Global News with Dayna Nadine Scott 24 April 2019
Canadian garbage has been sitting in the Philippines for about six years — and the country’s president is now threatening war over it.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who is known to make controversial statements, told local media on Tuesday he will “declare war” against Canada if the situation isn’t dealt with in the coming week.
“I want a boat prepared. I’ll give a warning to Canada maybe next week that they better pull that thing out or I will set sail to Canada and dump their garbage there,” Duterte said.
“Celebrate because your garbage is coming home,” he added. “Eat it if you want to.”
This is far from the first time Filipino officials have called on Canada to do something about the rotting garbage, which was shipped over by a private Canadian firm in 2013 and 2014.
So why hasn’t Canada done anything about it yet?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been saying for several years that the government is working on a solution, but details, or even a generic plan, have not been revealed.
Global News reached out to Global Affairs Canada on Wednesday, asking how the government is dealing with the situation in light of Duterte’s latest statement. Global Affairs responded by referring Global News to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s office.
“Canada is strongly committed to collaborating with the Philippines government to resolve this issue and is aware of the court decision ordering the importer to ship the material back to Canada,” a statement from McKenna’s press secretary, Sabrina Kim, read.
“Currently, a joint technical working group, consisting of officials from both countries, is examining the full spectrum of issues related to the removal of the waste with a view to a timely resolution,” Kim said.
The statement, which echoes previous comments given to the media, did not address Duterte’s recent threat to “declare war” or give a timeline on when the issue may be resolved.
Dayna Scott, an associate professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School who works in environmental law, explained to Global News that the whole situation harms Canada’s reputation.
“This case is garnering so much attention because it’s an example of what the environmental justice movement has been saying for a long time — pollution flows according to a power gradient, from the most powerful to the least powerful,” Scott explained.
“It’s on us, really. It’s our garbage, it’s poisoning people around the world and now it’s on us to fix.”
A brief history of the garbage dispute
This garbage dispute has been ongoing since before Trudeau’s time in office.
The shipping containers arrived in Manila in 2013 and 2014, after Philippine officials say an Ontario-based private firm falsely declared the containers held recyclable materials.
But it later turned out that it was actually household trash — inspectors even found used adult diapers. Filipino media reports say there could be as much as 2,500 tons of trash in 103 shipping containers.
The Philippines has since been calling on Canada to take the trash back. A Manila court ordered the private importers in 2016 to ship the waste back to Canada.
Trudeau indicated in 2017 that is something Canada may do.
Canadian regulations “prevented us from being able to receive the waste back in Canada,” Trudeau said at the time. He said those legal barriers have been dealt with “so it is now theoretically possible to get it back.”
Lingering issues, however, including the consequences of the commercial transaction, which “did not involve government,” were delaying the resolution of the problem, Trudeau said.
Scott explained that there could be some credibility to that claim, since the company allegedly “used deception or was unscrupulous in its business methods.”
Of 103 shipping containers that entered Manila, the waste from 26 containers was buried in a landfill in Tarlac province north of Manila.
Canada may be in violation of international pact
The disagreement has prompted criticism from environmental groups who say Canada has violated an international convention.
Advocates say the shipments violate multiple parts of the Basel Convention, a 30-year-old treaty that Canada signed in 1989 that prevents countries from shipping hazardous waste to the developing world without consent.
Anthony Ho, a lawyer for the Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation, said containers should have been shipped back to Canada within 30 days of the Canadian government being made aware of them under the convention.
However, Canadian authorities have argued the convention didn’t apply at the time of the shipments because the country didn’t consider the waste to be hazardous.
Canada amended the regulations in 2016 so that it now applies the convention as long as the country receiving the goods believes they are hazardous, even if Canada does not.
Earlier this month, a number of environmental and advocacy groups, including rightoncanada.ca, the Canadian Environmental Law Association and the EcoWaste Coalition in the Philippines, urged Trudeau to finally order his officials to bring the containers back to Canada for disposal.
Scott pointed out that Canada is a signatory to the Basel Convention but not the Basel ban amendment, which further limits materials that developed countries can ship to developing countries.
“The fact that Canadian trash is there clogging up ports in Manila is actually an indictment of our position. We should reverse our position on the Basel ban amendment,” Scott said.
“Then, obviously, we need to engage in negotiations to try to get this garbage back or to pay to deal with it in an environmentally appropriate way.”
Complicated history between Trudeau, Duterte
This garbage dispute has been a source of tension between Trudeau and Duterte, although the Filipino leader is deemed controversial for numerous other reasons as well.
Last year, Duterte ordered the cancellation of a multi-million-dollar agreement to buy 16 helicopters from Canada after the government decided to review the deal due to concerns the Philippine military might use the aircraft in counterinsurgency assaults.
At the time, Duterte questioned whether Trudeau understood the “history of the world and geopolitics.”
Duterte added that his government wanted to carry on with the helicopter deal, but Trudeau insisted on “pretending to be peaceful.”
Earlier in 2017, Duterte attacked Trudeau at the end of a summit of Asian and western nations for raising questions about his war on drugs.
“I said I will not explain. It is a personal and official insult,” the Philippines president said in the course of a rambling answer, although he did not refer to Trudeau by name.
“I only answer to the Filipino. I will not answer to any other bulls**t, especially foreigners. Lay off.”