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

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

That Long-Awaited Update On The Garbage Dump Situation

Perhaps not long-awaited, that may be a bit presumptuous; it is however long-in-coming in that I promised just such an update almost a month ago. Those of you who read this little Mennonite rag faithfully may remember that I wrote about the new garbage trucks, new rules and the new resulting hardships for the community of Los Laureles that came in with the new mayor, this past June. If you aren't familiar with what happened last year or if you've forgotten I would encourage you to go here and read up first before going further in this post. All caught up? Good, then I'll dispense then with the pleasantries and cut right to the story. La Gringa, this is for you.

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Things have only gotten worse for the residents of Laureles that subsist and survive off the recyclables that come into the community. You may remember that when the new trucks were bought, the owner, via the mayor's office, put into place a rule that said no recycling or sorting could take place on the trucks which meant the families in Laureles that purchase the recyclables would have their source of income shut off. Certain brave souls, at the risk of their jobs, continued sorting and selling to the co-op in Laureles and some private routes and trucks weren't affected by the rule but overall the law had the general effect of taking what had once been a flood of recyclables and a flurry of capitalistic activity at the entrance to the garbage dump and reducing it to a mere trickle, managed by a bare-bones staff of workers barely surviving on what was now available to them. As if that weren't enough, the mayor and his administrators began to put pressure on the governing council of Los Laureles to physically remove the co-op from the community so that even the emasculated operation that they were now running might be shut down and permanently cut off from the trash of La Ceiba. The council for their part, managed to play both sides fairly well and so the operation continues in its much reduced state but there is that general sense and expectancy that the proverbial shoe may be dropping very soon. My question of course from the beginning has been "Why?". What harm are these people causing by buying and selling recyclables? Why can't workers on the garbage trucks sort through for valuables and sellable items? Heck, why aren't they even allowed to receive gifts from the people downtown? It simply makes no sense; all of that material that used to be collected, bought and resold now gets dumped into an ever-shrinking landfill. There is only so much space to dump garbage, if a group of people are willing to wade through trash and divert a sizable portion of it into the market system then why not let them? I used to think it was because a certain person within the mayor's office wanted the whole recycling business, from the sorting to the collecting to the selling, for himself; and I still believe that. It turns out though that there's another force at work with much kinder yet misguided intentions, it's the World Bank.

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I mentioned last June that the World Bank had chosen Los Laureles, in a strange sort of lottery, to be one of 6 Honduran recipients that will be made anew and turned into a "model community"; which to me sounds about as wistful as Levittown, Pennsylvania or Stalingrad, Russia. At the time I had my doubts and still harbor some, that the project would ever come about, what with the paragons of honesty and virtue that seem to populate all levels of Honduran Government. This project though seems to be driven and managed by the World Bank folks and so there's a sporting chance that at least half of what has been promised (black water lines, street pavement, cement stairs for every muddy path into a hill, retaining walls, new homes for the poorest and most bereft) will come to fruition. The idea of course is to smack down a shiny veneer of modernity over top a community that has chosen to settle on a landfill and at the entrance to a garbage dump and call it "reformed". There is only one problem, the people here don't behave in the way that those of a model community ought. They don't engage in the commerce befitting the residents of a model community, they do what they feel like, live as they choose and don't ask for permission to do so. The Mayor and the World Bank know this, they can also imagine the visual dissonance of beautiful homes and nicely paved streets lined with plastics, scrap metal and sundry other items picked off the garbage heaps. Such images would not look good in the papers or be good for publicity so they've resorted to forcing people to change and to conform or to move on.

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More recently and in a strange confluence of events, the recycling co-op had to leave the tract of land that they had been using for years to conduct their business and relocate to the side of the main road into the dump. Where once they had ample room to buy and sell and store, not to mention sit, they're now crowded into a gully with their meager recyclables stacked up around them. The reason for their move is thus: about the time that the World Bank began to send engineers and designers to plan the changes to the community, it came about that the city ran out of space to store their newly bought garbage trucks. They had been renting a lot down by the beach for $400 a month but the property owners couldn't take the stench and the eyesore and cancelled the contract. The city looked everywhere for a viable space to park their trucks but nobody wanted them and so their eyes turned to that most logical of places, Los Laureles. Why wouldn't we park our garbage trucks in the garbage dump? Of course the powers-that-be couldn't fathom giving Laureles $400 a month so they approached the council and offered them $250 a month and only if the council would remove the co-op from their land so that the trucks could be parked there. Instead of demanding $1,000 a month and swimming pool in every home (they easily could have done so, the city was that desperate) the council, in their myopic pursuit of a handout, agreed, ousted the co-op and then split the monthly $250 amongst themselves. This then has been the plight of the garbage people of Los Laureles; their jobs taken, their livelihood stifled and their land stolen, all because the rich here in Ceiba are ever-greedy and the do-gooders from the World Bank have certain preconceived ideas about what constitutes a model community. No one gets it though, not the World Bank folks, not the mayor's office, not even the governing council of Los Laureles, they don't really understand the type of people they're dealing with. They're humble and quiet and rarely advocate for themselves but they're tough, hard scrabble folks who will persist and refuse to change no matter what comes down the pike. They live off of trash, they scrape together a living off of my refuse and the thousands of others that call La Ceiba home - these people know pain and it has made them patient and farsighted. The World Bank will come and it will leave, the Mayor and his people will certainly forget about Laureles but the residents, the trash pickers, the garbage buyers, they will remain, they will continue on and they will find a way to survive.

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As if the injustice against the co-op weren't enough, the Mayor, the garbage company (they manage the actual internment of the garbage) and the governing council of Los Laureles have, as a result of greed, expediency and general intellectual laziness, have taken actions that have put nearly the entire community of Los Laureles in very real physical and medical danger. To understand what I'm about to describe you will need to understand the physical layout of the community. The main thrust of Los Laureles sits in a narrow, long vale that widens as it climbs up and in. When one enters the community from the highway they find themselves in the residential portion which spreads in and up the vale in all directions, this is the old garbage dump and much of the community lies overtop a landfill. Behind the residential section sits a buffer zone, a no man's land of sorts. This is a wide swath of land most of which is empty, green space. It's bounded on the left by a tiny soccer field (our practice field) and on the right by our building that we use for tutoring/Bible School and the tract of land that used to be occupied by the Recycling Co-op. In the community charter this land is supposed to remain green, open and undeveloped, in fact the only physical mar is the main road that cuts through it on its way to the garbage dump. Behind this stretch of verdancy and at the top of the mountain lies the actual garbage dump, which, according to the rules, should not come near the community residents or vice versa. Unfortunately, all that has changed and all because of a contractual agreement.

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The garbage company, for being given the privilege to inter refuse within the limits of Los Laureles is under contract to pay for and make certain physical improvements to the community, one of which is to construct a regulation-size soccer field in that green swath of a buffer zone before the end of the year. In the beginning of September the council approached the garbage company officials, hat in hand and asked that work begin so that the field might be ready for next soccer season. They were told that work would only commence if the council allowed the company to excavate the open space, fill it first with garbage and then top it off with dirt. The reason given was that the company didn't have access to enough dirt to make the field and so they wanted to use garbage as a filler, as a means to stretch the little dirt they had. The council was told that the dumping of La Ceiba's garbage into the green space would only last 4 weeks and in the end no one would be able to tell that they were playing over a landfill. The council agreed, as they always do when it comes to demands from people in positions of real power and work commenced the next day. As I write this, the dumping continues unabated and there looks to be no end in sight. For those of you who are doing the math, that's 10 weeks of garbage that the once verdant, open space has been subjected to; every truck that has trundled up the hill for the past 10 weeks has deposited its contents practically on the doorstep of the residential section of the community. The council of course was deceived, the company didn't need the garbage to make the soccer field, they only needed to smooth out the mounds that were already there, truck in a load or two of dirt, level it all off and call it a day. No, they didn't need dirt, what they needed was more landfill space. The actual real landfill you see, is running out of space...in part because all of those regulated recyclables that are filling the landfill instead of heading for the open market. The garbage company has seen this coming for some time now, so about a year ago they convinced the mayor's office to purchase more land in the next vale over from Laureles. They've had this land sitting empty waiting for the existing landfill to finally fill up but the company is smart, they know that the new vale will also eventually fill up, so when they saw an opportunity to utilize untapped space for 10-12 weeks they took it and endangered the entire Laureles community in the process. Remember now that the community sits in a vale that climbs up a hill; after 10 weeks of garbage dumping, what should have been a slight rise in the topography (with the addition of the soccer field) has turned into a massive 50 foot high wall of garbage and dirt that towers above the community below it. If you're standing on either side of it you can't see over it, you have to climb up on it to be able to reach the supposed "playing field" and once there you're likely to sink slightly into the fresh landfill. Eyesore aside the plateau of garbage also leaks, it emits an oily, black liquid that pools at the base and then washes away down into the community when the rain comes. And the rains have come and will continue to come and that perhaps is the biggest danger. With enough rain this massive wall of dirt and garbage could come barreling down the vale and destroy everything in its path - everyone involved, from the company, to the council to the mere residents of Laureles know this because it's happened before. Something similar happened 10 years ago, after weeks of rain the landfill opened up and sent its contents flooding into the community and across the highway beyond it. While amazingly no one was killed (it happened around 8am), it did destroy all of the homes in that narrow dale. People had to be yanked out of waist deep garbage, most of the livestock was lost in the flood and no one had a home left standing. It took years to clear the mess, rebuild and regain a semblance of normalcy. Knowing what we know then, why would anyone want to risk another episode? I'm left with: the people in charge here, from the mayor on down to the president of Laureles, are greedy, self-serving and stupid.

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This I suppose has gone on long enough, I want to post pictures but it's getting late so I think tomorrow's post will consist of photos that better explain what I've tried to describe. And I hope I've made it clear both the injustice and the very real danger that the regular people of Los Laureles are experiencing. It infuriates me, motivates me and leaves me feeling helpless all at once; please pray that some sort of solution can be reached for both the co-op and the wall of garbage. If you have any specific questions or comments you can email me at keismatthew@gmail.com Thanks La Gringa for spurring me on to write this, I've been getting lazy recently. Blessings and Peace.

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