Sunday, October 25, 2009

Landfill Community in Khon Kaen City

The drive from the university to Khon Kaen city landfill was one of nervous laughter and uncertainly of what lay ahead. We were to spend two days living in a community of 220 people who live directly next to the city’s landfill. The villagers live next to the landfill because they are scavengers; they search through the trash to find recyclables. The first day we took a tour around the huge area led by the community leader who explained how the landfill worked and what everyday life was like. The next morning I awoke at 6AM thinking about the trash that we would soon be scavenging through to find recyclables and other things of value.

A group of students and I prepared for the dirty job ahead with long pants, boots, gloves, hats, and scarves to cover our faces from the smelly fumes. Many of the workers only have boots and long pants. We were given rakes and baskets for the valuables we would discover and headed down the road. We arrived to find many people already working on the landfill, as many start the day at sunrise because of the cooler temperatures. A full-loaded garbage truck arrived and we all attacked the trash looking for plastic, glass, cardboard, and electronics. Diapers, rotting food, plastic food wrappers, toys, shoes, DVDs, toothbrushes, clothes, paper, and purses were some of the things found during our relatively short time scavenging. I thought to myself; this toothpaste or this plastic potato chip bag could have easily been mine.

The life of a scavenger is dangerous because you can easily step on glass or a needle from the bags of medical waste that arrive every day. Most of the scavengers have at least one story of a time they were seriously injured from something they stepped on while working in the landfill. Hazardous gas from the massive trash pile and contaminated ground water are part of everyday life. During the rainy season they drink rain water but during the dry season they have to buy water because of the dangerous chemicals in the groundwater. The community water for showering and cleaning is pumped about 100 feet from the edge of the landfill. They have been told there is arsenic in the water but were never told the levels of arsenic and what other chemicals the water contains. They keep working here because this is the only thing they know how to do and they are comfortable with this kind of lifestyle. During our exchange, I asked “What do you want for your children?” and they immediately replied that they want their children to be educated so they don’t have to work at the landfill like their parents.

During our exchange with the community we learned that the current community of 60 households started with a few individuals who started picking through the city’s trash and eventually moved to the landfill to live permanently. The economic downturn has made life more difficult for the community for two reasons; a decrease in consumption and therefore trash and increased unemployment which had led to more scavengers working at the landfill. More scavengers means increased competition in the landfill. However I was glad to hear that the villagers have an agreement not to steal or grab objects discovered while working alongside each other.
Before the economic downturn, villagers could earn 30,000 baht a person per month ($900USD). Today they earn 5,000-6,000 baht a person per month($150-$180USD). The economic downturn means less consumption and therefore less waste but also the price of recyclables has decreased as well. Today they earn 10 baht/kg of plastic water bottles or 28 baht/kg for glass bottles. Today most villagers work 15 hours a day and do not have time free time, but it wasn’t always this way. Before the economic downtown they were able to work fewer hours which left them with more free time to spend time with friends and family as well as organize together in an attempt to try to get equipment like gloves and boots from the local government municipality.

Modern capitalism coupled with consumerism encourages us to buy more stuff to make ourselves happy and to make our lives more comfortable without thought of the negative consequences. It is expected that we all take part in the massive consumption that depletes the planet’s resources. After we put something in the trash we never see it again; but it goes somewhere and the scavengers of Khon Kaen landfill will be the last humans to see it before it is buried under the tons of new trash that arrive every day.

I took pictures at the landfill even though I wasn’t sure if it was morally right to take photographs of the workers in the landfill. I did take pictures because I knew I would never have an opportunity like this again but I wasn’t sure if I would ever show the pictures to anyone. I'm worried that people in America will look at these pictures and think to themselves "those dirty poor people." This people have been marginalized by powerful external forces like globalized economies, government policy, capitalism, poor education, etc. One of your friends or family could easily have been born into a landfill community like this anywhere in the world. One billion of the world's population lives in slums and any of us could have been born there instead of a wealthy family in America. So think of the things you throw away everyday and don't take your comfortable life for granted.

For this reason you can view these pictures on this blog post and with this direct link to a hidden photo gallery.  The photo gallery is only available by direct link above and is hidden on my website.


mountains of trash

students scavenging

students scavenging

I climbed to the top of a trash mountain for this picture

our student group and some members of the landfill community

here is a video of a truck dumping trash. the same thing happens in every country of the world every single day!


Nah Chung Wei Bryan said...

Dear Brodie,

My name is Bryan, and I am currently a third year medical student studying in the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore. I read your post and I am very impressed with the work that you and your friends have done.

I am part of a group of Medical Students from NUS planning a mission to Khon Kaen. Could I have your email so that I can communicate with you further on issues such as who to contact over there, etc? It would really help make our mission more meaningful and impactful.

Brodie said...

send me an email at brodienh (at) .com and I can connect you to people in Khon Kaen

Nah Chung Wei Bryan said...

Hey man what does (at) .com stand for? Sorry I haven't seen it being used before.

Brodie said...