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.
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.
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.
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