Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why are Tannery Environmental Problems so Pervasive in 3rd World Countries?

Many of the most severe problems we encounter within tanneries are those attributed to third world countries which are having immense negative environmental impact.  "Leather Tanning In India: Environmental Regulations and Firms' Compliance" is an excellent paper by Ane Scholden in 2000, that we can examine to understand why these problems persist and are far more severe than those in first world countries.  There are many places using greener forms of processing with regulations preventing the pollution seen in India and other countries.  With all the options and their relative success, why is this solution not implemented everywhere?

The problem is very complex and although some factors will be unique to each situation, there are likely to be problems that are consistent throughout the third world.  On the surface, it would appear that the proper efforts are being made because regulations on tanneries in India are comparable to those found in Europe. But an evaluation of the water released after being filtered by their Central Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) plant found their treated output to be significantly worse than raw untreated sewage in Norway.  This is because all filtering is done on paper only.  The paperwork is completed and cleaning systems created, but not used.  There are more reasons and incentives to NOT use the systems.

The largest disincentive is corruption.  The government that monitors the output is well known to come for inspections as a bribe collection.  The quality of the treated water is irrelevant. For example, bottled spring water was submitted as a sample with a payment that was considered an inadequate bribe, and the results of the test showed that the perfectly clean, spring water was very polluted.  Therefore, in order to filter the water, money must be paid not only to accomplish the cleaning, but also to pay for the bribe effectively doubling the cost.

The second issue is lack of education among the tanners regarding the resulting problems of their pollution. Interviews with owners repeatedly showed ignorance of the results of their process on the environment and their laborers.  The belief is that because the chemicals are handled by individuals, that the chemicals can be touched, they must not be bad for the environment. This fallacy is combined with people who are accustomed to this environment.  Most of the owners and workers live in the areas of the tannery and amid the pollution created, which creates as sense of expectation that the environment is the way it has always been.  Small amounts of educational reform have made little difference and it is only the few new businesses who are more educated and affluent that actually recognize the problem.  
Children by a tannery pond.  http://www.elaw.org/node/1179
The third issue is that although care and concern for the environment may be seen as a way of marketing their leather products as "green" and more valuable, it doesn't address this industry in particular.  The tanneries in the poor areas of India are creating a product that is not exported, but is sold internally on a lowest price based economy.  The product they produce is very low quality and the businesses that purchase them are not motivated by an improved product quality and even less so by a "green label".  In fact, these tanneries are usually operating at such a tight budget, they are unable to plan for business that is further out than a few months, let alone have a business plan that gives consideration to impacts 5 to 10 years out.

There are several things that can be done to move these industries into better business practices.  A plan would need to be developed that would incorporate incentives for compliance, removal of corruption, education of the people and a bigger voice for the people who are impacted.  Solution ideas will be the topic for my next post.  

Ref:  Scholden, Ane; 2000 FIL Working Papers, Leather Tanning in India: Environmental Regulations and Firms Compliance, http://www.cicero.uio.no/media/1677.pdf 1-83

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