Finding refuge in refuse

Photo source and credits: A baby and her brother sit in the garbage of the Jalapa garbage dump. Grant LaFleche/St. Catharines Standard/Postmedia Network

More than the penetrating stench, more than the grime and the filth, there is no escaping the flies.

They swarm around everyone and everything in the expansive Jalapa landfill. From the moment you draw near the garbage dump, the flies flit and buzz about your face, sometimes in groups so thick it impedes your vision.

To those who live there, however, who scrape out some sort of existence in this sea of rotting and burning trash, the flies are not an issue. They’ve grown accustomed to them.

Maybe that’s why Manuel and Paolo, two brothers who walk through the dump hand in hand, didn’t seem fussed about the swarms buzzing around in their ramshackle home, made of used garbage bags, metal poles and whatever else could be found in this desperate corner of Guatemala.

Manuel is the oldest of the pair, maybe five years old. His brother is about three. When the Wells of Hope team arrived at the dump, bringing a hot lunch for the denizens who live there, he took Paolo by the hand and led him to the lunch line.

They were too small to carry their lunch back to their shack, so Wells of Hope volunteer Kara Ogilvie carried their food for them. The brothers led us into their home and the files inside immediately swarmed over their chilli, tortilla and juice.

The boys did not say much. They told us their names and asked for more juice. They did not seem interested in eating.

If their parents were around, they were likely part of the crowd of people digging through the pile of garbage about 100 metres away.

The brothers were not the only children left to fend for themselves in the landfill. About 200 metres away a baby, less than two years old to my eye, sits in the middle of the lake of refuse watching her mother dig. A slightly older boy, perhaps her bother, sits a few feet away.

In yet another garbage hut, a little girl plays in a playpen, fashioned from a broken refrigerator.

While the little children wander the landfill, the adults scramble through a mountain of trash searching for something to eat or sell. Mere metres from the pile they are on, other garbage mounds burn, casting toxic fumes into the air that burns the nose and makes the eyes sting. The scavengers don’t seem to notice.

Packs of wild dogs also wander through the area, including a sickly puppy that barely has the strength to stand, alongside pigs and vultures with jet black wings.

Poverty is rampant in Guatemala, especially here in the mountains of Jalapa where every day is a struggle just to survive. But for all their hardships, the people of the mountains live with a stoic dignity. They treasure family. Their faces are worn by time and circumstance, but they smile broadly, laugh deeply and cry from hearts.

The people in the dump all wear the same, blank expression on their faces. There are no smiles. There aren’t even any tears.

In this hopeless limbo, life is just about existing, not living.

Norm Hauer of Wells of Hope tells me about half of the people I saw in the garbage dump, like little Manuel and Paolo, actually live in there in the garbage bag shacks. The rest are from the mountain communities, who come down to the municipal landfill to find scrap to sell.

This is not a new situation in this country. Fifteen years ago a former colleague, Cheryl Stephan, visited Guatemala City about three hours from Jalapa and reported on a similar community living in a municipal dump. Little, it seems, has changed since then.

Consider the moral outrage in Canada were we to find a community so large living off of garbage. The social agencies that would immediately remove the children from such a vile circumstance. The health agencies that would arrive to help people in such desperate need of it.

That does not happen Guatemala. It simply goes on.​


By Grant LaFleche. Published on The St. Catharines Standard on Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Photo source and credits: A baby and her brother sit in the garbage of the Jalapa garbage dump. Grant LaFleche/St. Catharines Standard/Postmedia Network