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Toxic backlash to Thai-Japan FTA

Asia Times | Feb 21, 2007

Toxic backlash to Thai-Japan FTA

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK — A highly anticipated Thailand-Japan free-trade agreement (FTA) has hit an unexpected environmental snag, as Thai activists protest a provision in the draft agreement that would allow Japan to export to and dump in Thailand unlimited amounts of the hazardous and toxic waste it generates.

Thailand’s embattled government had hoped that quick passage of the highly anticipated pact would encourage new Japanese investments and reaffirm its free-trade credentials in global markets, which have taken a beating after a series of controversial economic- and financial-policy decisions, including the imposition of capital controls last December on certain types of foreign investments.

The anti-FTA protests gathered momentum last week as members of Thailand’s military-appointed National Legislative Assembly met to debate the proposed pact.

Officials from Thailand’s Foreign Ministry have confirmed to environmentalists the range of waste the FTA designates Thailand would have to accept, including slag, residues from incinerated municipal waste, residue from chemical and allied industries, and hospital waste.

"We will be victimized by these trade policies pushed by industrialized countries," said Penchom Saetang, coordinator of the Campaign for Alternative Industry Network (CAIN), a Bangkok-based non-governmental organization that is opposing the Thailand-Japan FTA.

Even without a new FTA, Japan is currently the largest foreign investor in Thailand, with more than 1,100 Japanese-owned companies with operations in the Southeast Asian country. A large number of those companies are involved in electronics manufacturing, which are known to produce large amounts of hazardous waste. And while Thailand has some of the toughest environmental regulations on the books, on the ground the laws are seldom strictly enforced.

As of 2001, according to industry monitors, less than 10% of the estimated 1 million tons of hazardous waste produced in the country was properly stabilized, processed and disposed of. The rest was dumped either into rivers, into open dumps or unregulated private properties, or at sea. The 25%-state-owned General Environmental Conservation Public Co, or Genco, has long held a local monopoly on industrial-waste disposal - but until recently only had the capacity to handle a mere 20% of Thailand’s annually produced toxic waste, according to industry experts.

At the same time, Thailand has nonetheless imported growing quantities of hazardous waste. In 2002, it accepted 54 tonnes of waste from Japan, which increased to 334,000 tonnes in 2003, and 350,000 tonnes in 2004, according to Thailand’s Customs Department. "Yet we don’t know what happened to the waste, where it was sent to in the country," said CAIN’s Penchom. "That information is described as a trade secret. This mystery is a problem to us."

Toxic disclosures

Japan’s first 2002 shipment to Thailand coincided with mounting pressures on Tokyo to find a quick outlet for a growing waste-management crisis at home. Japan has been gradually running out of space for new landfill sites, and the cost of waste management and waste disposal was eroding industrial competitiveness. Meanwhile, affected local communities were beginning to file expensive lawsuits against waste-producing companies and recycling firms.

For instance, people in Saitama prefecture north of Tokyo were outraged to discover that their local-government leaders had concealed information about the high level of dioxins found in the air and the soil in their communities. The pollution was later traced to nearby incinerators run by privately owned waste-recycling companies.

To be sure, Japan is only one of many industrialized countries that have been exporting waste to Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia. Others that have done so under prevailing loopholes that permit some forms of waste being shipped for recycling include the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and South Korea.

The growing pressure on developing countries to accept harmful waste from industrialized nations violates the Basel Convention, environmentalists contend. Adopted in 1989 and brought into force in 1992, the convention broadly bans all forms of hazardous waste being shipped from the industrialized world to the developing world.

Nonetheless, various studies since have shown that the international agreement adopted has wholly failed to stop the toxic exports. The UK, for instance, exported nearly 23,000 tonnes of electronic waste "illegally" in 2003 to parts of Southeast Asia, India and China, according to international environmental lobby group Greenpeace.

FTAs, such as the one under negotiation between Thailand and Japan, threaten to increase those toxic flows, environmental groups say. The deal must not be ratified unless "all nuclear- and toxic-waste dumping provisions are scrapped", said one Greenpeace activist. "It is highly immoral and unjust for a rich country like Japan to dump its dangerous wastes on countries which neither have the means nor the resources to manage their own waste problems."

Anti-FTA activists in Thailand say their opposition to the agreement’s provisions on waste imports will not be easy to sidestep, since it is reportedly one of only two pivotal clauses where Thai negotiators feel they have more to lose than gain from the bilateral deal. There is also local opposition to provisions in the proposed deal over patent protection on domestic biotechnology products.

Tokyo’s quest for regional waste-disposal sites in economically weaker Southeast Asian countries is also included in a proposed FTA between Japan and the Philippines, which was recently sent for approval to the Philippine Senate. Bilateral deals with both the Philippines and Thailand could, however, lead to badly needed Japanese investments in both countries’ overstretched hazardous-waste-disposal sectors.

But Bangkok is also under pressure from Japanese negotiators to give up its right to stop any incoming shipment of hazardous waste, according to Witoon Liancharoon, spokesman for FTA Watch, a lobby group in Thailand campaigning against all bilateral free-trade deals.

"The investment charter of the Thai-Japan FTA has many clauses protecting the Japanese investor involved in recycling hazardous waste," said Witoon. "Thailand won’t be able to use any protections guaranteed under existing multilateral environment agreements if a problem occurs."

(Inter Press Service with additional reporting by Asia Times Online)

 source: Asia Times