Yesterday, the New York Times ran an article about the global food crisis, illustrated with images of Haitians scavenging for food on an open garbage dump.

Girl on the TrashA girl in a pretty pink dress, all ruffles and flowers, stands in a wasteland of trash, trying to keep herself separate. A man sits with his head between his knees, a picture of despair, a study of a million shades of grime. Another man almost disappears in the infernal exhalations of vapor and smoke that rise from the dump.

Over the past few years, since I started paying attention, I have found numerous reports of poor people living on and living off garbage dumps:

– People in Shanghai diving into deliveries of garbage ahead of the Australian operators meaning to bury it, because they can make more money scavenging than with a regular job. (Story)

– A whole community of Coptic Christians in Cairo still taking care informally of all the city’s waste, after efforts to modernize sanitation failed. (Story)

– Palestinian boys in the West Bank haunting the local garbage dumps looking for the discards from Israeli settlers, as shortages in their own communities become more severe. (Story)

– Somalian children searching for food on the garbage dumps of Mogadishu. (Story)

– In Manila, the Philippines, whole villages sprouting on the garbage dumps, one of which was buried in an avalanche of trash in 2000, when a typhoon toppled its unstable garbage mountains. More than 200 people perished in the trash. (Story)

– Whole families living on the garbage dump of Steung Meanchey outside Pnom Penh. Again children are overrepresented. (Story)

– In Baghdad, Iraq, women (many of them widows who can’t find work) taking to combing through other people’s garbage cans to feed their children. (Story)

– In Luanda, Angola, the poor scavenging a livelihood off the city’s dumps.

– Roma children picking through the rubbish on the dumps in Ano Liosia, outside Athens.

– In Paraguachon, Venezuela, a whole community living on the garbage dump.

– in New Delhi people routinely scavenging collected garbage, at least what the dogs have left them.

– In Shkoder, Albania, an army of children swarming over the dump to extract whatever small value it contains as their own way to survive.

What exactly makes all these stories so deeply pathetic, so compelling–and so popular with photographers? Is it the sheer fact of defenseless children living in the middle of garbage, exposed to disease, stench, filth, and smoke? Is it the eloquence of the contrast between their innocence and the filth of the dump, the distance between their experience and anything we’d want for any children we know?

Is it about inequality–the fact that some are so poor that they must survive on what has no perceptible value to others? These stories gain some edge, I suspect, from the perversion of sharing and empathy that they embody. Do those leftovers have to go to the dump first before they can become available to the poorest of the poor?

In that regard, the images mutely ask us who we are. They are so dense with meaning and personal implication, in fact, that they become difficult to look at, at least for me. They make it very hard to continue on, blithely, with my everyday concerns in an everyday American context, in which it is easy to think that nothing is ever quite sufficient. At the same time, it’s not as if they offer an easy answer to the question of how to live instead.

For me, personally, that means living more modestly–with less stuff, a smaller footprint, less busy work. More thought and less running around. More structure and less convenience. I’ve come to think we make ourselves up every minute of the day, and I think I would like to do that a little more on my own terms, going forward.

Postscript June 16, 2008 – NPR has a story about Miroslava Enciso Limon, a young woman from Tijuana who visited the local garbage dump while in high school and saw the people who lived and ate off what they found there. She went on to become an engineer with the idea of building a machine that would mechanize their labor, offer protections from direct contact with putrescing garbage, and give them a regular income. She has succeeded in her plans, and the former scavengers are now city employees operating the machinery and still sorting trash by hand but with increased protection against disease and injury. To listen to the story: Recycling Plan Catches on in Tijuana


11 Responses to “Scavenging”

  1. April 24, 2008 at 3:20 am

    Marijke –

    What a long series of similar reports. It feels to me like we are trying to wake ourselves up to something. Your reflections help create space for that process to occur, for me.

    I keep thinking lately about vividness and how it relates to seeing what action is needed, to spontaneous effortless response.

    Because our economic system is built on specialization, consequences are remote for many more things than in an agricultural economy. Given our need for vivid depictions before we give something the “weight” it needs to move us to action, perhaps photographs are the glue. It does seem I need something to “resituate” myself in the larger world and what is happening (and face that it is NOT unrelated to my own choices), as a counter-balance to the hypnotic feeling of “hunkey-dory-ness” I get in the rest of my fortunate life.

    On the other side, it is hard to tell whether the photos give the right weight to what needs to be seen, too. Do photographers capture what most needs human attention? Or what will feel most stark and unsettling? This affects whether we pay attention or guard ourselves against the feelings they arouse.

    Look forward to hearing more of your emerging point of view on this.

  2. April 25, 2008 at 1:31 am

    I have asked myself the same question you ask. Is the story told by all these reports the most important story? Is it what needs to be seen or is it somehow manipulative? I finally decided that as far as I’m concerned what matters is the fact that they allow me to see differently, think differently, and get a little closer to something that makes sense to me. It follows that therefore they are the right story for me. Whether they are the right story for anyone else is an entirely different matter.
    – Marijke

  3. 3 dumpstertaoist
    May 30, 2008 at 10:50 am

    Children are constantly used as pawns by adults to achieve some goal or evoke an emotion, and being that I work in the media, I see it done all the time. Normal people don’t want a garbage dump next to their house “where my children play” etc, when in fact it’s they themselves who don’t want it. So an image of a child digging in trash is just way more provocative than a middle aged guy doing it. I think these images are shown to us to make us feel better about ourselves, or we look at them to make us feel better about how we’re doing.

    Scavenging is and always has been a way of life for many people. The fact that scavenging is so looked down upon in this country is a product of our consumer culture and has been forced upon us for several decades. Show those picture to 80 percent of people in the world and they wouldn’t even bat an eye at them.

  4. May 31, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    Dumpstertaoist, you raise an interesting question about the perspective of these images. It’s possible to feel superior, as well as feeling empathetic. And which way you go probably says more about you than about the image itself.

    This reminds me of a story told by John Perkins, in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, about the attitude of the Saudis in the 1970s. They didn’t pick up any garbage because they collectively felt above it, which meant they were surrounded by it. Bands of roaming goats took care of the edibles, just like the roaming pigs reduced the volume of garbage in New York city until the late 19th century.

    And that’s what makes me hesitate over the 80% of people in the world not batting an eye. In what way exactly? Not batting an eye because it is part of their experience and they consider it normal? Or not batting an eye because they think whoever eats food scavenged from the dump somehow deserves that fate?

    Anyhow, I’d prefer to live in a world in which we recycle and repurpose all things at the end of their useful life AND in which nobody has to live and look for their dinner in a garbage dump.

  5. 5 dumpstertaoist
    June 1, 2008 at 10:37 am

    OK, let me make it clear that I believe these dumps aren’t a great way to make a living, and it is a shame that children do have to live and work there. It may depend on just what dump and what people we’re even talking about. Some of these dump workers do choose to be there rather than work a job in a country with very low-paying wages. Some just have no choice and must deal with horrible things like swarms of flying cockroaches (!) But what about the Zabbaleen? It’s a way of life for them and has been for so long. The “big corporations” are moving in to take control of the garbage and destroying their way of life. Keeping these people out of the dumps wouldnt necessarily help them at all.

    When I say that most in the world wouldn’t bat an eye I mean that yeah, scavenging is commonplace. Only in the first-world countries would the majority of people look upon them with pity or disgust. I’m not sure how many people would share the Saudis’ point of view. I mean, I just actually don’t know. Perhaps many would? Not sure.

    And yeah, we who work in the media are like vultures and use images to manipulate all the time. http://www.zombietime.com/reuters_photo_fraud/

    In my ideal world, in every country especially the US, scavenging would be encouraged, rather than looked down upon. But in a safe, clean way. There’s a well known garbologist who’s name I can’t remember who advocates a whole new trash system involving local stations in every neighborhood where all trash is taken and could be scavenged under supervision. We could see what is thrown out, we could see the waste and do something about it. Scavenge it or reduce it, or simply change our buying habits.

    The last thing we need is for the “out of sight, out of mind, don’t touch it, it will harm you” attitude we have in the US about garbage to spread throughout the world. It is wasteful beyond belief. I’ve been picking through garbage for about 17 years, and I’m much the better for it and in great health. I don’t even have to, I make a good living. (Sometimes I feel like quitting my job in corporate America and dropping out, though, surviving on garbage full-time, but that’s another story)

    Again, keep up the great work. I hope to hear you on NPR or something someday. I listened to your clips on WQED and loved them. I hope I never come across a dead body in the trash though! A family of possums I discovered once was enough of a scare. Hehe,

  6. June 3, 2008 at 10:01 am

    Thanks for clarifying. I can see much better now where you’re coming from, and I have a lot of respect for your resistance to consumerism.

    I think there’s one other issue playing in the background here: the socio-econonic system that garbage circulates in (or doesn’t, as in our own society). The Saudis are probably unusual in that they collectively felt themselves to be above garbage. From my reading, I gather that most sedentary societies stratify themselves and allot the “dirty work” to the people at the bottom of the heap. In such a society, most people feel themselves to be above garbage, while they finger someone else to be just right for the job.

    I am in favor of scavenging if it means better reuse of resources and decreased participation in the engines of predatory consumerism. However, if scavenging is done by a scavenging class or tribe or other sort of designated group, then I don’t think it would change the underlying engine of predation.

  7. 7 dumpstertaoist
    June 5, 2008 at 10:51 am

    Thanks Marijke. Yeah, I think if anyone spends enough time in the trash seeing what’s thrown away, they’ll take at least a mild stance against consumerism!

  8. June 10, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    Dumpstertaoist and Marijke –

    Useful to listen in on your interchange and the various perspectives on scavenging. The out-of-sight-out-of mind vs. safe-scavenging contrast suggests there might be an analogous innovation to a restaurant in my neighborhood: since so few people reportedly wash their hands in the restroom, they put the sink outside the restrooms in the hallway, unobtrusive but visible to passers-by. Then, socially, of COURSE you stop and wash your hands.

    On the question of manipulative use of media and emotions, do you have any thoughts, dumpstertaoist, about how we individually might take responsibility for getting vivid enough depictions of the world to ground our choices? Given your moniker, I imagine you’re familiar with Pirsig’s discussions about giving the appropriate weight or value to things as we work with them (motorcycles or selves).


  9. June 19, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Feminine!!!

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