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

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.

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 economic 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 and 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 the people in this community¬†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.

Comments (7)

  1. Ben

    Hey MatthewK, thanks for sharing. I really appreciate your (albeit tedious) piece.

    If Honduras is anything like Paraguay (where I live), then no scavenging means no recycling. Here in Asuncion, it’s not uncommon to have people going through the garbage at 4:00 am, separating the sheep from the goats (or at least glass and bottles from the less-reusable waste). Aside from this there are no serious recycling efforts in the society’s conscience.

    Que Dios bendiga a los laureles. Fuerza para ti al caminar y cuidar de las personas en sus verdaderas necesidades! Cristo est√° contigo.

    Reply
  2. TimN

    Matthew,

    Thanks for sharing this story. It is a powerful testimony to the adaptivity of humans. It is also a reminder that pity is often not the best motivation or lens for working with communities. In my own experience visiting the dump in Guatemala City many years ago, I admit that my primary feeling was pity. Your narrative goes much deeper.

    I appreciate having this story shared more or less first hand. I realize that, aside from when I’m writing from a CPT project or about Chicago, most of what I write about is based on what I’ve read in this news article or another. I think more story telling is good for everyone.

    I hope you’ll update us on what happens in Los Laureles.

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  3. db

    I know you are with a religious entity, but the whole “As God Wills” view most Hondurans have will not help them out of the situation they are in and not sure prayers will at this point either. I think there needs more than prayers…there needs to be an uprising of the poor…but we know that won’t happen either. The rich will just keep on shooting them down like they did after the coup.

    When I lived and volungteered in La Ceiba, i always put all my recyclables in separate bags for those garbage guys trying to make their hard life a bit easier. Sad to see them lose their jobs.

    My husband went to the dump a time or two as he is an environmental engineer. I am sure the Mayor or his friends/family are not also getting the money from the garbage routes…I am sure they are making the money from the recycling too.

    Take from the Poor and give to the Rich…Honduras is one messed up Robin Hood adventure. But once you live there, you can’t help still loving it!

    Keep up the good work!

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  4. Richard Sittel

    Hmmm, when I saw the new garbage trucks for the first time last week I thought “Geez, it’s about time!” Now that I hear the whole story I’m not so sure. There are so many problems here in Honduras, starting with the schools and education and spanning employment, corruption, greed, drugs, pollution, and now garbage. I’m not sure there is a good solution to the garbage mess, and if you found the perfect solution you could never get anyone to listen. Look at all the kids who just don’t go to school because they don’t want to. They have a serious attitude problem that goes through rich, poor, young and old. I’m glad at least you haven’t given up. Thanks for enlightening me!
    Rick in La Ceiba

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  5. Jeff McLain

    would love to list you on http://www.anabaptistblogs.com – you cool with that?

    Reply
  6. TimN

    Jeff,

    Of course, you are welcome to list YAR on anabaptistblogs.com. I was surprised how few women were on the list. I only counted two, and both appeared to be blogging with their husbands. Is this representative of what you’ve seen out there?

    Reply
  7. caleb yoder

    Thanks for your story. I happen upon this a long time after your post but take interest since I lived in Honduras for 3 years with MCC in Colonia Rivera Hernandez, San Pedro Sula. I left in fall 2009. I think you were already in Honduras, but i never made it over to La Ceiba that often, so I never got a chance to meet you. Reality is often heartbreaking and complex– there aren’t simple solutions. Living in Central America is a wonderful opportunity to think about how the church can stand up for/with the marginalized. My neighborhood tended to only come up in the news because of violent killings– there was one with 13 young people in a soccer field in la Felipe Zelaya which is part of the same sector. Underemployment is a big problem as well as simply not receiving wages (in the construction sector). Wish you blessings and many learnings

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