Issue - June 2007

June 2007

This month's issue: Dual Tourism. Bolivian Theatre. More from the Museum of Archaeology. The Peace Corps in Bolivia and many others! Read on and familiarize yourself with some of Cochabamba's happenings! Do not forget...we enjoy recieving feedback from our please write to us and share your comments with us and the rest of Cochabamba! more...

June 2007

Cochabamba’s Secret World of Waste

Erica Felker-Kantor recounts her disturbing visits to Cochabamba Department´s garbage dump, K´ara K´ara, and the community of recolectoras living by its side

Erica Felker-Kantor lives and works in Cochabamba for the NGO Environment Bolivia

As I sat on the hard dirt ground listening to Doña Maria Gonzalez tell her story of how she first arrived at K’ara K’ara, I found myself having trouble concentrating. The indescribably repulsive smell of the relleno sanatario -garbage dump- combined with the warm air to suffocating effect. I could not get my mind around the fact that a community of hundreds of people live day-in and day-out in such a horrendous place. The pungent stink of the garbage seemed to have no effect on Doña Maria as she told me the story of her life as a recolectora, collecting garbage for sorting and re-selling. Despite the appalling smell, I could hardly take my eyes off her beautifully wrinkled, golden skin and her long white hair, neatly parted into two braided plaits. I would have guessed her age to be near ninety, but her weathered appearance was not a reflection of her actual age; rather, years of hard work srting garbage.

At a somewhat younger 74, Doña Maria, a native of Punata, has been sorting garbage for as long as she can remember.

She first came to Cochabamba as an orphan. Her mother died when she was a little girl and her father had abandoned the family flat. As a developing country facing economic hardship, Bolivia’s job market has been stagnant for decades. For this reason, Doña Maria, and an entire community of people have become economically dependent on garbage. K’ara K’ara is the local garbage dump for the city of Cochabamba and surrounding departments. Cochabamba, a city of nearly 2 million inhabitants, produces around 400 tonnes of garbage a day. Most Cochabambinos do not give a second thought to what happens to their garbage after they throw it away, as long as it does not remain within smelling or viewing distance of their homes. Little do they know that an entire community of their fellow citizens quite literally live off of the waste they produce.

K’ara K’ara was established in 1987. By 1991, a community of 120 recolectores and their families had developed around the dump. Because of the grave economic conditions Bolivia faces and the dire lack of job opportunities, collecting recyclable materials is one of only a handful of options Bolivians without education can exploit to sustain themselves. Over the years, this community of garbage collectors has grown as more people are looking for ways to survive. Everyday, the members of the recolectores union wake at 6am to climb the freshly decorated mountain of garbage, searching for every item that can be recycled or reused. Every garbage collector has his/her own cancha, or small plot of land where the recyclable materials are stored in mounds waiting for companies to come and buy the plastic and paper materials. According to Don Benedicto Machaca, the secretary of the union of garbage collectors, “Nobody wants to live here in this situation, but there isn’t any other work. So we come here, sort the g rbage, and sell what can be sold. This is how we survive.”

The second time I visited the relleno sanatario of K’ara K’ara, I accompanied Don Benedicto to the plataforma where the garbage is sorted. I stood on the mound absolutely stunned by the conditions in which the recolectores worked. The smell was enough to make me want to vomit. I could barely breathe, let alone talk, without gagging. With no masks, boots, gloves, or appropriate clothing, men and women of all ages sorted through the mounds of garbage looking for recyclable materials. For every one person, there must have been three dogs. As I stood there, I couldn’t help but wonder about the environmental health conditions of the community. Skin diseases, internal infections, parasites, cancer - all eating away at these beautiful human beings. Over and over I kept telling myself: this is no way to live. Something has to be done.

Over the past three months, I have continued to return to K’ara K’ara every week. The situation of the recolectores turns out to be a lot more political and socio-economically complex than I had ever imagined. Ideally, I would like to say, “give them other jobs”. But the reality is, there are no other jobs to give, and even if there were, how would you go about changing the way of life of this community? These people have adapted to their lives as recolectores. They have made a life for themselves and to offer them something better is one thing, but for them to actually take the job is another. As an environmentally conscious person, I would like to tell the people of Cochabamba to produce less garbage, consume less, and recycle. But all of this affects the livelihood of the community of K’ara K’ara. If less garbage is produced and more people recycle what is left for the people of K’ara K’ara? How do they survive?

I am still searching for the answers to these questions. I am still searching for a solution to this grave problem at the relleno sanatario of K’ara K’ara. At this moment, all I can do is inform the people of Cochabamba of what really happens with their garbage. I can inform the people of Cochabamba about the community of recolectores so that others can begin to develop ideas to help better the livelihood of these people. Whether it is by donating masks and boots to protect the health of the community or by providing them with other job options that won’t completely turn them on their heads, something needs to be done. And it needs to be done now.

The Guacharo Birds Canyon
It is now recognized that our community must work to conserve bio-diversity. Bolivia cannot fail to awaken the interests of visitors to discover this countrys amazing natural, cultural and rich bio-diversity resources...
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