20 million people make a meagre living from picking recyclables out of trash. Shoot For Change photographer Timothy Bouldry draws attention to the complexities of closing dumpsites and creating alternatives for the people that depend on them.
Waste: Environmental tragedy or human suicide?
Dump sites create a host of environmental problems, from pollution to climate change, and yet as the outgoing head of Greenpeace, Kumi Naidoo, recently said, “The struggle has never been about saving the planet. The planet does not need saving. If we warm it up to the point where we cannot exist we’ll be gone, the planet will still be here.”
He said the green movement could learn a lot from the struggle against apartheid. “One of the great mistakes of the environment movement was to frame the climate debate as one about environment. We have to give a voice to people on the frontline. I do not believe that people like us of privilege should be given the greatest voice.”
Giving a voice to the millions of people who make a living scavenging from these waste dumps is perhaps, then, an important way to frame the waste crisis. Maybe we need to move from seeing waste as an environmental problem to recognising those who are massively affected by our inability – on a global level – to cope with waste (and our inability to stem the causes of it).
That’s what photographer Timothy Bouldry is dedicating his life’s work to.
Timothy responded to my latest blog post on this issue, Silver Bullets or Stepping Stones, saying that many of the points I raised fitted with his experience of spending time on open dumps. We decided to talk further and to work on this blog post together, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Timothy for his time and valuable inputs.
Unlike photographers who can be accused of exploiting people’s poverty, Timothy lives close to the people in his pictures, building trust over time so that they invite him to take their photo; often posing for remarkable shots worthy of a place in the National Portrait Gallery, and portraying the very human side of the waste crisis.
Realities of living on a dumpsite
Rightly or wrongly, depending on where you’re sitting, dumpsites provide a perpetual (though minimal) source of income for thousands and thousands of people. Whole families make a paltry living by scavenging recyclable materials from the dump. A kilogram of plastic, for example, is worth around US$0.30, providing an income of around US$1-2 a day.
Half the global population (more than 3.5 billion people) lack proper waste management services, and so waste accumulates in open dumps. People gradually move closer, ready whenever a truck arrives to deliver more waste from which they can pick anything of value. Families build their homes from the materials they find on the dump, and eventually entire villages emerge. As Timothy explains about La Chureca, “At one point there were 258 families living there, with seven people in each household – that’s around 1,800 residents living on the open dump.”
Open dumps are one of the shames of humanity. Scavenging carries risks of skin problems, lung disease, blindness, cancer and gastrointestinal illness. And the ghettos people live in carry equal risks of sex attacks, drug abuse, robberies and child trafficking.
“It might sound so bad…” adds Timothy, “But when the dump was closed and a big wall built around it, people – including children – were still scaling the wall and bypassing security to get to the waste.”
Herein lies an enormous challenge: open waste dumps are terrible places, but they still represent the least-bad option for many.
Does aid work?
Every now and then, aid agencies and foreign governments donate money to close dump sites in developing countries. There’s sometimes no rhyme or reason why one “project” is chosen over another – often it’s because of embarrassing international media attention; other times it’s because a foreign dignitary has been suitably appalled by what they have seen.
That’s what happened at La Chureca: a team from the Spanish government visited the area and offered a generous donation of $39M to the Nicaraguan government to clean up the site. A wall was built; a waste processing facility constructed; houses were even built for the families being displaced.
But things didn’t go entirely as planned.
- A hurricane and flood further north drove refugees to Managua, and they were given the initial tranche of houses instead. The original families still had nowhere to go, so more houses had to be built, at greater expense.
- Hundreds of people from La Chureca were given jobs at the waste processing facility – but only those with ID and work permits (requiring a birth certificate) could be employed. The most vulnerable suffered even more, with no access to their only lifeline – waste.
- The waste then became the property of the government. After all, they had to try to make the waste facility financially sustainable – paying wages, electricity, security… Again, this took away the value of the waste from those who needed it most.
Eventually the running costs of the facility became unsustainable, and it now requires a 50% subsidy from the municipal department. Unable to make the plant pay for itself with the low value of recyclables, the council is losing money fast, and the trash is once again piling up. “Even if you have a solution for today,” observes Timothy, “it won’t last forever.”
For some, the foreign investment has worked. Individuals and families that are keen to prosper and understand where the opportunities lie have improved their lives.
“You can see the community developing. There are store fronts, people look cleaner, have better hygiene and newer clothes. The children have more time for school and self-development activities. You can see who took advantage of the good opportunity and who is stuck in the poverty trap, believing this lifestyle is all they deserve and returning to sorting waste even though they risk prison – and have to jump the wall to get to the dump.”
As Timothy is keen to point out, for a programme to be effective, it needs longevity. It needs long-term (generation-length) commitment from the right people, with the right resources. Importantly, it also needs to support the people who depend on the waste to survive. Taking that value out of their hands can in fact compound the problems that the programme set out to solve in the first place.
The question of value
One of the main things that struck me when listening to Timothy was the amount of personal investment he is making to address the problems faced by the families at La Chureca. He has learned the hard way that hand-outs don’t work.
Timothy’s experience at La Chureca and other open dump communities has left him frustrated, and somewhat cynical. He has seen too many “NGOs or NGO wannabes” take advantage of open dump communities by raising donations that are ultimately spent on “social media ego trips.”
These are the programmes that give hand-outs but add nothing (other than an expectation that foreigners are obligated to give things to the poor when they visit). He also has reservations about the “awkwardness with tourism when foreigners pile onto a bus to look at how sad a community looks,” citing both positive and negative effects of poverty-tourism.
Following his moving presentation at last year’s ISWA conference, Timothy was awarded a fund by ISWA to build his own scholarship programme. For under US$35 per month, he is getting children from La Chureca out of the poverty trap and into school. He says it only works for those children whose parents support the idea, and so he’s working on a case-by-case basis, conscious of the risks of children dropping out, and the life-changing chance that they will stay the course.
He’s combining the scholarships with life coaching, focusing on helping the children see the value in their own lives. “Everyone has value. Life is a special gift and what each can contribute is extremely valuable, once we realise the value in our own lives.”
I’m struck by the sheer humanity of what he is saying. Being a waste manager, I’m so used to considering “value” as the commodity price of a material. We talk about recovering value from waste all the time. Maybe we even consider the value of waste more frequently than we do the value of people who live from it.
Referring to his scholarship programme, Timothy continues, “It takes courage to be a person from the community who wants to change for the better. But the value is there and it’s ready to spark whenever a person might ignite it.”
Timothy’s update: “The scholarship programme is currently helping 19 kids. When I searched out more kids who are currently jumping the wall to pick the waste, I received an overwhelming response. I have too many kids for the programme and I have a hard time saying no. Some kids aren’t accepted by the private school because they are too old for their grade, or they don’t have birth certificates, so I found alternative programmes for them. So far we have 10 kids in a good private school, 7 in a public school, one girl in a school for special needs and one kid who will just be taking classes in English and Computers. The programme is spreading out a bit and helping kids in both dumps in Managua (La Chureca and Nueva Vida).
I have been getting reports that about 400-500 people currently jump the wall to enter the dump. I hope to be jumping the wall with them in disguise to take some before and after pictures of the kids…”
Through the ISWA scholarships and Timothy’s long-term attention to the children involved (and even those who aren’t), Timothy is enabling people to alter their self-perception and see the value in their lives.
As if picking up on how humbled I’m feeling, and wanting to draw more parallels for a simple waste management professional, he adds, “It’s about finding circularity with people and with materials.”
Putting our heads together
Open waste dumps are terrible places and reflect a very sad side of humanity. Yet short-term initiatives to close the dump and build a tech-driven alternative rarely work.
What I’m understanding more and more is that no waste management revolution will succeed unless we put people centre-stage. To paraphrase Kumi Naidoo, the struggle is not about saving the planet. We need to give a voice to the people on the frontline.
Education, enterprise and workers’ rights are fundamental pieces to that jigsaw.
With the sickening news that 62 people in the world have as much wealth as 50% of the global population, it seems we have much to do. Consumerism is benefitting the super-rich, but there are also ways it can benefit the ultra-poor.
While there are 20 million working in waste informally, there are a further 20 million working in waste management in an “official” capacity. In this era of information, disruption and innovation, now is the time to put our heads together and start making a real dent in the waste crisis, before it becomes even more of a human crisis.
David Newman, ISWA President, said: “As far as we know, this is the first time the waste industry has actually become active in helping children who live on landfills. I am immensely proud of the ISWA scholarship with Timothy, and its potential to change lives. I wish we had the money to change many more.”
Thank you Timothy for all your help.
If you or your business would like to support the life-changing ISWA Scholarship programme run by Timothy, please visit the dedicated page on the ISWA website.