It's the Environment, Stupid.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Poor people don't like garbage either

Poor people, slum dwellers, garbage pickers, scavengers - whatever name you want to give them - don't like garbage either. So why are they associated as being dirty people?

They have limited resources and are often relegated to living in "undesireable" areas. Near train tracks, hillsides, or garbage dumps. Living near garbage and producing it are not the same thing. In fact, rich people generate a far greater amount of waste than poor people - but rich people have the ability to move away from it.

In "The Ten and a Half Myths that May Distort the Urban Policies of Governments and International Agencies" by David Satterthwaite, myth number 9 is that poverty is a major cause of environmental degradation.

"[L]ow-income groups generate much less [waste] per person than middle and upper income groups and the urban poor generally have an ecologically positive role as they are the main reclaimers, re-users and recyclers of wastes from industries, workshops and wealthier households. It is likely to be middle and upper income groups who consume most of the goods whose fabrication generates most toxic or otherwise hazardous wastes or persistent chemicals whose rising concentration within the environment has worrying ecological and health implications."

I bring this up because there was an article in yesterday's NY Times about garbage pickers in Manila, "Eking Out a Living, of Sorts, From a Mountain of Muck." The article is good intentioned, and highlights a segment of the population who might otherwise be forgotten or not covered by the mainstream media. However, it came across to me as having a bit of a high-income, western, "civilized" bias.

"But there is no disguising the fact that this is a garbage dump and that Ms. Janoras's work is filthy and degrading. With the other scavengers, she joins the hungry flies that swarm over the spilled guts of the city, in constant motion — bending, reaching, turning, tossing, lifting, digging, heaving — as the hot sun climbs into the sky and begins to sink again."

"The scavengers are the great levelers of society, recycling the remains of the city, perhaps to see it return again as garbage and cycle through once more...The bounty of the trucks is sifted and sorted by the scavengers, who pass it on to scrap shops specializing in copper wire, old newspapers, aluminum cans, plastic, cardboard, bits of machinery, box springs, raffle tickets, tires, broken toys — virtually all the infinite components of civilized life."

"At the end of the day, she walks down the mountainside to her little home, a mile away, where her jobless husband Edgar and two jobless teenage sons are waiting. Her teenage daughter is still at school... While she is away, the men in the family tend to the house and it is immaculate, as if cleanliness were a fetish here at the edges of the dump."

Poor people are opportunists, who have little and make the most of what is available to them. They are not dirty people, but people who are trying to live their lives and provide for their families like everyone else in this world. Until Bono can go in and magically lift everyone out of poverty, we shouldn't look down upon people like Ms. Janora, we should give them respect.


  • Hey Amy - great post today - couldn't agree more. Growing up in very poor, rural upsate NY we always had to contend with similar problems - trash from outside the region made us seem like, well, white trash - thanks for posting this!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:41  

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