28 October 2009

Tons of Trash and the Lives of the Marginalized

The drive from the university to Khon Kaen city landfill was one of nervous laughter and uncertainly of what lay ahead. We were to spend two days living in a community of 220 people who live directly next to the city’s landfill. The villagers live next to the landfill because they are scavengers; they search through the trash to find recyclables. The first day we took a tour around the huge area led by the community leader who explained how the landfill worked and what everyday life was like. The next morning I awoke at 6AM thinking about the trash that we would soon be scavenging through to find recyclables and other things of value.

A group of students and I prepared for the dirty job ahead with long pants, boots, gloves, hats, and scarves to cover our faces from the smelly fumes. Many of the workers only have boots and long pants. We were given rakes and baskets for the valuables we would discover and headed down the road. We arrived to find many people already working on the landfill, as many start the day at sunrise because of the cooler temperatures. A full-loaded garbage truck arrived and we all attacked the trash looking for plastic, glass, cardboard, and electronics. Diapers, rotting food, plastic food wrappers, toys, shoes, DVDs, toothbrushes, clothes, paper, and purses were some of the things found during our relatively short time scavenging. I thought to myself; this toothpaste or this plastic potato chip bag could have easily been mine.

The life of a scavenger is dangerous because you can easily step on glass or a needle from the bags of medical waste that arrive every day. Most of the scavengers have at least one story of a time they were seriously injured from something they stepped on while working in the landfill. Hazardous gas from the massive trash pile and contaminated ground water are part of everyday life. During the rainy season they drink rain water but during the dry season they have to buy water because of the dangerous chemicals in the groundwater. The community water for showering and cleaning is pumped about 100 feet from the edge of the landfill. They have been told there is arsenic in the water but were never told the levels of arsenic and what other chemicals the water contains. They keep working here because this is the only thing they know how to do and they are comfortable with this kind of lifestyle. During our exchange, I asked “What do you want for your children?” and they immediately replied that they want their children to be educated so they don’t have to work at the landfill like their parents.

During our exchange with the community we learned that the current community of 60 households started with a few individuals who started picking through the city’s trash and eventually moved to the landfill to live permanently. The economic downturn has made life more difficult for the community for two reasons; a decrease in consumption and therefore trash and increased unemployment which had led to more scavengers working at the landfill. More scavengers means increased competition in the landfill. However I was glad to hear that the villagers have an agreement not to steal or grab objects discovered while working alongside each other.

Before the economic downturn, villagers could earn 30,000 baht a person per month ($900USD). Today they earn 5,000-6,000 baht a person per month($150-$180USD). The economic downturn means less consumption and therefore less waste but also the price of recyclables has decreased as well. Today they earn 10 baht/kg of plastic water bottles or 28 baht/kg for glass bottles. Today most villagers work 15 hours a day and do not have time free time, but it wasn’t always this way. Before the economic downturn they were able to work fewer hours which left them with more free time to spend time with friends and family as well as organize together in an attempt to try to get equipment like gloves and boots from the local government municipality.

Modern capitalism coupled with consumerism encourages us to buy more stuff to make ourselves happy and to make our lives more comfortable without thought of the negative consequences. It is expected that we all take part in the massive consumption that depletes the planet’s resources. After we put something in the trash we never see it again; but it goes somewhere and the scavengers of Khon Kaen landfill will be the last humans to see it before it is buried under the tons of new trash that arrive every day.

I took pictures at the landfill even though I wasn’t sure if it was morally right to take photographs of the workers in the landfill. I did take pictures because I knew I would never have an opportunity like this again but I wasn’t sure if I would ever show the pictures to anyone. I'm worried that people in America will look at these pictures and think to themselves "those dirty poor people." This people have been marginalized by powerful external forces like globalized economies, government policy, capitalism, poor education, etc. One of your friends or family could easily have been born into a landfill community like this anywhere in the world. One billion of the world's population lives in slums and any of us could have been born there instead of a wealthy family in America. So think of the things you throw away everyday and don't take your comfortable life for granted.

Brodie Henry
Champlain College


Rani said...

I find that my experience in the landfill was very similar to yours- acknowledging what stereotypes or assumptions we as Americans have. I then found myself pose the question to myself, are their lives really that bad? Are they happy with what they are doing everyday? Maybe they don’t feel like their lives are below any others. But when you mentioned the fact that the members of the community did not want their children living their adult lives as scavengers in the landfill community, I have to think that maybe presented with an alternative livelihood they would take it immediately.

So when we enter communities like these and we ask them what their needs are, is providing their needs to sustain their current livelihoods really what they want? And if not- what can we provide to them? I think you taking pictures of your experiences is a venue to tell their story, but also to tell our story about the world we live in. Maybe this is all we can give them. It could make people think about their lives and society. How would the world work if there weren’t scavengers or slums? Can our society only progress if there is someone digging through our trash?

haley campbell said...

I do not think the way to motivate people to be sympathetic is through guilt. It is really hard to convey everything we are learning and feeling to people who are not living this with us, but guilt is definitely not the right way to go about doing it. You say that we should think about “things you throw away everyday” and that we should not “take [our] comfortable life for granted,” but you also talk about not knowing what to do with your experience in the landfill.

I think the only way people will not take their lives for granted and really think about their actions is through education and experience. Instead of being worried about how people will perceive what we are going through, we should be thinking about how we can convey what we are going through so that it is meaningful to other people. You shouldn't hide your pictures- you should share them. Sure, people will never go to the Khon Kaen landfill to live with families and pick through trash. But, if we want them to, our experiences can effect people back home. They can inspire people to think about their lives differently and take action.