Trafigura ‘to pay out over waste’

September 16, 2009

Probo Koala

A slight diversion from my usual interests, but this is too rich an issue to pass over. The BBC’s Liz MacKean has reported the dodgy-dealings of the oil-trader, Trafigura. MacKean claims that the company took waste from a ship called Probo Koala and illegally dumped it in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The news comes as a UN report has said there is “strong prima facie evidence” that death and injuries reported in Ivory Coast are related to the dumping.  This waste had been generated by the oil-trading multi-national,  which has bases in London, Amsterdam and Geneva.

You can watch McKean’s report on the BBC website. I found it particularly interesting because Trafigura’s waste came from oil, a process of extracting a functioning substance which produces an inevitable externality. Apparently, this process of extraction left a nasty sulphurous, toxic mixture that Trafigura did their nefarious best to dump on the citizens of the Ivory Coast. The reliance on this word ‘toxic’  in  McKean’s report is so marvellously ambiguous and caries with it such incredibly malignant overtones, that it’s not hard to see why it has been taken up in the financial community to describe ‘non-performing’ financial derivatives. The extraction and subsequent trading of credit leaves a residue that, for instance, becomes deeply problematic when a housing and financial bubble bursts.

More generally, I don’t think that the appearance of Trafigura’s waste on the Ivory Coast is unrelated to the broader usages of the term ‘toxicity’. What is exposed in both situations, both in Africa and the financial instruments which determine  how oil is traded in this region, are the extremes to which people and their employers will go in order to be rid of their waste. Perhaps that might sound a bit trite, but the point ought to be made. Hiding things away where no one will find them is one of the classic responses to objects that are thought to be beyond use, ‘non-performing’. I’m sure that Trafigura’s toxic assets will continue to haunt them for as long as they try and sweep them under the carpet, whether that carpet is in Holland or the Ivory Coast or wherever.

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