“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
“…Each community’s victory helps everyone else. The exciting thing about GAIA is that they have been able to translate this sharing of information and successes into a worldwide phenomenon. With e-mail and other internet exchanges, there is nowhere for the various companies who build incinerators, or run mega-landfills, to hide -nor the short-sighted politicians who support them. GAIA gives eyes and ears to every community fighting bad waste management – no matter how small or how remote that community may be. All things connect and GAIA connects us all.”
Dr. Paul Connett
It was in March that the Second Global Meeting of the Global Anti-Incineration Alliance (GAIA) was held on the beautiful island of Penang, northern Malaysia. GAIA is an expanding international alliance of individuals, non-governmental organisation, community-based organisations, academics and others working to end the incineration of all forms of waste and to promote sustainable waste prevention and discard management practices. The aim of the meeting was to serve as a unique platform not only to further strengthen the global coalition against unsustainable production, materials reuse, waste disposal and for sustainable alternatives, but also to share and celebrate members practical experiences on fighting incinerators and other back-end waste disposal practices, their efforts to promote alternatives, as well as discuss and develop strategies to strengthen and advance GAIA’s mission at local, regional and global levels.
I was glad to see that over 120 participants from 27 countries from Malaysia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America took part in this enormously stimulating program that saw the participants educating one another, nurturing associations, building expertise, rejoicing achievements, crying tears of joy, acting sketches, singing, dancing and having heaps of fun. There was also the planning of ways to address gripping issues regarding incinerators and solutions to combat problems faced by our global communities. It was quite exciting to attend this meeting since I would meet many people for the first time that I previously only communicated with by electronic mail.
The program for the GAIA Global Meeting included several workshops, campaign planning and training sessions, which were based on the varying needs and requirements of participants. Some of the issues covered during different workshops included how to promote clean production while stopping incineration, Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), Incineration by another name, Zero Waste, Composting, Plastics, Incineration and international instruments, Extender producer responsibility, etc. Participants were encouraged to attend activities of their choice that tied in with their interests and priorities.
One of the sessions, which I attended and facilitated, was HCWH: Eliminating the environmental impacts of the health care industry around the world. I was not surprised to see that the workshop room was packed to capacity since it is a fact that health care waste is a mounting problem that affects the health of communities worldwide. Participants were able to express some of their pressing concerns to the panel with excellent responses for solutions to these problems.
One of the most enjoyable moments during the global meeting was participation in the cultural night. Participants were encouraged to perform songs, acts, sketches, plays and dances relating to their cultures to commemorate our gathering in Penang. Some performances included countries such as India performing traditional Indian dances and songs, South Africa astounded the crowd with their ‘African drum beats’ and Zulu dances, and the US performed golden oldie songs, while Iran performed a traditional dance. This truly turned out to be a memorable event for all. It was remarkable to witness and be part of such a colourful event.
It was during our time in Penang that the United States had fired their first missiles, declaring war on Iraq, failing to work together with other nations of the world in pursuit of world peace. The irony was that represented amongst us at the meeting were men and women, young and old, from all sectors of the world, all colours, all creeds, all religious beliefs and all spiritual convictions, these included people from the US and Iran. GAIA participants had a candle light prayer in support of world peace against the war.
An important event during the gathering was the regional meetings that occurred. Countries meet in their respective groups to discuss pressing issues relevant to their regions. For the Africa meeting, participating countries included South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, Egypt and Mauritius. All countries expressed their concerns relating to waste issues. It was found that the common problems being faced amongst all countries was the incineration of medical waste, Africa Stockpiles Program (ASP), hazardous waste, a lack of information and good regulatory / enforcement of laws and regulations. With regard to regional nodes, I was glad that participants agreed that, South Africa should not be seen as the only node and that there could be possibilities of a northern/western node. It was agreed that a strategy for outreach for the node would be developed with a timeframe of two years.
Overall, the GAIA Global Meeting proved to be a major success and was a historic demonstration of global. Through GAIA, communities from all over the world are raising essential questions and challenging the poisoning of existence. But most importantly, they are demonstrating practical solutions to our planetary predicament.
India: Doing it for themselves
Earlier this year, I spent two exciting weeks in India at the invitation of a few Indian organisations working on health care waste issues. I was quick to respond to the invitations to visit as I though that we as South Africans could learn much from other southern countries such as India where local organisations have managed to transform really disastrous hospitals into model institutions.
My first stop was in New Delhi where I was hosted by a local non-profit organisation called Sristhi.
In Delhi, in the urban areas, there are between 25 and 30 government hospitals. In 2000, there were about 54 incinerators in Delhi, now there exist around 24. In 1998, eight autoclaves were set up at different government hospitals. I was glad to see that India had decided to install these non-burn technologies that would not create health hazards to surrounding communities. However, many hospitals still incinerate their waste. India also has a religious orientation towards burning of bodies. However, cremation rituals are expensive and shift from burning to the burial of bodies has occurred without an uproar.
Ratna Singh of Sristhi accompanied me on my visits to hospitals in Delhi. I was amazed to see that in most of the hospitals such as Holy Family and Barta hospital a clear system of waste segregation. The only disappointment was seeing that like South Africa mercury equipment was still being used and that most staff, when questioned, were unaware of the potential dangers of this substance.
In New Delhi, I also visited Chintan an NGO working with ragpickers in India. I went along to one of the ragpickers’ meetings where they explained how ragpickers operated in India according to territories. The assumption generally is that rag picking is more a survival strategy than a conscious occupational choice. However, I was glad to see that India views that abolishing rag picking is not a solution, rather they have to help ragpickers to become recognised, registered workers with their own rights. At the meeting, ragpickers discussed issues concerning problems, complaints, and violations.
I then travelled to Bhopal where I visited Shambhavana Clinic – a clinic set up to assist the victims of the Dow Chemicals gas disaster of 1984. The director of the clinic, Sathyu Sarangi, took me on a memorable bike tour of Bhopal. I also visited the Dow Chemicals site of the Bhopal tragedy. It was quite touching to see the monument that had been erected for the victims of that incident. Residents in the area were eager to show me around and to expose this horrific human rights abuse. It was quite obvious that people were fully aware of this incident even after almost 18 years.
I also visited an editor of a local newspaper in Bhopal. His name was Pushpendra Solanki. The newspaper he works for is ‘sandhya prakash’. Pushpendra was an activist in his earlier days. He said that he had written numerous articles on pollution from the three main hospital incinerators in the area. Although publicly exposed, they have taken no action to reduce their waste or close their incinerators. He said that local Indian civil society, are weak in mobilising themselves and taking action. He requested that groundWork’s help with campaigning strategies that we have used to mobilise communities to shut down incinerators.
My next stop was Bombay where I was hosted by an NGO called HOPES (Help for people and the Environment) that has been working on health care waste issues and has been doing some great work on hospital training. While there, I visited the Tata Memorial hospital’s hydro clave facility. I also visited a centralised autoclave facility for medical waste situated on a landfill site. I was disappointed to see that the central facility was very small and was located next to an incinerator.
I also visited a nature reserve where they are doing great work on composting. This would be great if the hospitals would be able to carry this out since it requires no investment or energy to make this work.
My trip to India was a fantastic experience that I will never forget.