A Weekly Journal Chronicling My Life
As It Intersects With The Garbage Dump Community Near La Ceiba, Honduras

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle...unless you live in la ceiba.

So here's an example of injustice, greed, political corruption and a general screwing of the poor and powerless and it just fills me with raw anger. Stay with me here because some of this gets tedious but I think it's necessary for understanding the problem we're facing. Very often I get asked about how the people here in the garbage dump survive, what do they do for a living? Well now you're going to find out. Many men work as day laborers in construction, a few as night watchmen and quite a large number buy green bananas that come in from the plantations of Tocoa and then sell them throughout the La Ceiba area on the back of rusting-out pickup trucks. However, the largest form of income by far here in the community is connected in some way or other to the garbage collection process. No one scavenges directly off the dump anymore, those days ended almost 10 years ago when the city privatized the dump had it covered over, converted into a landfill and barred the residents from intruding onto the new dumping area. The garbage though has continued to be a major and vital part of the economy here in the community, much to the chagrin of both the mayor's office and the private waste treatment company (I'll explain why in a bit). The company itself is not responsible for the collection of the garbage, they simply control what passes through their gates at the far end of the community and are then responsible for the treatment of the waste that is constantly being interred. The collection then, falls to the mayor and his cronies in the form of contracts; the mayor awards collection contracts to the people he owes political favors and those people in turn use a portion of that money to buy "garbage trucks" (converted, massive and pitifully old delivery trucks), hire truck drivers and a few assistants who actually collect the garbage. The drivers and assistants, usually 2-3 per truck, are also joined by scavengers who make a living by sorting through the garbage as it travels en route to the dump. They look for plastic bottles, metal scraps, car batteries and anything else that might be of worth (I'm talking everything from bed frames to clothing to half-used perfume bottles), sort it into separate bags and then upon arrival to the community and just before the truck passes through the gates into the no-entry zone of the new landfill, the scavengers disembark and sell their findings to a group of families who have made their living buying these items, sorting them, weighing them and then re-selling them to the local recycling company or interested parties, whichever the case may be. These people are perhaps the most resilient and hard-scrabble of the whole collection lot for they live and die by what the trucks bring in and what price the recyclers set; they work long hours, Monday through Saturday in the baking sun and torrential rain bent over and sifting through plastics for next to nothing in terms of compensation. In fact most of the workers at the collection and weighing site make no money at all, this is their "family farm", it's how the family survives, so what little money comes in is given directly to mother and father.

So, with all that process out of the way now begins the interesting part of the story. For the past 15 years the Liberal Party has held power in local Ceiban politics and while they have been no real friend to the people of Los Laureles, they have seen fit to award those collection contracts to men that have agreed to do all their hiring from within the garbage dump community itself. That means that for the last 15 years, 16 rickety old trucks have trundled through the community 2-3 times a day, driven by men from within the community, manned by their sons, nephews and close friends from within the community and also attended to by 3-4 more scavengers from within the community. These wokers have then in turn sold those scavenged materials to a group of families that have made their living off of being the middle-man in the recycling and re-using process. Is it a perfect system? No, I'm not idealizing it or denying that it couldn't be more efficient. Moreover, I fully recognize that it can become a trap for the people here; it's much easier to join the trucks or sort plastics than it is to continue on into high school and nothing is a bigger inhibitor to upward mobility here than a lack and undervaluing of quality education. Nevertheless, it has served these people well for nearly a decade in moving them from abject and absolute poverty to some form, however shaky it may be, of stability. This past November the Liberal Party was rejected here in La Ceiba in favor of the rival National Party and as is often the case, the new mayor came riding in on his platform of reform and brand new ideas to wow the electorate...he also had some favors to distribute. It seems that one influential Nationalista wanted the entire operation, from the collection to the actual recycling, for himself. The mayor and his administration obliged and because the old owners of the contracts were Liberal Party leaders, there wasn't much thought given to it. This new single owner of the collection process then purchased 6 brand new, modern-style garbage trucks to replace the 16 old ones and hired drivers from amongst the general populace of La Ceiba, presumably friends or family; nepotism is life here in Honduras. The newly installed drivers, in their wisdom and because they didn't know a thing about garbage collection or the routes themselves, decided to man their trucks with the old workers from within the dump community; but in that there were only 6 trucks to replace 16 there were in upwards of 35 workers left without employment. Add to that number the 16 drivers that got sacked and you can begin to see how we might have an economic situation on our hands. As if destroying the livelihood of 50 people wasn't enough for our good friends in the Mayor's office they then instituted a rule that no longer would the trucks be allowed to carry the 2-3 extra scavengers and that the garbage collectors themselves were also prohibited from scavenging and selling materials to the recycling collective in the community. As one of the workers told me
"We were told that everything we collect is considered garbage, no matter how we may view it and that all garbage must go the actual dump; anyone caught scavenging or even taking gifts from wealthier families downtown will be fired." So if my math is correct, 16 drivers, 35 workers, 50 scavengers and the 5 families that buy and sell...or, nearly 120 people, in a community that only has 150 households, have been left without work so that one man could be paid back for his contributions to the democratic process.

I promised to explain why both the local government (regardless of party) and the waste treatment company have looked with mild disdain upon the community here at Los Laureles and I think in understanding that aspect we can understand the seeming callousness and outright disregard for the lives of the most marginalized here in Ceiban society. The local government here has always viewed the dump community with a mix of pity and disgust; this is a sentiment that I don't believe is unique to local politics as I've run up against it even within the church community and I think it speaks loudly to issues of class and wealth that run deep within Honduran society. Their response then to this community, instead of walking with it, caring for the people here and really meeting the needs that they face has been to modernize it, however slowly, out of existence. That was why the waste management company was brought in to convert to a landfill in the first place - they wanted to end the community's ability to scavenge and survive solely on the garbage of others. Obviously the people here got around that one...and isn't that just it, that those tricksy garbage people we're able to get around the new rules and regulations and not only survive and make a living out of it but begin to prosper and grow? It really must sting, and I know it does because I've talked to them, that every day on their way into work the waste management workers have to drive past the buying and selling site know that they've failed in keeping the community people from scavenging and every time the local politicians bring in a foreign group to show off the new landfill they first have to drive through the embarrassment and failure that is Los Laureles. Even as recently as February the new mayor, the local congressmen and some ministers from the national government held an event here in the community to announce that they were planning on turning Los Laureles into a "model community" with paved roads, running water and new homes for every family. Apparently they had been the recipients of some international grant monies and the requirements to receive those monies were met by only 6 communities in all of Honduras, Laureles being one of them. Of course it's hard to create a "model community" when the residents buy and sell garbage, stack it in front of their homes, allow their women and children to work on the trucks and generally do whatever the hell the please.

I'm not really sure what else to say, I tried getting the Peace & Justice Project of the Mennonite Church of Honduras involved and there seemed to be some real interest. We had a sit down meeting with all concerned members from the community and it was agreed that the Director would use her connections to gain a meeting with the Mayor. That was 2 weeks ago. I'm leaving in a week for a month-long furlough in the U.S. and if there's one thing I've learned about the character of these people it's that they will not advocate for themselves. They just take whatever life throws at them and attempt to use it to survive. I guess just pray.


Missionaries in La Ceiba, Honduras said...

I wondered where those new garbage trucks came from - once again in the attempts to make things "better" they didn't. I'm so sorry about the outcome for the folks there - keep us posted on what the outcome is.

La Gringa said...

I also wondered where the money came from for those new fancy trucks. Surely the city must be paying much more now? I sure would like to see an organized effort to collect and encourage recycling and hopefully that would include work for the people of Los Laureles.

In Dallas, when recycling first started, we used a special colored trash bag to put all of our recycling in. That is a simple method and with an educational campaign, I think that could work in La Ceiba.

Thanks for the information.

Anonymous said...

The Mennonites at Spanish Lookout in Belize build plastic chippers that fit to tractors and sell partially processed recycled plastics, use plastic bottles stuffed with trash and dirt for building material, and ship broken glass by sea to a buyer in Merida

Delanie B