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In the early morning of Thursday 1 July 2021, scrap workers were woken up by panicked calls from friends and colleagues at the scrapyard, commonly known as Agbogbloshie in central Accra. The workers collecting, processing, burning and dealing in used electronic gadgets and scraps knew the government was due to clear the onion market next to the scrapyard. The demolition of the onion market was negotiated over quite some time. The onion market workers had agreed on a relocation site outside of Accra to Adjen Kotoku. The scrapyard however which hosts an estimated 8,000 workers was not to be affected; no negotiations had happened. Yet, this morning, the police and demolition forces entered the 20-acre scrapyard with bulldozers, the whole area was cleared and the scrapyard workers forcefully displaced. All storage facilities and huts were destroyed, and most goods were destroyed. The only two buildings that remain (until today) are the facilities erected by NGOs and development organizations (we will say more on this later; see images below).
It’s been almost a year since the scrapyard was razed down. As part of an ongoing research project on the ecologies of electronic devices this article looks into the scrapyard workers’ displacement experiences and their aftermath.
The Agbogbloshie scrapyard is infamous. The site has attracted the “Western gaze” for over two decades now. It is a key location for e-waste journalism, science and advocacy, often taking centre stage in global e-waste policy work. You may know it as “Africa’s e-waste nightmare”,“electronics graveyard”, “a digital dumping ground”, “e-hell on earth”, “the world’s largest e-waste dump”, and “one of the ten most polluted places in the world”. This notoriety of Agbogbloshie has been a concern for the local government in Accra, who has repeatedly maintained that the site gives the country a “bad name”—and as such, it cannot be allowed to exist—even as it often partners with international NGOs and development organizations to create better working conditions at the yard. For the local government authority that spearheaded the demolition, this forceful clearing of the scrapyard is urban governance as usual. Yet, for the workers, it is much more than that. Having lived under the threats of eviction and routine demolitions for the past decade, the most recent demolition evidences the government’s continued disregard of the scrapyard as a vital source of livelihood and industry.
Dispossession of the urban poor in Accra
On the day of the demolition, many of the scrapyard workers lost everything: their goods, their workplace, their routines, and—as many recalled their experience to us—their dignity. They were beaten and subjected to violent treatment, as echoed by one of the workers:
“It was a terrifying experience. They beat my colleagues and me, including hitting me in the back with a gun. I was not able to sleep that day due to soreness from the assault. I received treatment at the Cocoa Clinic in Accra.” (Ustaz)
As if the demolition was not bad enough, the lack of notice meant they could not prepare; their shock was mixed with desperate attempts to salvage at least some belongings. As another scrap dealer recalled the day:
“We would relocate our goods if the government had given us advance notice that they intend to demolish the scrapyard. All my belongings there were destroyed…. They would allow us to retrieve our goods before the demolition if they respected us…. They allowed us to go in to retrieve our goods from the ruin after they left. Our goods were crushed, mangled, and all mixed up. I couldn’t tell my goods from others. We nearly fought each other in an effort to identify our goods.” (Babatunde)
The disrespect experienced by the workers extended not just to the lack of warning or negotiations. It also continued in the aftermath of the demolition during talks over a possible new site for their work. Unlike the onion traders who had negotiated with the government relocation to Adjen Kotoko, the scrapyard workers were on their own. Through their own efforts, leaders of the scrapyard mobilized to purchase 50 hectares of land at Teacher Mante, 75km from the scrapyard, at the cost of GH₵ 1million (€120.823). This was after the leadership rejected the government’s offer of 10 acres of land at Adjen Kotoko as being too small and with a poor road network necessary to support the number of scrap workers and their heavy loads of scraps.
But it also goes deeper than this; the way this demolition happened, we suggest, is telling of the Ghanaian government’s failure to recognize electronic waste processing as an industry. Fatau, a 32-year-old scrap dealer whose work has been affected by the demolition and fears he might not be able to support his family anymore echoes this sentiment:
“The government thinks this is rubbish, but that’s what helped me start something small [being modest about the house he has built in his hometown] back home, and that’s how I support my family.”
The dominant picture in—and also beyond—Ghana about Agbogbloshie has been of waste dumping and environmental destruction. The workers are not considered to be contributing to an economic value chain but rather doing dirty work that showcases poverty and bad governance in the centre of Accra. This, as some of us have argued elsewhere, is the result of a global media campaign on e-waste because of illegal dumping from Northern countries in Ghana, portraying Ghanaians not only as passive victims but also locating responsibility in simplistic terms and thus undermining rather than improving the work and environmental conditions for electronic scrap workers and dealers.
Indeed, the Greater Accra Regional Minister, Henry Quartey, who was responsible for the demolition and now for the new development of the site, took to social media to announce with pride that he was “taking possession of Agbogbloshie”. The demolition is part of his #letsmakeaccrawork campaign (see the hashtag on Twitter). He was recently quoted saying, “you’ll see a new Agbogbloshie that we will all be proud of”. The absent present in this future vision speaks loudly; it is the old demolished Agbogbloshie as a place that brough shame to the Ghanaian public and government.
Sweeping away an industry
This was not the first time the Agbogbloshie scrapyard was demolished; in fact, there is a long history of dispossession and demolitions in the scrapyard and the surrounding areas in Old Fadama; an informal settlement adjacent to the scrapyard where the majority of the workers live. Days after the demolition, the scrap workers scrambled to secure their goods and what was left of their belongings. As recalled by Mr Yaw Asare, the chairman of Old Fadama:
“Many scrap dealers lost their jobs after the demolition. We normally acquire and store goods for up to three months before selling them. Because many of the goods were destroyed, a lot of people lost their capital.”
The industry is not an unorganized occupation where poor people collect and burn randomly found waste. Instead, it is a stratified business with scrap dealers responsible for buying old electronic devices and then selling the dismantled and processed materials again. Some processors dismantle the old devices into reusable material. Some of them are also the infamous “burner boys”. They often buy from and sell to (international) companies, which ship the materials to China, India and Europe. One dismantler, for instance, told us he used to earn GH₵100 (€14), and a scrap dealer tells us he now only makes GH₵300 (€40) per day, but he has 13 workers employed, who he each pays GH₵50 (€7) per day. Another well-to-do scrap dealer told us his working capital last year was around GH₵700,000 (€96,000) to GH₵800,000 (€110,000). After the demolition, he says he barely has GH₵300,000 (€41,000) of working capital left. For others, with nothing left and such a huge loss, they made their way to their hometowns in the north. Many people living and working in the area are precarious workers who came from Ghana’s north or neighbouring countries to Accra in search of income and employment.
Yet, many also relocated their work into their houses in neighbouring Old Fadama. Abdullai, a scrap collector who now operates his business form Old Fadama says:
“Here [Old Fadama] is congested. The scrapyard was large enough to accommodate all of us. The lack of working space here means that we cannot bring more scraps over. The congested space here cannot accommodate bigger scrap materials.”
“In the scrapyard, I had a place to store my goods. It could take two to three days to dismantle them. There’s nowhere to store my goods here [Old Fadama]. No shelter, nothing. We had our lots and space in the scrapyard. Do you see any shed here? No! We work in the sun from morning till night. It has affected everyone. There’s also no security here.” (Babatunde)
Working conditions thus significantly worsened for the scrap workers: no security, no storage, and no sheltered space to work. In particular, the lack of space to store goods meant no new scraps could be brought in for processing. The work has not come to a complete stop but has been made impossible by this unannounced demolition. Furthermore, the shifting of scrap work into Old Fadama is creating more risks as workers are now processing materials in their living spaces and occupying what used to be “safe zones” for community assembly in case of a fire outbreak within the settlement. As the chairman of Old Fadama notes:
“We reserved these lands [pointing to areas now occupied by scrap activities] as a temporary open safe space in case of a fire outbreak. In the context of the demolition and given we do not have a working space, I permitted a lot of them to work here. We are all the same people. We all live here—our children, etc. It’s not our intention to do scrap work here. All these people are here working because they have nowhere to go. We certainly won’t be able to survive in our current state without work.”
“It has made the work difficult. It has made the environment more polluted than ever. There were systems in place to check issues of pollution when we were here [at the demolished site]. We’ve had a series of engagements with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ministry of Environment. For instance, how to dispose of our oil, battery liquids, and the burning of cables. And we did as they instructed.” (Salim)
The demolition of the Agbogbloshie scrapyard has not only destroyed a vital industry but also undone years of NGO and development organization interventions aimed at improving the working conditions, environmental health, and financial gains from scrap work. These include Pure Earth and Green Advocacy Ghana’s model e-waste recycling facility to eliminate the risk of burning copper wires at the site. The German development organization, GIZ’s €25m funding for improving working conditions was channelled into the construction of a health post, a technical training centre to support the cultivation of alternative livelihoods, and a renovated football field. Research studies and pilot projects were aimed at creating sustainable e-waste management via integrated formal and informal trading and recycling systems where those at the bottom of the chain are adequately paid for their effort.
As Agbogbloshie scrapyard workers forge new paths, their position in the globalized scrap economy, where profit distributions often favour those higher along the chain (refineries and smelters), has been weakened by the government’s violent clearing of their business and their failure to recognize the discarded electronics as part of a value chain.
Often in partnership with the same government bodies that meted out this violence: the Ministry of Environment and Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency.