Europe's Obsolete Computers Burn in South African Toxic Dump


Photo: Yakubu Al Hasan, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2009 © Pieter Hugo. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town and Yossi Milo, New York.

A good documentary photographer takes us to places that we never could imagine and teaches us something at the same time. The Canadian Ed Burtynsky has been photographing the impact of China's massive industrial revolution and the environmental devastation it has left behind. The Brazilian Salvador Salgado depicts conditions endured by Brazilian coal miners and African famine victims.

South African Pieter Hugo documents Ghana's Agbogbloshie Market which is a notorious dump site for Europe's outdated computers. Located in Accra, Ghana, it is a toxic, poisonous, and polluted wasteland for digital technology.
Photo: Untitled, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2010 © Pieter Hugo. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town and Yossi Milo, New York.

It is a very sad, but somewhat familiar story. Young men and young children are scavengers, dismantling computers and going through the piles of garbage looking for bits and pieces of e-waste to sell at a near-by market. Many boys are sent to mine the dumps by poor families from the north.


Photo: Untitled, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2010 © Pieter Hugo. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town and Yossi Milo, New York.

Apparently, the computers come from European Union countries, where the legislation prohibits the illegal discharge of that type of waste.

In Europe, only 25% of the waste is recycled and the rest is shipped off to developing countries. So many well-meaning Europeans and Americans are unwittingly donating their old computers to the Third World, thinking that they are helping to make these countries more computer literate. Most of the countries receiving the computers don't have proper recycling facilities, so they end up in places like this.


Photo: Untitled, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2010 © Pieter Hugo. Courtesy of Michael Stevenson, Cape Town and Yossi Milo, New York.

The pieces are burned to retrieve copper, which gives off noxious fumes. The air, soil and water are therefore heavily polluted by toxic heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and mercury. Copper is perhaps the most desirable, then brass, then aluminum, then 
zinc.

Pieter Hugo's photographs are shown at the Michael Stevenson Gallery in South Africa. They were printed in the New York Times magazine and the story of this market was revealed to the world.

He says, "local inhabitants refer to the place as Sodom and Gomorrah, a vivid acknowledgment of the profound inhumanity of the place." When he asked the inhabitants what they called the pit where the burning takes place, they repeatedly responded: 'For this place, we have no name'.

Hugo comments:

"the alchemy on this site and the strolling cows recall a pastoral existence that rewinds our minds to a medieval setting. The cycles of history and the lifespan of our technology are both clearly apparent in this cemetery of artifacts from the industrialised world. We are also reminded of the fragility of the information and stories that were stored in the computers which are now just black smoke and melted plastic.


More on Environmental Photography
The Dignity and Despair of Trash Collectors in the World's Largest Wasteland
Edward Burtynsky Photographic Works: Exploring the Residual Landscape
Ansel Adams' Negatives Found in a Garage Sale--Maybe

Tags: Artists | Environmental Justice | Photography

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