illegal waste contained in 50 40-footer containers were imported by Filipino trading firm Chronic Plastics in 2013 from Canadian exporter Chronics Inc. Upon inspection, the Bureau of Customs authorities found that many of the containers were filled with trash instead of what the importer declared to be recyclable plastic materials.

The government agency then filed a case in February 2014 with the regional trial court against the importer for misdeclaring the goods and violating the country’s law on tariff and customs code, as well as the Toxic Substance and Hazardous Wastes and Nuclear Wastes Control Act of 1990 or the Republic Act 6969.

In January this year, the DENR conducted a random assessment of the waste in some containers and declared that there is nothing hazardous in the containers. The agency said the waste can be treated and disposed in the country, with the expenses to be charged against the importer. 

Canada, which had been keen to process the waste in the Philippines welcomed this announcement and stated on March 10 that the issue is a private commercial matter and that the government has no legal capacity to compel the shipper to take it back. “There are not domestic laws which the Government of Canada could apply to compel the shipper to return its containers to Canada,” it said in the statement.

International treaty violations

Either Canada is lying, or they improperly legislated their Basel treaty obligations, and are therefore out of compliance with international law. Either situation is a serious offence.

Jim Puckett, executive director of Basel Action Network

However, non-profit international group Basel Action Network (BAN) accused Canada of violating the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal by refusing to ship the waste back to Canada.

Basel Convention is an international treaty that protects countries from illegal dumping of hazardous and other waste. Both Canada and the Philippines are signatories to the treaty.

Prior to Canada’s March 10 statement, BAN sent a letter addressed to Canada’s foreign affairs department on February 25, citing clauses from the Basel Convention which Canada might have violated. 

BAN stressed that the household waste falls into the “Other Wastes” category mentioned in the law, and since there was no notification nor consent from the Philippine government regarding the waste, it is deemed “illegal traffic”.

BAN further emphasised that sending back the waste is not impracticable, so there is no reason the waste should be disposed in the Philippines. The group cited a similar case which happened between the United Kingdom and Brazil in 2009, where UK took full responsibility and took back its waste.

Jim Puckett, executive director of BAN, condemned Canada for ignoring its legal obligations as a signatory of the treaty. Canada’s claim that it has no legal capability to punish the shipper puts Canada’s Basel treaty obligations in question, he said in a statement on March 31.

“Either Canada is lying, or they improperly legislated their Basel treaty obligations, and are therefore out of compliance with international law. Either situation is a serious offence,” noted Puckett.

The environmental groups have taken their petition online at change.org and are urging more people to support the campaign to get Canada to ship back the trash. It has drawn more than 25,000 supporters, many of whom are from Canada, the protesters said.

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