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Agbogbloshie Urban poverty

Agbogbloshie Demolition: The End of An Era or An Injustice?

Emerging consequences of the Agbogbloshie demolition, betrayals, recounts of events, and a glimpse of everyday struggles in Accra and how urban marginality is experienced. Beyond the role of the State in dispossessing Accra’s urban poor, the Agbogbloshie demolition should be viewed within the context of socio-spatial entanglements.

August 22, 2021

Photo above: Making a final push after the demolition of the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard, an urban poor man emerges from a wall of thick smoke with tears trickling down his cheeks. Copyright © Muntaka Chasant

Emerging consequences of the Agbogbloshie demolition, betrayals, recounts of events, and a glimpse of everyday struggles in Accra and how urban marginality is experienced. Beyond the role of the State in dispossessing Accra’s urban poor, the Agbogbloshie demolition should be viewed within the context of socio-spatial entanglements.

Despite supporting thousands of livelihoods, the Government of Ghana showed up with bulldozers and armed military on July 1, 2021, and totally demolished the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard. Just 8 days after a high-profiled Basel Convention Webinar on E-waste management with a focus on Agbogbloshie.

This reverses years of e-waste management efforts and gains.

For days, Agbogbloshie blazed under thick smoke-filled skies, sending fury among the struggling urban poor who relied on the site as a source of livelihood.

These events have opened up a new frontline — a more hazardous face where informal e-waste recycling has moved underground, into residential areas, and inside homes.

Having acquired a logic of its own, Agbogbloshie is a known contested landscape with hidden tensions between multiple actors.

Regrettably, the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard was not demolished due to concerns of heavy metal pollution, but as part of Henry Quartey’s decongestion exercise ‘Let’s Make Accra Work.’ A vision to remake Accra’s urban landscape — one clearly predicated on dismantling the urban margin and dispersing1 the urban poor.

Mr. Henry Quartey is the Greater Accra Regional Minister.

Despite Agbogbloshie being renowned for its severe soil heavy metal contamination, the Minister said2 they intend to “erect a fence wall” around the recently demolished scrap and e-waste recycling site with “a number of projects lined up” to be undertaken — in an area listed3 alongside Chernobyl, the 1986 nuclear accident site in Ukraine.

The Government has earmarked the site for a new district hospital, a news report (August 20) suggests.

Clearly, there are no concerns for control and remediation of soil heavy metal pollution.

The aerial photographs below, taken roughly 50 days apart, show the before and after the Agbogbloshie demolition.

Agbogbloshie (Sikkins) on June 11, 2021:

The same area on August 1, 2021:

Agbogbloshie Demolition: The State vs. The Urban Poor

A Video Report by Citi News

In war-like scenes, the video above from July 1, 2021, shows the police dragging the urban poor onto the streets — slapped and abused them — to make way for the demolition of the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard.

The Government of Ghana, represented by Mr. Quartey, clearly misled4 5 everyone about the demolition.

Despite the reputation of Agbogbloshie — widely covered by major Western Media outlets — as a dumping ground for e-waste collected from Europe and North America, none of the scenes above and the demolition made headlines in any news outlet in the Global North.

In this video published by GhanaWeb, Mr. Quartey can be seen dancing and singing alongside the people and the security personnel who policed the demolition.

High poverty areas, including Agbogbloshie, are often perceived by the public as the sources of urban problems. This stigmatization, which in itself is a form of symbolic violence, aggravates the conditions of the urban poor.

Having rallied the local media behind him, it is no surprise Mr. Quartey enjoyed public support for this.

However, as a Ghanaian, I condemn the abuse meted out to the urban poor and the shameful singing and dancing that followed.

What Happened in the Weeks Leading up to the July 1 Demolition?

All evidence leading up to the demolition show only the Onion Market was earmarked for “decongestion” with the traders scheduled to relocate to Adjen Kotoku.

In defense of the Agbogbloshie scrap dealers, I’ll show below some significant publications leading up to the July 1 demolition and how none mentioned the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard as part of the areas to be torn down.

Some of the earliest publications on relocation/decongestion of the area I have seen were around the 3rd week of May.

May 20 / CitiNewsRoom: Relocate to Adjen Kotoku within 7-weeks – Onion traders in Accra ordered

There was no single mention of the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard or the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers Association (GASDA).

May 21 / Daily Graphic: ‘Bulk breaking’ traders to relocate to Adjen Kotoku

No mention of engagement with the scrap dealers. Again, only onion trading groups.

The state-owned Daily Graphic, the most widely read newspaper in Ghana, is within walking distance from the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard.

Their offices are often at the receiving end of toxic air pollution from the site. They wouldn’t miss a chance to clearly identify the Agbogbloshie scrapyard in the report.

May 21 / Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA): Agbogbloshie Onion Sellers given 7 weeks ultimatum to relocate to Adjen Kotoku

There’s no way the AMA will clearly miss the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard.

June 16 / Ghanaweb: Agbogbloshie onion sellers have gone for a mallam to make sure I don’t see July 1 – Henry Quartey

Again, no mention of the scrap dealers.

June 20 / Ghanaweb: Agbogbloshie onion sellers backtrack, beg Henry Quartey for time to relocate

No mention of the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard.

It was only on June 28 that the Ghana News Agency6 listed the scrap dealers as being among the groups who received Government cash to relocate to Adjen Kotoku. The leadership of GASDA has denied this to me.

June 29 / MyJoyOnline: Agbogbloshie onion sellers protest Adjen Kotoku relocation

Again, this had nothing at all to do with the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard.

All faces seen on the media are known onion traders. Not a single known member of GASDA has been part of any of the reports or scenes leading up to the July 1 demolition.

The Day of the Demolition

Keeping in mind reports leading up to July 1, you can see why the scrap dealers reacted strongly7. Having your decades-old built-up business razed down without any notice is no easy thing.

For me, the available media reports above are sufficient to prove that the GASDA leadership was not engaged. Only the Onion Market traders had been involved in negotiations.

Post-July 1, the Minister described the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard and the adjoining sites together as the “Onion Market.” Was Mr. Quartey himself misled?

Initially, we were hoping to do this in three days, but clearly, it appears we will be here for a week and a half,” he said in the linked report above.

From estimated 3 days to roughly 10 days? Was the initial estimated 3 days for the Onion Market? Was the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard demolished on a whim — hence the sudden additional one week to finish the job?

Emerging Consequences of the Agbogbloshie Demolition

As a vital heart of the resource recovery industry in Accra, Agbogbloshie was a source of livelihood for thousands of the city’s urban poor. Thus, striving young people are at the center of this “Agbogbloshie Struggle.”

For years, I have documented human suffering in its many forms and injustice around Accra. I pointed my cameras on the neglected populations of Agbogbloshie, and in so doing, framed the harsh environment as a refuge for Accra’s struggling urban poor by spotlighting certain hidden geographies embedded within the landscape.

These ethnographic observations often chronicled the hopes and hardships of the urban poor whose lives were shaped by processes of economic, political, social, and spatial marginalization.

My work brought viewers face to face with Accra’s struggling young people — what I call a “visually nuanced interpretation” of life around that segment of society. I showed the catastrophic consequences of the Ghana Government’s inaction on environmental pollution — especially e-waste as an unrecognized source of lead poisoning among urban poor children.

Amid the contested interpretations and counternarratives on e-waste practices, none of us ever suggested the total demolition of Agbogbloshie as a solution.

  • It would have a devastating impact on the urban poor.
  • It might end up creating multiple informal recycling spots throughout the city and exacerbate environmental pollution.

Both of the concerns above are now underway.

The economic significance of Agbogbloshie cannot be emphasized enough.

  • The Government earns foreign exchange from the vast bulk of the recovered copper and other materials exported out of Ghana. Industries use the materials as primary inputs in the production of new devices.
  • Agbogbloshie also supplies significant materials to Ghana’s steel industry, which are used for construction steel rods and other industrial and consumer metal products.

Make no mistake, Agbogbloshie was and is still a significant environmental threat. However, demolition was not part of any recent discussions, mainly for the reasons above.

Urban poverty has very serious implications for the thousands of young people around Agbogbloshie, Old Fadama, and the Jamestown area who are forgotten and cut off from social services.

The youth bear the greatest burden of poverty in Ghana. With no economic resources, many young people have withdrawn from social and civic life to the fringes, on the margins of a place such as Agbogbloshie, where they engage in hazardous work.

The urban poor, including many children who relied on the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard as a source of livelihood, are now desperate.

Many of them have spent weeks after the demolition with pix ax and their bare hands digging through the heavy metal contaminated soil to recover metals deposited underground during the bulldozing of Agbogbloshie.

On the other front, recovered precious metals from e-waste are in high demand. They still sell fast for instant cash.

While the bigger coalition is still working out for their own space outside of Accra, several scrap dealers have acquired lands in residential areas (in Accra), where they engage in e-waste recycling, including burning waste cables to recover copper.

The informal e-waste recycling and the pollution associated with Agbogbloshie have not died down. Intensive recycling now takes place in multiple locations on private properties all over Accra.

In the Old Fadama informal settlement, e-waste collectors have now set up mini recycling stands in front of their doors.

A few scrap dealers have told me moving 50 km outside of Accra would be bad for their business, so they are not hopping on the Teacher Mantse coalition. “Itinerant collectors are urban-based, and rural Teacher Mantse won’t work very well,” one Agbogbloshie scrap dealer told me with frustration.

I’m not certain how things are going to turn out in the coming months.

However, I predict that the tearing down of Agbogbloshie with force without regard for the many years of e-waste management effort and gains (ex. GIZ8 and Pure Earth9 attempts) is likely to spur debates among environmental scientists, urban geographers, and development academics in the years ahead.

Punishing the Urban Poor: Emerging Trends

Immediately after the July 1 demolition, Mr. Quartey threatened that Old Fadama, the largest informal settlement of its kind in Ghana and home to more than 100,000 people, is going down next. This sent a chill through the community.

I’m a young person with no education at all. There’s no job, nothing in my village. What would I do? Where should I go now?

Fuseina, 21-year-old urban poor

Thousands panicked and left to their towns and villages.

The community leaders were kept in the dark.

Accra’s mayor eventually instructed the Old Fadama slum leaders to demolish shacks 20 meters from the Korle to enable the lagoon’s restoration efforts.

Aware they occupy these contested spaces only at the sufferance of the state, they painfully complied.

Fear of pulling any last minute surprises (lessons from the scrapyard demolition), the community leaders gathered resources and conducted the “20 meters from the Korle Lagoon” demolition on their own.

The community leaders invited me to cover the demolition.

There’s clearly more to this.

I’m in the process of theorizing this “voluntary” demolition as an emerging trend, where urban authorities use a nearby precedent “use of force” to threaten forceful eviction — to force the hands of the urban poor to demolish their homes. This creates the optics the residents razed down their homes on their own free will.

This is all very interesting.

A Parting Conversation

In the heat of the moment immediately after the demolition on July 1, with tears welled in his eyes, a “burner boy” picking up the last pieces turned to me:

Burner Boy: My fiancé is pregnant. Just when I thought things are starting to turn around for me…and this. What am I going to do now? Life is brutal, I tell you.

I pulled my camera to the side, and after a few seconds:

Me: Grieve for now, if you must, and then look for the silver lining. If being around here has taught me anything, you frontline men don’t rest. The future is in the air!

I then quoted and translated Oscar Wilde: “…life cheats us with shadows. We ask it for pleasure. It gives it to us, with bitterness and disappointment in its train.

Update: September 15, 2021

Forgive us if we have wronged you and give us jobs” — 26 years old urban poor to Ghana’s gerontocratic ruling class

No, a foundation is not being dug on the demolished Agbogbloshie scrapyard site.

Living in the most desperate poverty, these young urban poor men are literally digging down — mining for scrap metals. Earning on average around GH₵20/day ($3.3), they have been coming here every day for 10 weeks after the Agbogbloshie demolition. 

There is no dignity in what I do, but I have nowhere to go,” said Emmanuel, 23, from Tarkwa in the Western Region of Ghana, with a hint of regret in his voice.

Emmanuel moved to Accra in search of a job around 2016. He ended up at Agbogbloshie doing all sorts of hazardous work. With the scrapyard demolished, he’s now desperate.

I sat on the pile to keep them company.

Nana, 26 years old, from Ejisu in the Ashanti Region of Ghana, turned to me and asked: “Could you tell the old people [the Government of Ghana] to please forgive us if we have wronged them and give us jobs?

What, Nana, you have done no wrong to ask to be forgiven,” startled by his question and request, I engaged him.

This is too much…what have we done to be humiliated in this manner?” Nana asked again.

I bowed my head in shame and left soon after.

My hope is that the documentary photography form in this context would anchor the demolition as a spatial question and inform future debates in relation to the fluid nature of land access, urban marginality, and the post-Agbogbloshie Scrapyard urban society.

Copyright © 2021 Muntaka Chasant



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