New Internationalist

Dirty Business

Issue 363

A few months ago the NI received an email from Almaz Mequanint, an Ethiopian now resident in the US. She described her former life in Wonji, a sugar-refining town in Ethiopia. We forwarded her email to the Dutch company HVA, which built and ran the places she describes. Clemens JM Rolink, the current General Manager of HVA International NV, replied. This is a shortened version of what they had to say. They paint two quite different pictures – we leave readers to judge which is the more convincing.

Almaz Mequanint:

I feel helpless and in despair when I think of my whole family and the 100,000 voiceless residents who have been living around the sugar factories of Ethiopia.

In the 1950s the Dutch company HVA pioneered the sugar industry here. The Wonji, Wonji/Shoa and Metehara sugar factories were established in 1954, 1960 and 1968. In 1967 I moved to Wonji as a kid. I grew up there – my two children were born and raised there. These communities were vulnerable because they were perceived as weak and passive, unable to fight back for fear that they might jeopardize their jobs and economic survival.

The Dutch always treated us as the lowest and offered us the worst. Milling, processing and boiling sugar produces harmful waste and gases. Molasses was poured on to the streets, making them sticky to walk on and creating a foul smell. Many of the houses were constructed using asbestos. The drinking water had excess fluoride.

I now suffer from asthma because of the air pollution at that time. My teeth are decayed and I have knee and other joint problems. My kids are suffering from tooth decay, cavities and staining.

The Dutch lived in a secluded area called Shebo Gibi, which means ‘wired area’. My father used to warn me not to go to Shebo Gibi. I asked him why not. His answer was that we were black; they – the people who ran the sugar factories – were white.

Recently I went back to Ethiopia and I found that many people I know were sick from diseases caused by pollution. Some of my father’s friends were bedridden because of skeletal fluorosis. Beautiful young girls covered their mouths with their hands when they smiled, to hide their stained teeth.

The exhaust fumes were so thick they formed a sort of fog around the community where I used to live. Dust, gases and smoke had affected many people’s lungs and circulation. Drinking water was heavily polluted with hazardous wastes.

There is not enough data collected about pollutants in these communities. But I know this much: many children are dying because of them. The sad thing is that nobody knows who to blame or where to seek help.

The main office of HVA International is in The Netherlands. I sent them emails long ago, but they didn’t respond. I hold them accountable for the mess they have created. The Ethiopian Government has no money and faces a famine and an aids crisis as well.

Clemens JM Rolink:

The sugar estates formerly owned by HVA were nationalized by the Ethiopian Government in 1976… HVA International NV has no juridical link whatsoever with the former HVA and its interests in Ethiopia.

As we probably are the only party that might give some answers to questions, we may have a moral obligation. On the other hand, there is not a single person active in our company that is knowledgeable on details of the sugar estates in Ethiopia.

During the time of nationalization… the Ethiopian Government claimed a large amount as compensation for the fluoride problem and at the same time accepted responsibility for all future claims.

Drinking water was not available in that area in the 1960s, for which reason HVA bored water wells. After some years it became apparent that these wells contained a high fluoride percentage. The effects of fluoride were not known at that time. Even before the 1970s HVA ordered an official study, from which it became clear that drinking from the wells over a long period could have a negative impact on teeth and bones, especially those of children.

HVA instantly took measures by creating separate water distribution points where special bone-filters were used to produce low-fluoride water, or so-called “children’s water”. Everybody without exception could collect water, and information was widely spread around the estate. The whole fluoride matter was taken extremely seriously… Except for the consequences of fluoride, no other illnesses of a serious nature are known…

White and black people were not segregated. On the contrary. There were two areas, one for labourers (all black) and one for staff, where white and black lived together and shared the same facilities…

The air pollution from sugar factories is very limited if compared to other industries like steel, chemicals, etc. Anti-pollution measures were taken as was common practice and valid for West-European plants in those days…

To our knowledge no asbestos was used for houses. However, asbestos was applied for heat insulation in the factory. This has never created problems due to the fact that the asbestos, after being installed, stayed in place and could not spread dust particles.

All in all, the living conditions within the factory premises were undoubtedly much better than outside in the villages… For sure, industrialization also has its other side, just as in Western Europe. However, in our opinion, it” is on a comparable scale in Ethiopia – not much worse and not much better.

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