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NICARAGUA: Fighting Over Society’s Scraps

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Mar 20 2008 (IPS) - Thousands of people who eke out a living by selling recyclable trash scavenged from the municipal dump in the Nicaraguan capital are staging a protest over control of the city’s waste, blocking access to the dump by the garbage trucks.

As a result, garbage has been piling up on the streets of Managua for almost three weeks now, putting the city’s 1.6 million inhabitants at risk of disease outbreaks.

Some 1,600 waste pickers who comb through the garbage in the huge La Chureca city dump, on the northwest outskirts of Managua, for scrap material to sell began the protest on Mar. 1. They accuse local authorities of encouraging municipal employees to sell recyclable material themselves to formal sector companies that pay taxes.

Germán Salgado, the leader of the garbage pickers, told IPS that the roots of the problem date back more than two years, to a municipal government decision that has hurt more than 2,000 people who depend on selling waste materials like aluminium, iron, copper, bronze, plastic, paper and glass for a living.

“There are more than 1,600 people who work here day and night, and another 400 or 500 who wash the materials and sell them,” he said. “But over the past two years, the pickings have become more and more scarce, and now we realised that the city government is removing the materials and selling them.”

According to Edgard Narváez, one of the organisers of the protest and a member of the Movimiento Comunal (Community Movement), a grassroots social movement, the municipal measure has pushed the families of garbage pickers to the verge of starvation and made their already extremely tough lives even more difficult.

“Workers here used to earn up to three dollars a day, but now on many days they don’t even earn as much as a dollar for their work, because the garbage has already been picked over,” Narváez told IPS.

He is calling on the municipal government to keep its workers from selecting the best recyclable materials to sell themselves, and to force them to deposit all of the garbage in the La Chureca dump.

A report by Nicaragua’s Centro de Trámites de Exportaciones (Export Procedures Centre) indicates that exports of recyclable material amounted to 18 million dollars in 2006 and 21 million dollars in 2007.

Because the protest has kept the drivers of the 60 garbage trucks that service the capital from taking the rubbish they collect to the dump, the 1, 200 tons of trash generated daily by the city are now clogging the streets of Managua.

Mayor Dionisio Marenco said the protest was endangering public health in the city, and authorities at the Health Ministry and the National Disaster Prevention System have issued a health alert against possible epidemics.

Walter Calderón, spokesman for the non-governmental Centro Dos Generaciones (Two Generations Centre), which supports the families who live in and around the La Chureca dump, told IPS that the protest “is just the tip of the iceberg of deep underlying social problems.”

“An emergency had to occur for Nicaraguan society to remember that there is a hell on earth where women give birth to their children in the garbage,” said Calderón, who added that the protest should serve as a wakeup call for the authorities.

La Chureca, which is located next to the Acahualinca slum neighbourhood, is a 64-hectare dump that was created in 1975 on the shores of Lake Managua.

Of the more than 1,600 people who work in the dump, more than 500 are children between the ages of seven and 18, who help scavenge for materials that they can sell, and for discarded food scraps to feed the family, reports the Centro Dos Generaciones.

The landscape is bleak, with mountains of steaming garbage on every side, and streams of mud and rotting trash running down to the lake, while people, dogs and carrion-eating birds fight each other over scraps of food.

Around 147 families live on one side of the dump in a slum consisting of shacks made of cardboard, scraps of wood and corrugated iron, and other scavenged materials.

Some 700 people of all ages live in the overcrowded shacks, according to a study by the Asociación Cristiana de Jóvenes (ACJ) of Nicaragua, a related movement of the World Alliance of YMCAs.

Before the ACJ became active in the area 12 years ago, La Chureca was a “hot zone” of drugs, drinking, prostitution and violent crime.

“I was stabbed in the back when I was trying to pull an old bicycle out of the garbage,” said Antenor García, one of the slum’s founding residents. “The competition in this world is tough, and not everyone survives.”

Justina Santos, 45, who has lived in La Chureca for 12 years, told IPS that the violence and crime have recently improved, but not the living conditions.

“We used to eat at least twice a day. Now we are hard-pressed just to make soup, so the children can be fooled into feeling full,” said Santos, who works with her partner and their three children under the age of 13 scavenging among rotten food scraps, dead animals, cans, glass, dust and dirt.

Cirilo Otero, a sociologist who heads the Centro de Iniciativas de Políticas Ambientales (Environmental Policy Initiatives Centre), said the protest is an excellent opportunity to put an end once and for all to the slum in the dump and provide the families with a better life.

“The problem is not going to be solved by dumping ‘better’ garbage so that these people have something to live off of,” he commented to IPS. “The solution is to move them out of there, train them in some trade, and insert them into a healthier and more productive life.”

“Pulling them out of there would save the lives of many of those kids, who are dying every day from eating contaminated food,” he said.

A study by the Autonomous National University of Nicaragua and the Lund University of Sweden found in 2007 that more than 30 percent of the children who live and work in La Chureca are affected by lead, mercury and DDT because of exposure to garbage and consumption of fish from Lake Managua.

After nearly three weeks of protest, municipal and central government officials are discussing an immediate solution to the problem, while hundreds of waste pickers continue manning the roadblock that is keeping the garbage trucks out of the dump.

The search for solutions has already led to an agreement signed earlier this month by the city government and Spain’s International Cooperation Agency (AECI), to finance a project to close the dump within the next few years.

AECI regional coordinator Elena Montobbio told the press that her country would provide 30 million euros (47 million dollars) so that the city can close down the dump, and build decent housing to relocate the families as well as a community-run recycling plant. Within five years, the families should be able to leave behind their old lives in the city dump forever.

But in the meantime, the rubbish keeps piling up.

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