In February 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, I decided to visit the district of Agbogbloshie in Accra, the capital of Ghana. In international press reports, the site is often called the “largest repository of electronic waste in existence.” It’s been described as one of those places where the world's waste — generated from our culture of planned obsolescence, and our excessive appetite for the dizzying consumption and disposal of material goods— ends up.
Two years earlier, in 2018, I had started a photographic project whose theme could be expanded to other countries under different social and economic circumstances. In the city of Miami, United States, I had photographed — with a large-format camera — the enormous mountains of metallic garbage that accumulate on the banks of the Miami River at the recycling centers where metals of all kinds are collected, separated, and compressed into heavy bales to be shredded in colossal and noisy machines that resemble two-story buildings. Observing garbage dumps provides us a complementary view of society and its dynamics. This project allowed me to gather an initial file to open a debate among art circuits about "the speed with which we use, accumulate, and discard objects in a direction diametrically opposed to the preservation of the environment; particularly in a peninsula like Florida, which is severely threatened by climate change and the warming of the oceans.”1
But in Africa — the continent where humanity took its first steps — my photographic approach changed diametrically when I faced a much more complex and essentially dramatic reality: a scenario marked by the intersection of overwhelming problems such as the unbridled accumulation of waste, the environmental damage generated by its processing, the terrible living conditions of the local inhabitants, and the need to conceive stable sources of work that guarantee dignity and family sustenance, among many other aspects. As a result, I left aside the metaphors of the landscape to focus on direct documentation, social in nature, capable of containing in images my interrelationship with the territory and its problems, as well as the links that I established with its inhabitants.
Agbogbloshie is a commercial district located in the center of the Ghanaian capital. When I visited, the neighborhood was a large human hive where thousands of people carried out the most dissimilar activities: from selling goods in the street and other types of informal commerce, to working in small businesses — somewhat more stable, but clearly provisional — inside improvised kiosks and workshops on the sidewalk. Here, food and products, artisanal and industrial, local and imported, were made and sold on the spot. According to various sources consulted in 2020, about 40,000 people inhabited this enclave. A large number of them were immigrants from rural areas of the country, people displaced by the imperatives of survival in search of better job opportunities. Adjacent to the land where they recycled electronic waste (and in general, all kinds of scrap and discarded implements), was located in the Onion Market, where vegetables of various kinds and other foods were offered. There were several other popular produce markets in the area. Across the nearby Korle River, was a small village of makeshift houses known as Old Fadama, an enclave surrounded by large esplanades covered with plastic and other kinds of waste.
In those days, the neighborhood had a peculiar aspect. A fine film of coppery ocher dust covered the houses and the windshields of the cars with a mixture of sand and earth that the winds brought from the Sahara, a journey of thousands of kilometers through the layers of the atmosphere. The burning of electric cables — the procedure used to separate the plastic from the copper inside the cables — generated dense clouds of black and toxic smoke that rose like compact columns enfolding the sky with a dark blanket. The first day we visited the Agbogbloshie scrapyard with our good friend Muntaka Chasant — a young Ghanaian environmentalist and talented photographer — the portable environmental pollution meter reached 375 according to the European AQI (Air Quality Index) scale. This reading more than triples the levels of pollution that humans or other species can tolerate. For four consecutive days, led by our guide Awal Mohamed — one of the local ‘burner boys’ — we toured the various corners of the scrapyard and the Old Fadama settlement, spaces where foreigners do not usually enter.
It is very possible that my photo essay is one of the last visual approaches to Agbogbloshie, a sort of epilogue to a way of life that involved, for more than two decades, the territory and its inhabitants in a daily exercise of survival and extreme marginality. A little over a year later, in June 2021, the authorities of the Grand Accra Regional District ordered the dismantling of the scrapyard and the Onion Market as part of an urban reformulation program known as ‘Let's Make Greater Accra Work’. The agenda included the relocation of the recycling center to a new space in Adjen Kotuku, a town located 30 kilometers north of Accra. But according to the website Electronica Justa, the eviction of merchants and metal scrap collectors was not exempt from the use of police force, and tear gas and rubber bullets were deployed. The law enforcement officers were followed by bulldozers, who oversaw demolishing existing facilities, including the settlement’s mosque. The cited article critically questions whether this effort will be able to solve the many problems associated with Agbogbloshie over the years. It is as urgent to repair an environment severely damaged by the overaccumulation of waste and contamination from unregulated processes — or to differentiate industrial spaces in the urban fabric — as it is to guarantee the possibility of a new life, and similar, if not better, sources of income for the thousands of people who live and work in the space.
But in February 2020, a typical day in Agbogbloshie started very early. Trucks crammed with all kinds of scrap (televisions, computers, refrigerators, and car parts) parked at the entrance of the scrapyard to be emptied in a matter of minutes by a platoon of operators who unloaded their contents on carts built with used wood and old car tires. Once inside the facility, the raw material was distributed in various processing areas where groups of young people dismantled each product with the strike of the chisel and the hammer in search of valuable metals to trade. Any small vacant lot served as an improvised workshop, and any car part or piece of metal functioned as a comfortable stool to calmly dismember the assigned waste. I saw a young man break the heavy motor of a refrigerator in half with several precise blows with the aim to remove from its entrails the copper coils, still viscous with internal oil. Taking out a camera in the center of these groups and pointing it directly at people, without warning, could bring hostility, several faces of rejection, and the occasional high-pitched (and justified) scolding. But with daily interaction, first impressions can turn, little by little, into genuine smiles and affable attitudes. I was able to photograph many people in Agbogbloshie and enjoy that special bond that is built between the photographer and the subject as a kind of tacit agreement based on mutual trust and complicity.
Beyond the apparently chaotic distribution of the small workshops, shops, and other constructions, the scrapyard had a distinctive urban planning layout — complicated at first glance, although not indecipherable — based on its own functionality. Several narrow and busy streets led to the various facilities of the settlement, such as the weighing areas, the workshops and warehouses, the dining rooms, and resting places, as well as the small mosque of Agbogbloshie. In all these spaces, young men and women – some adolescents – moved around with agility carrying out diverse activities. If the men were in charge of recycling, the women oversaw the food preparation and distribution, as well as the sale of products, and, in general, any necessary activity — including childcare — that made it possible for everything to work properly. Many walked tirelessly through the scrapyard carrying heavy metal containers with ice and plastic bags of cold water on their heads. These were used to quench the thirst of the workers or to put out the fires once the burning of the cables had finished.
A part of the collected metals was used to produce work tools for the scrapyard. In a small and dark workshop, I was able to witness the magic and the different stages of artisanal melding, with its dark sand molds and its red-hot spilling metals. In this space, the workers made dadesens, large metal cauldrons used to prepare traditional Ghanaian foods.
Many of the people we met in Agbogbloshie were bilingual, speaking English — the official language of Ghana, inherited from the colonizers — as well as the various languages of their ethnic origins, with which they felt much more comfortable. In the settlement of Old Fadama, we were able to talk calmly with several inhabitants of the enclave during their break times. This is where we met the members of The Association, a group of directors, actors, and film enthusiasts who produced, and directed films and videos with their own resources. The films often touched on local issues and used to be shown on certain Sundays in a recreational space within the settlement. They were also sold in neighborhood shops in DVD format. “We film the themes and stories of our way of life. It can be said that our films are very biographical,” commented Koto Dwumfour, the director of the group. “Of course, we are interested in drama, but comedies with a lot of humor are very well received because they serve to distract us and lighten the heavy load that awaits us every day a bit. And we feel that we must be critical of the problems that affect us as well. This will help us understand our own reality. In our cinema, criticism is something positive.”
In a more remote area of Agbogbloshie, past the stables with the cattle, there was a vast open space where the burning happened. Workers came to this place carrying carts loaded with large swarms of electronic cables, which they sprayed with fuel, and burned in bonfires that rose several meters high. Groups of ‘burner boys’ (as they were known) worked on various fires simultaneously, generating dense mushrooms of black smoke that rose throughout the scrapyard and expanded to their surroundings. Near the fire pits, the temperature was difficult to tolerate, but the burners (who generally did not wear masks or other protective equipment) managed to manipulate these jumbles of cables with long metal poles, deftly moving them from one side to the other, and making sure that no traces of plastic were left unburned. In this way, they separated the copper — one of the metals the recyclers valued the most — leaving it ready for distribution and sale. The levels of air toxicity in this space were alarming and extremely harmful, and the appearance of the terrain was frankly Dantesque and bleak. It called to mind one of those ‘no man's zones’ so common in the trenches of the early 20th-century wars.
Various studies carried out in 2016 by local and international scientific institutions confirmed high rates of contamination, not only in the air, but also in the soil and water. The samples collected by the researchers in the various areas of the dump showed the presence of high concentrations of heavy metals, with significantly increased rates in the burning area. A geostatistical analysis of the area and its surroundings affirmed that the contamination in Agbogbloshie was spreading underground to other neighboring areas used for agriculture, commerce, and residences. In 2014, the international environmental protection organization Pure Earth, in coordination with the Ghanaian government and other partner institutions, raised funds for the installation of several machines capable of ‘stripping cables,’ separating the plastic covers from the precious metals within them. This effort should have guaranteed the ceasing of cable burning, and the reduction of air pollution, among so many problems. But apparently, the results were not entirely satisfactory, at least in the expected dimension. Several workers told me that the machines were only capable of processing thick cables, and not the finest ones, whose daily assortment was considerable. Or that the mechanical process took too much time, much more than they could afford to spend since they needed to deliver the metals for distribution. And so, the burning continued.
To all this, we must add the shocking accumulation of plastic waste in the adjoining area of the scrapyard. From Agbogbloshie, plastic traveled with the current through the Korle River in the form of a thick and compact blanket that ended up in the ocean, at the height of the Jamestown neighborhood, where local fishermen usually dock their small boats.
When I review my images from the distance of time and the comfort of my desk, I can't help but wonder: what happened to the people I met in that corner of Africa where social chaos, and environmental catastrophe coexist with human warmth? Is moving Agbogbloshie an effective solution, or a way to replicate the problem elsewhere? Since the recycling of metals is a socially necessary activity that mitigates the environmental damage caused by the extraction of minerals, was it not appropriate to continue investing in the creation of non-polluting forms of production, while ensuring the livelihood of workers?
“Faced with a global problem,” Electronica Justa points out, “we demand a global solution. All parties involved must be held accountable: manufacturers, political institutions, public administrations, and consumers. By denouncing what is happening in Agbogbloshie, we want to make visible the multitude of existing landfills in impoverished countries that receive electronic waste from the Global North. The Basel Convention, which regulates these illegal movements, must be complied with and audited, avoiding the export of toxins to precisely those who generate the least waste.”2 I can't help but agree with this statement, although I suspect that the environmental problem is just the tip of an iceberg of unresolved conflicts and needs, lost in the time of history, and its social and political discourses.
1 Castellanos, Willy: Return to Koyaanisqatsi, exhibition catalogue. Kendall Art Center, Miami, Julio de 2019.
2 SETEM Catalunya, Op. Ct.