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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Tijuana Dump (p. 49)

From chapter "Garbage"

If we can learn a lot about a society from the way it deals with garbage, we can also learn much about it from the way it treats the people who deal with garbage. Sadly but not surprisingly, people who work with waste are often socially stigmatized or in extreme cases even labeled “untouchables.”

Another way to say this is that the attitudes a society has toward trash closely mirror its attitudes toward trash workers and “garbage pickers.” In situations where garbage is viewed as valuable, trash workers themselves often have greater social status or potential for “upward mobility.” For example, the ragmen and itinerant peddlers of the 1800s, whose salvaged product was viewed as valuable and worth trading for, would often accumulate wealth and eventually open their own stores or materials dealerships. This makes sense—in a society where sorted and recovered trash has worth, its collection and trading can be viewed as a form of economically gainful production.

Class and caste attitudes are also deeply related. Members of highly stratified societies—and most especially members of their upper classes— tend to have more disdain towards trash workers than members of more egalitarian societies. A few examples of people who work with garbage may help clarify our understanding of these social and economic relationships at work.

After the economic collapse of Argentina in 2001, the country saw a sharp devaluation of its currency (the Argentine peso). As a result, common consumable materials like paper, cardboard, and copper became too expensive for most businesses to import, creating a larger market for local recycling. At the same time, there was a massive increase in unemployment. These factors combined to cause a burst in the number of cartoneros—poor people who collect and sort recyclables like cardboard (“carton”) to sell to dealers for a small amount of money.Each evening cartoneros take a government supplied train from poor neighborhoods to wealthy areas of downtown Buenos Aires, where they search through the day’s trash for recyclable materials of value. The train they take is stripped-down, without lights and without heating or air-conditioning. The seats have been removed to make room for shopping carts. Instead of glass, the windows are often covered in rusty wire.The cartoneros call this El Tren Blanco, the white train. Because the train arrives at night and leaves downtown Buenos Aires before dawn the wealthy Argentines almost never see the cartoneros at work. In a pointed commentary on their social invisibility, many cartoneros have dubbed the train El Tren del Fantasma—the ghost train.

The International Red Cross estimated that in 2002 about two thousand cartoneros used the train each day.In 2003, anthropologist Francisco Suarez estimated there were between thirty and forty thousand cartoneros working in the greater metropolitan area of Buenos Aires. In contrast to the behavior of many wealthier cities around the world, the municipal government of Buenos Aires has chosen to work with cartoneros, although the situation is still far from desirable. They’ve legalized the practice, which had been illegal for decades, and launched a campaign for wealthy residents to separate their recyclables in green bags, so that cartoneros will not have to sort through rotten food or hazardous or sharp objects. They’ve also begun to offer cartoneros vaccinations against tetanus.And the cartoneros themselves have also become more organized, as the closure of factories brought an influx of laborers with union experience into the cartonero demographic.

Now, let’s contrast that with the municipal dump for the city of Tijuana. A popular city for tourists, Tijuana grew rapidly as an industrial center following the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The easy movement of products across the border to consumers in the US combined with barriers to the movement of poor Latin Americans across this same border provided the cheap labor and economic circumstances that allowed a boom of labor-intensive factories called maquiladoras. Often, these were simply sweatshops. Continuing American tourism and (often wasteful) local manufacturing helped to produce a steady stream of many different kinds of garbage.

Luis Alberto Urrea tells many stories about the Tijuana dump in his excellent, moving, and sometimes horrifying book The Lake of Sleeping Children. He writes that although the dump was once “a gaping Grand Canyon, it gradually filled with the endless glacier of trash until it rose, rose, swelling like a filling belly. The canyon filled and formed a flat plain, and the plain began to grow in bulldozed ramps, layers, sections, battlements.”

But Urrea’s main focus is not on the landscape. It’s on the people who live in the dump. The conditions of widespread poverty that allowed the maquiladoras to proliferate also meant that scavenging in the dump to find materials for personal use or to sell was an economically viable option for many people—if not a necessity out of desperation. Urrea observed that “poor Mexicans, transformed now by NAFTA into a kind of squadron of human tractors, made their way through the dump, lifting, sifting, bagging, hauling, carting, plucking, cutting, recycling.”

The decomposing garbage in the dump produces highly-flammable methane, which flows out of openings and crevices in the dump. Sometimes the residents will deliberately ignite methane-emitting openings to cook over. And sometimes the methane will flow out unexpectedly, bursting into flame and even burning down entire neighborhoods.Toxic gases fill the air, not just from the mountains of garbage but from the places where garbage is burned for fuel, or to extract the metal from radial-belt automobile tires or insulated copper wires. Fires under the surface may smolder for years.

Often, families will eat food that comes directly from the garbage. And a local health clinic reports that those living in the dump have abnormally high incidences of “skin rashes, throat ailments and cancers.”And problems like these, awful as they are, are small compared to the ever-present risk of being crushed by one of the many huge garbage trucks.

The trash workers of the dump were not driven by the same goals of self-interest and personal profit which drove the architects of international trade arrangements. Instead, they developed community norms of mutual aid and egalitarianism. “The original dompe rules, a set of ordinances that sprang up organically from the people who have to work the garbage, prevailed. A set of rules, by the way, that are extraordinarily humane and sane.”

Just as the ethics and norms of indigenous groups were partly derived from their particular landbases, the rules of the Tijuana dump were partly determined by its structure. The middle of the dompe is where the trucks disgorge their loads. This is also the most promising site in the dump where canned food, (relatively) fresh produce, and working machines may be found. Because of the hazards of the trucks and bulldozers, the “youngest and the strongest” work here. When garbage-pickers drop into holes or fissures for choice finds, they erect poles with rags on the end to warn tractor drivers not to drive into them, crush them, or bury them in garbage. Despite precautions like this, garbage-pickers are still often killed in the Tijuana dump, and in other dumps throughout the world.

Urrea describes five rules that garbage-pickers follow. The first is to watch for dangerous heavy machinery. The second is that children are not allowed in “the trash,” the main area of the dump piled with garbage. The third has to do with gender equity: men and women are equal in the trash. The fourth is that children and older people are allowed to work on the fringe of the trash, away from the dangerous machines, where garbage pushed by tractors down the slope of the expanding mountain is sifted by gravity so that some of the best finds roll out to the pickers. And the fifth rule is that a special “safe area” is set up by the healthy workers for the very old and for people with disabilities. Universally honored, this area is avoided by tractors and trucks, though the occasional load is dumped or carried there. This way the old and people with disabilities can still work safely. Urrea observes: “There is no welfare in the dump, but there is work, care, sweat, and dignity.”

In 2007, the city of Tijuana began to shut down the municipal dump Urrea wrote about. This is not necessarily good for the planet or the pickers. As far as the land around the dump is concerned, little has changed. Visiting the area of the dump, journalist Kinsee Morlan wrote; “When it rains, the hillsides of Fausto Gonzales bleed trash. Jagged bed springs pop out of the soft mud like broken bones from flesh. Plastic bags, rotted wood, pieces of Barbie dolls, bottle caps, cigarette butts and other debris join a muddy waterfall that spills into the canyon below. The smell is putrid.” And of course, Tijuana has not stopped producing garbage, or even tried to staunch the flow. Instead, the garbage goes to new dumps to drown even more land. Many of the pickers still live there, though others have moved on to other dumps. Strange as it may seem, many prefer working in the dump to working in sweatshops, where the daily wage may be even less than one can gain by selling their best finds from the dump.

At a new landfill location outside of Tijuana, history is repeating itself. Simple shacks and shanties are being built from scavenged materials, and individuals and families are setting up shop, despite government efforts to keep them out. Alfonso López Posada, co-director of Tijuana’s Municipal Cleaning Services, is resigned to the situation. “As long as there is trash, there will be people who work in the dump.”