Beware the Amish pirates

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle…unless you live in la ceiba

June 18th, 2010 by MatthewK

Author’s Note: Just to give some context; I’m a mission worker with Eastern Mennonite Missions in La Ceiba, Honduras. I in conjunction with the local Mennonite congregation, work in Los Laureles, a community built in and around the municipal garbage dump. If you’d like to read or see more about our work there you can visit my blog here.

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? Here’s the long version. 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.

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