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Sugar Shock - environmental damage and long term health problems in Wonji

The Dutch-run sugar industry in Ethiopia has caused flouride poisoning and environmental devastation. I want the world to know what is going on in Ethiopia. My article The Sugar Trap - Dirty Businss was published in the British New Internationalist magazine in 2003.

There has been no response from the Netherlands government, HVA International, United Nation and The Ethiopian government. Please find below an email I sent to the Wonji sugar estate administration asking them to stop exploiting those poor employees and provide them at least the basic need - "safe drinking water". I am still waiting for an answer but obviously they are not going to respond. Please read the whole sad story below. Thank you again and God bless.

Almaz Mequanint
May 2005

To Wonji/Shoa Sugar Factory Administration:

Dear Sir/Madame:

Please view the UN Economic and Social Council report excerpt fr below and try to solve the problem those victims who are and were once your employees are facing now. I chose to speak on this issue for the last three years that is fundamental to all Wonji, Wonji/Shoa and Metehara employees' existence. These employees and their families are denied their basic human right to obtain safe drinking water and are pushed to produce more sugar to benefit the company. Later on they will be tossed out like a disposables when they start crippling due to fluoride. Several successive central and state administrations, local and other leaders who conveniently neglected problem of the polluted drinking water problem also owe an accounting to these employees.

People in the Wonji area have been paralyzed for decades with bone diseases, stooped backs, deformed hands and legs and rotten teeth. The numbers of victims are tripling year after year. Unless someone stops the cycle, gradually all the population will face the same devastating fate. Even if safe drinking water is now supplied, it will be too late for thousands who had already been crippled by this fatal and incurable disease, but we can save the next generation to come. I don't see the point ofexpanding the cane growing areas, increasing production of sugar and neglecting the well-being of the workers who are the source of the companies' success.

The Ethiopian government is not viewing this problem seriously and those who caused the damage (HVA International, The Netherlands government) are trying their best to get off the hook and avoid accountability by presenting deceitful statements to the press and United Nations. I am receiving many letters each week from Wonji, Wonji/Shoa and Metehara residents filled with extensive suffering, growing anger, frustration and disappointment. I will echo their voices until this problem is solved and I believe some day some where one will hear their cry and come to their rescue. Please Do Something, Wake Up!

Thank you for you help in advance and God bless!

Almaz Mequanint

Economic and Social Council [General Distribution]



41. Case 2004/78 - Netherlands/Ethiopia: The Special Reporter received a communication alleging industrial pollution caused by the sugar industry in the Wonji, Wonji/Shoa and Metahara areas in Ethiopia, which were established by the Dutch-owned company HVA International in 1954, 1960 and 1968 respectively. HVA International terminated its activities in the area in 1974-1975. According to the information received, the communities - which were reportedly poor and underdeveloped - were allegedly exposed to toxins emitted from the factories. The drinking water in the area was heavily polluted by the hazardous wastes generated from the discharge by the factory and by excess fluoride, and the air was polluted from the smoke and dust coming out of the factory. The affected communities are allegedly still suffering the consequences. It is furthermore alleged that two defluoridation plants were installed in the factory village where the Dutch families lived. In another report referred to the Special Reporter about defluoridation programmes of drinking water supplies, alleges that HVA International, who were running the three sugar factories in Wonji, Wonji/Shoa and Metehara, was withholding information since 1957 about the excess concentration of fluoride in the drinking water.

42. Letters were addressed to the Governments of the Netherlands and Ethiopia concerning these allegations. The Government of the Netherlands replied to the Special Reporter by forwarding copies of correspondence between HVA and an individual alleging violations in the nature described above. In the correspondence HVA states inter alia that the current company, HVA International NV, has no juridical link with the former HVA and its interests in Ethiopia and responds to the author out of a possible moral obligation, as it may be the only party that might give some answers to the questions raised. During the time of nationalization by the then Ethiopian Government in 1975/1976 the Ethiopian Government claimed a large amount as compensation for the fluoride problem and at the same time accepted responsibility for all future claims. When the effects of fluoride became known in the 1970s HVA instantly took measures by creating separate water distribution points where special bone-filters were used to produce low-fluoride water. Everybody, without exception, could collect water and information was widely spread around the estate. The whole fluoride matter was taken extremely seriously, as HVA had always taken great care in securing the health of all employees of these estates. Except for the consequences of fluoride, no other illnesses of a serious nature are known.

Furthermore HVA disputes the allegation that white and black people were segregated. To minimize the dust problem proper roads were constructed using molasses. The air pollution from sugar factories is very limited compared to other industries like steel, chemicals, etc. Anti-pollution measures were taken as was common practice and valid for Western European plants in those days. Again no sign of serious illnesses as a result of pollution from smoke or dust have ever been reported. While HVA International NV is not aware of asbestos being used for houses, asbestos was applied for heat insulation in the factory. This never created problems as the asbestos stayed in place and could not spread dust particles. HVA International concludes its correspondence with the author of the communication by advising individuals concerned by the fluoride problem to contact the Ethiopian Government which nationalized the whole Ethiopian Sugar Industry and all of HVA's assets in 1975.

43. No reply has been forthcoming from the Ethiopian Government.