Monday, October 12, 2009

Kham Bon Noi Landfill

At 6 a.m. we awoke, excited, yet a bit nervous, ready to try our hand at scavenging for recyclables. After donning our long pants, plastic boots and gloves Kate and I followed our meh (mom) up to the dump.

As we walk toward the dump entrance, which is about 150 meters from our house, the road is lined with huts where the scavengers take their recyclables to sort. Our meh's hut was right by the entrance, and wasting no time, we grabbed our pitch forks and basket and headed into the dump to wait for the first garbage truck of the day.

The smell was overbearing, but the excitement of trying to find recyclables, and impress our meh with our good scavenging eyes, distracted us. The first load was dumped and 8 to 10 of us went to work on it. We watched our meh, and others from the community, and tried to pull out similar recyclables, but we quickly learned that there was a science to it. This black bag could be recycled, but not that one? The white and clear plastic bottles are good, but the green and semi-white ones are not? Not exactly sure what was, and was not, recyclable, we would hold up our findings and ask "Di my (yes)?" We would get a head nod either way, and slowly we began to catch on...a little. With one large basket full of plastic bags, cans, glass and plastic bottles we made our way out of the dump, feeling accomplished and ready to eat some breakfast. For breakfast we had egg and some stir fried vegetables; however, our stomachs were a little upset from the smell so we did not eat very much.

After breakfast meh quickly geared back up and was ready to head back out. We were slightly reluctant, but knew that we could not give up on our scavenging career at 8:30 a.m.! So out we went! By this time the other 12 CIEE students were out working with their families and we all attacked a freshly dumped pile of trash together, making a competition out of who could get to a glass bottle or plastic bag first.

This enthusiasm, however, quickly faded as the novelty of our new profession wore off. Reality began to set in as the sun began to heat up, flies swarmed all around me and maggots squirmed at my feet. The smell started to get to me, despite the fact that I had a bandanna tied around my nose and mouth. My stomach churned and I began to gag a couple of times, but managed to keep down what little breakfast I ate.

A somber mood set in as I recognized that garbage scavenging is no game. It is THEIR reality. Every single day. Night and Day. As I half heartedly pulled out bags of rotted food, dirty diapers, dead animals and soiled clothing with my pitch fork, my spirit sank. This was not by any stretch of the imagination enjoyable, but it was an example of what people with no skills and education resort to to survive.

There are currently 60 households that live next to, and work in, the dump. People migrated from city slums and rural areas because they could not find any other work. In the past, the community conditions and dynamics were much better. They were organized and active in petitioning the government for improved working and living conditions. However, since the economic downturn their is no time for community organizing. In the past, they would make, on average, Bt30,000 (U$882) a month. Now they make around Bt5,000 - Bt6,000 (U$147 - U$176) a month.

The drop in income has forced them to work 15+ hour days. The family I stayed with had a mom, a dad, a son and a daughter. My meh would work during the morning and afternoon, and then my paw would go out at night. My meh, meh B, is 30 years old. She has lived and worked in the slum since she was 10. As we sat down for meals or to rest together, I could not help but think of how different our lives are. By my age she had been working in the dump for 12 years, and had a 3 year old son. She did not have a formal education.

This experience did not make me feel guilty for having what I have, but it did make me wonder, why me? Why was I born in the United States to a middle class family? Why was she born into poverty? What does it really mean to be an United States citizen, with all the rights, liberties and opportunities bestowed upon us? Food for thought, I guess.

I realize that I paint a very grim picture of these people's lives, and it is a harsh reality, but I think it is also important to note that they are warm, caring, happy people. They laugh and joke. They play bingo and buy their children ice cream. They do not complain about their work. In fact, they have been evicted from the landfill multiple times, only to break back in to continue their work. They do not want to leave, because scavenging is the only way of life they know, but they do want something better for their children.

I do not think that anyone should have to do the type of work that they do, and the fact that they are there reflects a lack of opportunity that the state is failing to provide. The conditions are dangerous. People get cut by glass and needles. They have been hit by dump trucks or buried under trash. The air and water quality is deadly, as they breathe in methane and drink acid rain water.

They have petitioned the city numerous times to provide better working boots, gloves and masks and to test the drinking water to see if it is safe, but their requests go unmet. At best the city makes a half-assed attempt to provide them with some basic services, but the aid they receive is surface level they told us. "The city does things sometimes just to say they have done it. They do not really care about improving our lives, so no one really believes they can rely on the government (Paw Kum)." This is despite the fact that the landfill scavengers save the city millions of dollars a year in recycled goods and have significantly prolonged the life of the landfill by recycling a substantial portion of waste.

The community of Kham Bon Noi, at the landfill, faces many challenges. As a student I am trying to understand their situation, and help in any way, but the outlook is not good and there is not much we can tangibly do. This experience has, however, made me recognize the importance of education, and the realities that people who are marginalized from society face. It has also made me very grateful for the opportunities I have always had in my life.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I'll be DAMed!

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Rasi Salai Dam protest village with a small group of students. Rasi Salai Dam was built by the Thai government in 1992 to provide agricultural irrigation for the surrounding area. However, the government did not take into account the traditional farming practices of the local people and did not conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) before constructing the dam.

The results were devastating. The dam distrupted the natural flooding patterns of the river, flooded the wetlands that people depended on for their livlihoods and resulted in an over-salinated water supply. It is estimated that 17,000 Rasi Salai villagers have been negatively impacted by the dam. As mentioned before, the dam was supposed to provide irrigation, but the reservoir water was too salty to be used for agriculture, and the surrounding villages did not want to relocate in order for an irrigation canal to be built. The irrigation cannal was therefore never finished. Furthermore, the dam is not used to generate power, so it did not benefit the villagers in any way. Had an EIA been conducted prior to the construction of the dam, researchers could have predicted that the water supply would be too salty for agricultural production.

Instead of conducting an EIA or SIA, the government forged ahead with the project, spending six times as much as projected to construct the dam. When the gates of the dam are closed fish resources in the river are depleted and the wetlands are flooded. It is estimated that 15 species of fish, 30,000 rai of wetlands and 10 traditional varieties of rice have been lost from flooding. These are resources that the local people depend on for their daily survival. The negative effects of the dam motivated villagers to protest the government and spread awareness about their situation to prevent the same thing from happening in other regions.
Currently, 2,700 villagers are living outside the gates of the dam in a temporary protest village. They have been there for 3 months and 28 days, and will not leave until they recieve compensation for their land and lost livlihood. In addition they are demanding that an environmental recovery plan be carried out and that they are able to have representatives on the committee that determines when the dam is open and when it is closed.

We visited the community to see what we may be able to help them with. They asked us for two things. (1) To spread awareness nationally and internationally about their struggle and (2) to raise funds to support their specific cause, and a larger network of dam victims.

Prior to visiting the community I did not have a pressing interest in the effects that dams have on local communities, so I was surprised when I immediately felt drawn in to their situation and wanted to help in any way possible. I felt needed, but it would be really hard to not feel that way. As our van navigated the winding road towards the dam there was water on either side of the road. Water, which we were told should not be there, but is because of the construction of the dam. As we approached the end of the road the protest camp came into sight. Row after row of shanty-like tarps were pitched as make-shift tents. It resembled the closest thing I have ever seen to a refugee camp (although it is important to note that these people do have homes, they came to live in the camp to protest because much of their land has been flooded).

As we trudged through the rain and mud to a meeting area I could not help but think how greatly the dam must have impacted these peoples' way of life to motivate them to protest under such conditions, for so long. It was stormy, windy and muddy and they had nothing more than a tarp over their heads, and sometimes, a raised platform to sit and sleep on. They fish off the side of the dam, scavenge in the wetlands and rely on remittances from family members. Before the dam was built they were able to grow and collect everything they needed to eat and sell from the wetlands. Now, many of their family members had to move to Bangkok to make a living. The rest of them are left back in the villages to grow and collect what little they can.

Inspired to help the Rasi Salai villagers reclaim their way of life we came up with project ideas to spread awareness and obtain funding to support their cause. Right now we are working on a photo essay to tell their story, which I will be sure to post on the blog when its finished. I'll also post updates on other projects we start related to their protest.