Posts Tagged ‘hunger

19
Apr
08

Scavenging

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




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