Scavenging for Survival

Recycleurs comb landfills to make ends meet

| January 18, 2007

Activists in the United States may have taken up Dumpster diving as a means of protesting wasteful consumption, but for some people living in developing countries such as Senegal and the Philippines, scavenging through refuse is a necessary survival skill. The bleak lifestyle of these recycleurs is on display in a Montreal exhibit -- Mines d'ordures (Garbage mines) -- compiled by French photographer Paul-Antoine Pichard, whom Patrick Lejtenyi profiles in the Montreal Mirror.

One of Pichard's photos shows a boy in flip-flops descending a mound of refuse with a sack of trash on his back. On what is no doubt a daily mission, the young child appears oblivious to the myriad hazards and diseases underfoot that can afflict rummagers -- and sometimes kill them, notes Lejtenyi. Polluted water, cholera, and the plague are commonplace. And as happened in the Payatas dump in Manila, sometimes landfills simply collapse, burying their inhabitants alive.

Naomi Schwarz reports for Voice of America that as many as 150 people inhabit Dakar's Mbeubeuss landfill in Senegal. Local scavengers have an organized system of storing, selling, and repurposing materials from their 'home' to make a living. Plastic remains are sewn into sheets for roofing, and soap remnants are boiled and formed into new bars. One man, Schwarz writes, supports a family of 14 with his income from scavenging.

This work not only keeps the recycleurs alive, it also absolves the government of responsibility for waste management. As Pichard tells the Montreal Mirror, Manila's government takes no interest in cleaning up its toxic mess because it knows the scavengers will manage the task for them. And Schwarz reports that statewide collection efforts in Dakar are so poor that garbage oftentimes doesn't even reach the landfill. The city is literally drowning in its own trash heaps, leaving residents to fend for themselves.

Without measures on the horizon to clean up this problem, the stark reality remains. However, Pichard opposes viewing these recycleurs as mere victims, regardless of their plight or the fact that most will spend their entire lives scavenging. 'They are very proud. They consider what they do a real job,' he tells Lejteny. 'But,' he adds, 'it's still the human condition at its worst.'

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