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  Number 321 | Abril 2008
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Nicaragua

The “New” Chureca: From Garbage to Human Dignity

Weeks before the social and political conflict that broke out in Managua’s La Chureca garbage dump in March, a young student made his first visit to this foul-smelling place... What did he see and hear among the hills of refuse?

William Grigsby Vergara

La Chureca has existed since 1973. Over 30 years later, in December 2007, it was named one of the “20 Horrors of the Modern World” in a contest organized by the Spanish magazine Interviú. The biggest open dump in Latin America, it has covered 42 hectares of the western part of Managua with infinite layers of garbage.

A landscape out of Dante

La Chureca is a paradise for the carrion-eating vultures that soar over what looks like a war-zone. It’s a mini-world of pestilence, an enormous breeding-ground for flies, microbes, rotting food, burnt trash and the hundreds of plastic bags that whirl around the young children carrying fetid sacks and the older ones poking through waste of all kinds, raising clouds of dust. My vantage point is the Rafael Ángel Ríos barrio. The dump seems to go on forever, unfolding before my eyes like a mountain range of faded colors, the toxic smoke increasing with the heat of the day and seeming to take fire until it becomes the landscape of Hell itself.

All day, every day, big trucks arrive full of garbage. Managua produces 1,200 tons of garbage daily. It poisons the neighboring barrio of Acahualinca, which extends almost right up to the long-contaminated shores of Lake Xolotlán—a.k.a. Lake Managua. Along with the trucks, a ragged army of both sexes and all ages swarm into La Chureca, the lower half of their faces covered with dirt-coated cloths and the upper half shielded by sweat-muddied caps. They are armed with improvised iron harpoons, which they use to pick around in the garbage, stabbing what they want. Their arms are burned by the blazing sun, their calloused feet are bare and their gazes are lost in the chaos they share. The stench of shoe glue, lead, excrement and so much more is unbearable. This landscape is not something from the Divine Comedy; it’s not fiction. It’s the home and workplace of many “churequero” families.

Yesterday’s footprints and today’s

La Chureca is located beside the museum that contains the famous 6,000-year-old Acahualinca Footprints, the oldest remaining human and animal footprints on the American continent. How can all this garbage be piled up beside a museum? How ironic that children who pick through garbage should live so close to this archaeological treasure. What a massive contradiction that the record of the beginnings of our civilization should be found beside this huge garbage dump, that the genesis of our ancestors should sit side by side with this human-made apocalypse.

The Acahualinca footprints, originally made in soft mud, were then conserved for all time by the eruption of a volcano near the ancient Nahuatl community of the same name in what is today the capital’s western zone. Now they are neighbors to other, more recent, footprints; those of boys and girls descended from that indigenous culture, who go barefoot for different reasons than their ancestors did. Today’s children are victims of another, even more terrible eruption of a social volcano of extreme poverty.

But there’s a window of hope

A number of NGOs and international donors have been working in La Chureca for years trying to help salvage the lives of these children and their families, to help them regain their dignity amidst a sea of difficulties. The biggest difficulty is the inertia of a culture in which poverty and garbage combine with social exclusion, increasing in pace with the broken promises of one government after another.

One of the NGOs is “Children’s Smile and Hope Association” (Asociación Sonrisa y Esperanza de los Niñ@s, or ASSEN), led by Justina Cháves and founded by sociologist Jimmy Chavarría. It has brought together 18 volunteers who support boys and girls living in the Los Martínez and Rafael Ángel Ríos neighbourhoods close to La Chureca.

This small association first emerged to give painting and flute lessons to the children of these two neighborhoods, and in time the children’s families became interested in the project and started to support the work voluntarily. Community centers were built and even a community library, where now there are math classes, story readings and painting workshops, and people play chess. The library is small, but it has many books, both new and used, card files and furniture to help the children along in the adventure of reading. Students from the private Centroamérica School come on Fridays to help the kids with their studies. ASSEN also has links to employees in private business who help out as “godparents” by making monthly contributions of 50 córdobas to support the children’s schoolwork.

“We make a big effort, but it’s impossible to retain the children when they finish primary school. Then they start working, collecting and selling garbage. It’s impossible for them to study at the same time,” Justina Cháves admits. Another big difficulty is that these boys and girls get “married” young: at 13 or 14. There’s a lot of violence in these young families that survive by scrounging plastic, metal and other recyclable waste from the garbage. But despite everything, after six years in La Chureca, ASSEN is one of the most important sources of support for the children who live here. It has opened a window of hope for them.

The Spanish megaproject

Today there’s much more hope, because radical changes are underway. In August of last year, María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, Vice President of Spain’s socialist government, visited Nicaragua during a tour of Central and South America. At the time the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECI) was studying the possibility of a project with Managua’s municipal government to improve life in the capital city’s marginalized urban zones. Fernández de la Vega went to La Chureca and was so shocked by it that her visit became a turning point in the future of the dump. She made a personal commitment to its transition from garbage to dignity.

According to Elena Montobbio, General Coordinator of AECI in Nicaragua, the project for La Chureca has three parts. First, “technically closing” the present dump, sealing it in a programmed manner. Then, a new alternative recycling industry will be created for some of the waste. And finally, housing and social integration alternatives will be sought for those who work in and around the dump.

The Spanish government has committed 30 million Euros (US$45 million) to this project, which they say is the largest that Spain has undertaken in Nicaragua. “We’ve usually worked with more modest amounts,” says Montobbio. “This project is breaking new ground because of its holistic approach, the size of the financial allocation, and because it combines various funding modalities. The budget doesn’t come just from one window, but instead combines various instruments: micro-credit systems and multilateral funds. That’s why it’s such a complex project, not only in its content but also in management terms.”

Ever since Spain became interested in transforming La Chureca, AECI has been sending technical commissions to engage in dialogue with the NGOs working there, the residents, the recycling businesses, the relevant state institutions and the municipal government, doing an exhaustive analysis of the issues from their various points of view.

From the start, Dos Generaciones (Two Generations)—the most influential NGO working in the area—saw to it that education, health, protection and economic security for La Chureca’s residents would be included in the project. The 13 NGOs working in the area are supposed to come up with a joint plan for La Chureca and its vicinity that revolve around this proposal. They have formed an alliance and AECI’s discussions with both them and the municipal government, the project’s natural counterpart, are making progress.

The final outcome of this big project is still unknown. The AECI is still formulating it, and doesn’t know yet whether the new Chureca will have a processing plant or garbage cooperatives to make use of the waste. The talks with La Chureca’s residents and the intermediaries in the recycling chain haven’t yet concluded.

Thousands of people depend on
the mountains of unexploited waste

An estimated 3,000 families make their living from collecting and selling garbage in La Chureca. They are labor chains: one person collects the glass, another cleans it, another crushes and recycles it, and then they sell it to the collector. Many intermediaries already have their suppliers in place.

“The idea is to bring dignity to the current generation by giving them different working conditions and thus change the future for the new generations,” explains Montobbio, adding that “if the dump is sealed, the image of the new Chureca would be of a public recreational space. But this idea is still very new and needs study. There might be an energy generating plant using the organic residue, and a park for the children. We still don’t know. We’re analyzing the pros and cons of each element of the project.”

AECI hopes to finish the project in four years. Its target population is located in concentric circles. The lives of almost 18,000 people revolve around La Chureca, some of whom live inside, some in the nearby neighborhoods and some who travel there each day. La Chureca’s population is extremely mobile and not all sources record the same number of residents.

“We forecast that some of the project’s social activities will begin in the first half of this year, 2008,” Elena Montobbio tells me, dreaming already of the metamorphosis. “We still haven’t defined where we’ll build, but we do know that we’ll be putting in sanitation, lighting and everything required to achieve a complete and profound transformation of La Chureca.”

One part of the AECI project is energy generation, using the gas produced by the waste that’s been accumulating over the decades in La Chureca, and up to now simply decomposing without being put to any use. Environmental expert Miguel Torres, who is the director of the AECI project, says, “There’s potential in the accumulated garbage and in the garbage that’s still arriving: methane gas can be obtained from the breakdown of the organic material. But we still don’t know for sure what the yield of that biological cycle would be. Would it be profitable? We need to study it.”

“We don’t know whether it’s economically viable to set up an energy production plant, or how much such a plant would produce,” Torres explains. “It largely depends on how much the organic matter that’s been accumulating in La Chureca has already decomposed. This dump has been here for decades and a lot of the organic matter is already completely mineralized and inert; it’s simply earth. Even so, we’re assuming there’s a feasible quantity of energy. We’ve talked about a plant that would produce 5 to 8 megawatts. That’s not much, but it’s something, particularly if we can inject that energy into the plant itself. What’s uncertain is the yield of methane gas. If there isn’t enough to use, it will simply be collected and burned.”

Just going to school isn’t enough

In 1992, Dos Generaciones (DG) launched a social project in La Chureca, with the very ambitious idea of eradicating child labor in the dump and getting the children of La Chureca to go to school and stay there. The project also sought to improve domestic relations; many families are headed by single women who have a lot of children and temporary partners who abuse them. It didn’t take DG long to realize that there was a problem: if the children didn’t go out looking for garbage, family income declined. And worse yet costs increased if they went to school—for uniforms, pencils, notebooks. DG tried to work with the families to ensure that they wouldn’t take the children out of school and talked with the teachers to get them to accept the children even if they arrived dirty, and even if their behavior towards their classmates was difficult. These children, experts in the battle over the best recyclable material, were accustomed to very violent, competitive work.

Little by little, DG realized it wasn’t accomplishing much. The situation of the children, their families and the neighborhood in general was much more complex than they had grasped. Mario Chamorro, DG’s coordinator, recalls, “We were just putting band-aids over the children’s problem, but to solve it we first had to solve the deeper problems of the families and try to improve conditions in the community.”

Once convinced that the dump was a needed source of work for Acahualinca’s residents, DG reconsidered its whole approach. Today, it goes about its work very differently. “We understood that it’s not enough to focus on the child workers. We’re now interested in their comprehensive development. It’s not enough that they go to school; we have to prevent violence, care for their health and find economic alternatives to working in the garbage,” says Chamorro.

Parents now want something
different for their children

DG believes that only with sustained intervention in their overall developmen can it get the children to aspire to improve their situation, to accept the need to study in order to get decent work. One obstacle is the “youth culture” of La Chureca and surrounding neighborhoods, where teenagers pair up very young, start having a lot of children immediately and drop out of school. Early sex and pregnancy are serious problems.

But there are successes. Some young people from the first batch DG worked with are now professionals. Five of them are working with Dos Generaciones: three studying communications, one studying law and the other already a sociologist. Others didn’t complete their formal education but did receive job training and left La Chureca for other jobs. “The most important accomplishment is that they don’t want their children to work in the dump. They managed to develop an impressive awareness of their personal need to surmount the challenges, and they changed,” Chamorro says.

Another substantial group, those who decided to pair up young and thus had children early, have had a harder time getting ahead. But very few of those who worked with DG are still working with garbage. Chamorro says that “90% of them have managed to set up micro-businesses, got some level of technical education and work in formal commerce. Most importantly, they gained the awareness and the conviction needed to prevent their own children working in the garbage business.”

Terrible health hazards for CHILDREN

Dos Generaciones doesn’t only work with the boys and girls who sort garbage in collection centers, wash bottles, glass and plastic or sell garbage. It also works with children who tend fruit and vegetable crops near Lake Xolotlán—irrigated with its water—and with boys who fish in the lake and girls who work as domestic laborers.

According to studies by the Department of Medicine at Managua’s National University (UNAN-Managua) and a Swedish university, La Chureca’s children have high mercury and lead levels in their blood from the toxins in the garbage and the fish in the contaminated lake. They calculate that at least 30% of the 240 children studied suffer from this dangerous contamination. Although DG works to get them away from the sources of contamination, the most serious concern is that these toxins have lifelong effects and there’s no effective treatment. “What’s urgent now is to avoid more children being poisoned by these substances,” says Mario Chamorro. AECI is planning special support for children and youth poisoned by lead and also by DDT.

From aluminum scrap to stoves

The Local Development Fund (FDL), a micro-credit organization, has a loan portfolio of over a billion córdobas placed throughout the country, and more than 73,000 clients—63% of whom receive agricultural credit and 64% of whom are women. Its financial doors are also open to those who earn their living in La Chureca.

In his small workshop, shirtless and sweating from hammering so much aluminum, José Dolores Ortega tells us that he’s been making and selling stoves for 40 years, having started when he was 17. Three years ago, he began taking out loans from the FDL, which he uses to buy metal, sold in volume by junk dealers who buy it in the dump. He sells his handmade stoves in Managua’s Mercado Oriental at prices ranging from 45 to 300 córdobas (roughly $2.50 to $16), depending on the size of the stove. He starts work at 7 am each day and finishes at 6 pm when the sun makes its bitter descent over La Chureca, his daily landscape. “My family lives in La Costa del Lago barrio, which has about 400 houses. I work to make sure my children have food to eat.” Sometimes he manages to make as many as a dozen stoves per day. It’s heroic. “Before I got the loans, I could only make three or four a day, but now I can do more.” José pays off his loan to FDL semi-monthly and says he’s never missed a payment. The last loan he received was for 10,500 córdobas.

Washing used jars for pickled chilies

Liseth del Carmen Sequeira speaks rather coarsely, looks anxious and responds quickly to the questions I put to her. She was born in Acahualinca 29 years ago and has worked buying glass, plastic or any other kind of jars to sell to those who make their living pickling chilies. Her house looks like a dark vault, a tiny warehouse piled up with garbage bags full of containers. Liseth earns about 2,000 córdobas per week selling these bags at 300 córdobas each in the Eastern Market and the Wholesale Market. She managed to get a 1,500-córdoba loan from the FDL, and has nearly eight months to repay it.

She lives with her husband, her mother, her four children and her siblings. They all work in the dangerous Eastern Market and also help her wash the containers she buys at the municipal garbage truck lots. “I’ve been getting loans from the FDL for three years. I invest, I pay it off, I have a lot of merchandise and thanks to the bank I’ve been able to increase it,” she says. She carries on working without glancing up.

The votive candle maker

Domingo de los Ángeles Díaz hospitably takes out his plastic chairs to offer the visitors to his little “hovel.” That’s what he calls his little aluminum and wood house, which stands at the edge of an enormous ditch flowing with garbage day and night. He lives with his wife and three children, who go to the nearest school, about five blocks away, and are his business partners. He’s enthusiastic about answering any question and seems to enjoy talking about his garbage-based business, which he’s used to help his family get ahead.

Díaz, age 36, is a candle maker: for 11 years he’s been hand-making the votive candles used by the devout to express their faith in gods and saints. He just started taking out loans from FDL at the end of last year; the first one was for 5,000 córdobas. With the money he buys bags of tallow in La Chureca and from the Managua and Granada Cathedrals, which he visits every Thursday and Sunday. He also collects and buys wicks, glasses and dyes. He gets about 50 to 70 votive candles from the three or four boxes in which he molds the tallow with kerosene.

From picker to collector

Johanna Mercedes Tapia, 39, lives just a few meters from Domingo, crowded in with seven children. She seems a bit suspicious of me. Her little ones, dirty and half-naked, run noisily around her, looking for affection and scratching in the earth with their bare feet. Since they’re interrupting her tedious labor, she scolds them. Evening falls in La Chureca.

Johanna gathers plastic, iron, aluminum, bronze, copper, bottles and containers, which she sells out of La Chureca. She says the loans from FDL have helped her: “Now, instead of having to look for garbage, I buy it and then sell it by the pound. I started with a 1,500-córdoba loan in 2007, then FDL raised it to 3,000 and now they’ve given me 5,000,” she says gratefully. Born in Niquinohomo, she was brought up in Managua’s Eastern Market, which she left to work in a better place—La Chureca—and met her husband there.

The garbage war

Throughout March, the national media were taken up with the crisis tormenting La Chureca. A small group of residents and workers of the dump blockaded the entrance to Managua’s garbage trucks, threatening to set them on fire if they went in. It was their response to what they saw as an injustice: the trucks were holding on to the aluminum, iron, copper, bronze, paper and cardboard and leaving the worst garbage for La Chureca’s residents and workers: organic waste, plastic, glass and other materials with a lower value in the recycling business.

The explosive protest started with a quiet wave of complaints born in the Acahualinca neighborhood when “quality” garbage collection centers began losing money. The churequeros accused the garbage workers of being complicit with the companies that profit from recycling garbage and buy it already sorted. Fifteen days into the crisis, with mountains of garbage in the streets, the municipal government negotiated the deposit of the tons of waste in alternative dump sites in Nindirí and Tipitapa—to the delight of those towns’ churequeros, who started seeing more and better garbage.

The worst part of this war over the best garbage is that the conflict may delay projects that are expected to change La Chureca into a world that, though still filled with garbage, will be more dignified and habitable. As Mario Chamorro told me, “working in garbage recycling is a worthy job anywhere in the world. What makes La Chureca degrading are the unhealthy conditions, the contamination and the risks faced by the people who work here. People lose their dignity here.”

Are they only promises?

The Dantesque landscape I viewed for the first time from the Rafael Ángel Ríos barrio struck at my senses. It strikes at anyone who sees it, at anyone who exchanges words with those who live and work here.

But the landscape no longer seems so desolate—at least on the AECI drawing board. The Spanish money is already approved and all the organizations I met—Dos Generaciones, FDL, ASSEN—plus the many others that work here are hopeful that they can resolve the social, labor, sanitary and human tragedies of this corner of Managua once and for all. The greatest challenge will be to convince people who live here that it can change, that they should have confidence in the new project and support each other. Abandoning their customary ways of earning a living, making such a drastic change in their way of life and work will require an effort to raise awareness and achieve a change of self-identity on the part of Acahualinca’s poor.

Some are hoping that the promises will finally turn out to be more than that this time; that the schedule for job transition and training promised by the NGOs won’t be delayed any further. They hope that the words of Payo, a churequero who goes to collect containers there every Sunday, won’t be true: “They’ve been talking about change for the ten years I’ve been coming here, but nothing ever changes; they never do what they say.” Or the words of Víctor Manuel, another young garbage collector: “All this stuff about change is just fairytales. They’ve been saying for a year that they’re going to move us... but nothing’s happening.”

Maria Auxiliadora Martínez’s house rests on thick layers of earth and decomposing garbage in the midst of a putrefying landscape. Its walls are on a dangerous slant and the whole house seems about to fall apart because of the distorted terrain. Oblivious, her children romp among the heaps of garbage, their only playground. She, too, complains that the dates for the move and the construction of new housing are being pushed back: “Yes, a Spanish guy came to give us a talk and told us that first they were going to build a generator, but what we’re waiting for now are the houses they promised us,” she says resignedly.

Verónica Hernández, her hair hidden under a rag and a cap and her hands encased in gloves, gathers plastic bottles with handles in the back of an old pick-up truck and complains emphatically: “Let’s hope what we’re hearing now is true. Around here they’re always telling us that things are going to change, but we’re still poor.”

“The moon will be theirs”

More than thirty years ago, Leonel Rugama dreamed of change in this horrifying landscape. Back then, this young Sandinista poet from Estelí wrote about the pain of Acahualinca in one of his most famous poems, “The Earth is a satellite of the moon”: The grandparents of the people of Acahualinca were less hungry than the parents / The grandparents died of hunger. Back then, before La Chureca even existed, Rugama already imagined today’s generation of churequeros with no vision of a future, members of a tragic and extensive genealogical tree of hungry people: The parents of the people of Acahualinca were less hungry than the children of the people there / The parents died of hunger.

Now it seems that the time for new hope has finally arrived. We trust that the Spanish money will be invested in something secure, that the crisis over “quality garbage”is resolved and that finally all those who are committed to put an end to this dark way of life in La Chureca engage in common action. Then the verses of Rugama—a lyrical denunciation of a heart-breaking reality—will find echo and meaning.

Despite the horror of the landscape, I experienced an incredibly paradoxical vision from a certain angle: next to the chaos of accumulated garbage, some white herons, flying over a lake that irrigates a field of vegetables. The beauty of their high flight evoked Rugama: The children of the people of Acahualinca are not born, because of hunger / and they are hungry to be born, so they can die of hunger / Blessed are the poor for the moon will be theirs.

William Grigsby Vergara is a graphic design student.

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