MERCOSUR a Toxic Waste Dump? - by Dario Montero

MONTEVIDEO, Feb 1 (IPS) - Suspicions that toxic wastes have been entering Paraguay illegally through a free trade zone in Uruguay have rekindled fears that the Southern Cone may have become a toxic waste dump for the developed North starting in the late 1980s.

Since the mid-1990s the flow of dangerous waste materials has shifted towards southern Asia, but environmental organizations believe that Latin America continues to be a destination of waste shipments from Europe and the United States.

The implementation of the Basel Convention in 1992 which was ratified by Latin American countries, and subsequent legislation in participating countries prohibiting these practices, has seen a decrease in the number of shipments. Still, environmentalists believe that toxic waste continues to enter the region with the help of fraudulent documents.

The international agreement regulates the production of toxic wastes and its movement between nations. It also establishes guidelines for treating these substances as close to their places of production as possible and in the most environmentally appropriate way.

At subsequent international gatherings, China and the developing nations in the Group of 77 demanded a ban on toxic waste dumping from the countries represented by the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development (OECD)

The environmental watchdog Greenpeace says it has evidence about several plans to transport hazardous wastes from Europe and the United States - which is not a member of the Basel Convention - although it has not been able to document the actual arrival of any such material in Latin America.

Paraguayan authorities currently are attempting to determine the country of origin of 1,100 containers found in the port of Asuncion, whose presumably toxic contents are now being analyzed in Germany by a team directed by the specialist of the secretariat of the Basel Convention Mario Epstein.

The shipment, which seems to have originated in Germany, was abandoned in 1992 after passing through a free trade zone that Paraguay administers in the port of Montevideo. The director of the free trade zone Pablo Abdala told IPS that the ship came in with legitimate documentation.

Part of the shipment appears to have been mixed with fuel oil and burned in the ovens of a factory of the state-owned National Cement Industry, located in Vallemi in the region of the Great Chaco in northern Paraguay.

Last week, the Paraguayan government sent an inter- institutional team of specialists to search a large area for other sites where hundreds of barrels of highly toxic waste may possibly have been buried. The presence of radioactive materials has not been discarded. These materials would have been transported there through rivers or railroads in the early 1990s.

Paraguayan experts have warned that if such deposits do exist, the consequences for the environment and for the health of the population could be disastrous, given the fact that water tables are barely four and five meters below the surface.

According to Marcelo Furtado, the international coordinator of the Greenpeace campaign against the commerce of waste, the hazardous materials would have arrived from the United States and Europe between 1988 and 1993 through ports like Montevideo and Nueva Palmira (Uruguay), Rosario (Argentina), or Brazil.

Furtado maintains much of the responsibility for the control of these illicit transactions falls on Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay - all members of the Basel Convention. These four nations are also members of The Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR).

Uruguay, which is apparently the entry point for these illegal shipments, is the only one of the four MERCOSUR countries that ratified the amendment to the Basel Convention that prohibits the shipment of toxic waste from third countries for final deposit and recycling - which went into effect on January 1, 1998.

Since then, the shipment of special wastes from Europe to countries that are not members of the OCEP have been prohibited

This year, the Uruguayan Senate will approve a bill that will facilitate the inspection by national authorities of all good that pass through their free trade zones, so as to prevent and fight the presence of substances that pose dangers to human life and the environment.

At the conference scheduled for February in Kuching, Malaysia, the roster of toxic substances will be expanded, although the proposal of environmentalists to include nuclear waste on that roster will not be incorporated.

The issue will be placed on the MERCOSUR agenda at the behest of Paraguay, who has promised to abide by the ban as well.

Furtado told IPS that Greenpeace has spoken with the Paraguayan government headed by Juan Carlos Wamosy about the need for a regional accord that guarantees immediate measures to prevent the clandestine entry of hazardous waste and the inclusion of nuclear waste in on the roster of prohibited substances.

Furtado stated that Greenpeace is prepared to give Paraguayan authorities the assistance they have requested if they are given access to their records and other documents in return.

The inclusion of these issues within MERCOSUR negotiations is vital in light of recently discovered plans to ship toxic waste to Paraguay and other Latin American countries.

A Greenpeace report published in 1991 in Germany revealed the existence of 18 different plans to ship hazardous waste from the United States and Europe and make them disappear in cement and shoe factories and energy plants, or to recycle them as alternative fuel.

The destinations of these shipments included Argentina (100,000 tons per year), El Salvador (1.2 million t/y), Grenada (16,000 t/y), Guyana (100,000 t/y), Honduras (300 t/y), Nicaragua (200 t/y), Paraguay (1.2 million t/y), Uruguay (60 t/y) and Venezuela (101,000 t/y). The plans also included Mexico and the Dominican Republic for an overall total of 2,717,560 tons per year.

The so-called ''Florida Group,'' based in Miami, is one of the agents implicated in this illegal traffic. The group made its contacts in Germany through ''HIS of Lakeland,'' a sanitary and real estate company.

Its director, Matthias Engle, was detained in the German port city of Bremen in February 1990 as he embarked 1,100 barrels of toxic waste destined for Venezuela, Paraguay, Argentina and Guyana.

A short time later, 1,000 tons of toxic waste was discovered on the Borkum, a ship that had been chartered by the SWE- Entsorgungsbetriebe KG, whose chairman was honorary Paraguayan consul general Heinrich Kreyenberg. He is currently being investigated in conjunction with the illegal shipments.

Kreyenberg, of German origin but naturalized Paraguayan by order of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner, stated that he wanted to ''donate'' 100,000 tons of paint sediments and varnish residues mixed with sawdust for the National Cement Industry to use as a substitute fuel.

For this ''gift,'' Kreyenberg would have obtained a net profit of six million dollars. Instead, he was stripped of his post on April 6, 1990 by then president Andres Rodriguez.

The German television network Die Mullschieber filmed the shipment on the Borkum and revealed it was later incinerated in the heating system of a school in what was formerly East Germany, a crime for which Kreyenberg was sent to prison. This video is now in the hands of Paraguayan authorities.

According to several investigations conducted by nongovernmental organizations in the region, customs and military officials from the Stroessner government and from the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s in Argentina and Uruguay appear to be implicated in the case.