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Cote d'Ivoire: Up in Smoke
Meet Africa's first green cops
 

 

Bagassi Koura

Bagassi Koura has worked for years as a freelance journalist in West Africa with international news outlets including Agence France Presse, Die Tageszeitung, and Panos Institute. He is currently in Nairobi, Kenya, working for Reuters Television. Matt Durning is a freelance producer and video journalist. He has produced national political ad campaigns and worked as a production assistant with FRONTLINE/World. He is currently in Washington, D.C., working for Al Jazeera English. Both reporters are documentary film students at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

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Length: 9:46

In Abidjan, the commercial and cultural capital of the West African nation of Cote d'Ivoire, the potent odor of car exhaust permeates just about everything. Eighty percent of the country's vehicles are second-hand -- discarded cars shipped in from Western countries -- and everywhere they belch thick, black smoke that burns your throat and leaves you queasy.

Last year, doctors began linking air pollution to rising rates of asthma in Abidjan for the first time. They are now warning of a dangerous and costly increase in respiratory-related diseases if action is not taken.

Enter Africa's first ever "green cops" -- a new anti-pollution police force in Abidjan called UNIPOL (l'Unite de Police Anti-Pollution). Led by Lieutenant Yao Koffi, the unit patrols the city to educate the public and penalize polluters who violate the country's environmental code. But Koffi's unit has limited resources; with only nine officers and one patrol car, they are tasked with monitoring an expansive city of more than 3 million people.

Economically, the government has little incentive to change. Cote d'Ivoire -- which recently joined a World Bank list of the world's poorest and most heavily indebted nations -- relies on a significant amount of money from the business of importing used cars. The recent announcement of a landmark new law limiting the age of imported vehicles to seven years has been met with deep public skepticism.

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As Cote d'Ivoire's economy began to slump in the 1990s, the importation of used cars offered much-needed opportunities for the country's growing middle class, particularly in the influx of cheap means of transportation.

The used-car culture took hold in the 1980s, when the country started importing vast quantities of second-hand goods from Western countries. Locals dubbed the merchandise "France Au Revoir," a mocking expression meaning these discarded goods were saying goodbye to the developed world. As Cote d'Ivoire's economy began to slump in the 1990s, the importation of used cars offered much-needed opportunities for the country's growing middle class, particularly in the influx of cheap means of transportation. The start of the civil war in 2002, and the deep economic recession that followed, only increased the practice. Used cars continue to arrive by the boatload and the pollution grows worse.

But as my reporting partner, Bagassi Koura, and I traveled throughout the city, people everywhere spoke about the vital role used cars play in the country's economic food chain. From the taxi drivers to the black market gasoline dealers, from the used car salesmen to the myriad mechanics and auto parts shops, this is a country more deeply dependent on its automobiles than any place I've ever seen -- including the U.S.

More than 20,000 used cars arrive in Abidjan each year, and, overall, car imports generate between 50 and 60 million dollars annually for the government. So, despite the government's public campaign to step up efforts and fight the major airborne pollution issue in its cities, it remains to be seen whether it has either the means or the motivation to enforce its new environmental laws.

How can an impoverished country effectively fight pollution without jeopardizing its own economy? It is a dilemma facing more and more developing countries around the world, and one of the central questions we hoped to answer in traveling to Cote d'Ivoire.

-Matt Durning


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REACTIONS

francis Kabisch - Lakewood, WA
I've been to Kingston, Jamaica. It is a mirror image of the problem. Soon the island will stop and sink in place. Japan plays a huge role in what is being played out. Can that be documented or am I wrong? How, do we get it done? Great piece of work.

Melanie - Boston, MA
This documentary was great. Lots of great pictures that really told the story well. I still can't believe that they had one car to monitor a city of 3M people. Guys ... a job well done!!

Catherine Toulsaly - Shanghai, CHINA
Great piece! It is great to see that Cote d'Ivoire is trying to deal with the plague of pollution. In the 21rst century, developing countries are faced with the challenge of developing their economy as well as protecting their environment in the most urgent battle to feed their population. Good job, Koura!

Tom Brown - Stevens Point, Wisconsin
I've never been to Cote D'Ivoire but have traveled in enough African countries to admire the efforts of these men, given the situation on the ground. I wish them all the best in their uphill struggle. Nice film.

Brad - Banfora, Burkina Faso
I live right across the border from Cote d'ivoire in Burkina Faso. These environmental problems are interesting but incidental. Smog cops in Abidjan makes about as much sense as copyright lawyers in Baghdad right now. In the north low-level civil war continues and I see Ivorians crossing the border to Burkina everyday to escape impossible economic conditions and repression by competing rebel groups.

Bruce Copeland - Berkeley, CA
An excellent documentary. Good commentary and photography. Could a start-up auto manufacturer come in with an inexpensive new car design, set up a local factory and train locals to build, assemble & sell it? Drive out the used car import market with competitive pricing (might need some foreign aid subsidy like tax credits for hybrids), maintenance and low pollution.

Nate Wolinsky - Tuxedo, NY
This story would have been given one minute on national news. Your coverage was detailed and well edited. It showed that one minute would not have gotten the job done. The story could probably have been told in 7 minutes. I think it ran a bit long. The camera work was truly professional. Clean shots that were well paced. I appreciated the fact that the editor did not get too fancy. Quick cuts and no fancy dissolves that would have gotten in the way of the story. The audio was also quite good. The whole project was very professional, and interesting.

Holliston, Massachusetts
I liked the pacing. Documentaries sometimes put me right to sleep -- usually through my own fault, not the documentaries'. This one, though on an un-sexy subject, kept me engaged. The characters are attractive, the things they say are pithy, and the editing is crisp.

(anonymous)
Good report. The economics are strongly against stopping pollution- Ivoirians want cars as everyone does. There are significant economic barriers to importing cars (you'll pay about twice the value by importing), so the problem could actually be a lot worse. Western countries are getting rid of old cars for newer cleaner models, but that's only shifting the problem to the developing world where those old cars are still in circulation. Surely there's an argument for saying rich countries should destroy their polluting cars rather them letting them be dumped elsewhere. Of course if the laws applied on importing cars and stricter annual controls (i.e. not open to bribery), then this would help. Overall I'm not convinced Abidjan is much different than elsewhere (traffic jams are far worse in Lagos) and public transport is very popular in the city. Two final points - stopping gas-flaring at the oil refinery in Abidjan might help. Also, Ivoirians (unlike their northern neighbors) dislike bicycles, which could help.

Pete - Brooklyn, NY
Great work. I really enjoyed the quality of the visuals and how many sides of the story were told. Unfortunately, what that also showed is that there are no easy answers. One wonders how many other countless nations are facing similar issues, as well as how a developing country has any hope of pulling off environmental protection when the richest countries in the world are crawling to do it for themselves! Really excellent story!

Syd Wayman - San Francisco, CA
It can't be completely due to the fact that they are importing used cars. It seems to me that the cars are not being maintained properly and/or there are no rules in place to make sure they meet a minimum air quality control. Maybe jobs could be created by training mechanics to properly fix cars and ensuring that the cars meet a standard before being licensed every year or every other year.

Linda Collyer - Williamstown, MA
A few words come to mind after viewing this video. Daunting, and remarkable. It makes the USA and its problems with healthcare, the economy and education seem almost trivial. Almost. Matt, proud to know you. Keep 'um coming.

Jonathan McKinney - Brooklyn, NY
This is a wonderfully nuanced story that begs to be told and yet one that is precariously positioned between seemingly more important and visible issues like the needs of a poor nation to create and sustain a weak economy. It's really good reporting that acknowledges/highlights the complexities of such a situation. It gets the micro and macro thoughts churning, all at the same time!

Nat K-B - Brooklyn, NY
Really interesting piece. Clearing one team of "green cops" can't police a city of 3 million. The answer probably lies in a combination of initiatives: slowly cracking down on illegal gas dealers, MV inspections and better public transportation. Unfortunately, in many cases the government infrastructure is not there in developing countries to support such changes, but you have to start somewhere. Great work!