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View from a hill: Scavenging at Stung Meanchey

"I'm lovin' it" at Stung Meanchey
“I’m lovin’ it” at Stung Meanchey

PHNOM PENH (TR) – The white and gray cloud hanging over Stung Meanchey Municipal Waste Dump on a recent weekday morning is thick and smothering. The smoke is rising from the perpetually burning fires around the site’s nearly seven hectares of undulating hills of fetid garbage.

“Actually, today the conditions are quite good,” says Hong Sot, one of a few hundred recyclable material collectors at Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s largest garbage dump. “Usually the smoke is much more intense.”

Sot, sweat clinging to the side of his face, is outfitted in a heavy gray shirt and plaid bandana. He is taking a short break from the activity at the top of the nearby hill. There, collectors frantically pick through freshly dumped Phnom Penh refuse. At his feet are large bundles of what is considered recyclable booty — bottles, chunks of metal, plastic bags, and paper — that have been hauled down from the work area.

In front of him is a dirt slope covered by a series of metal plates, upon which are a few idling trucks. Dump workers call on the vehicles one by one, their wheels often spinning on the accumulated muck as they move up onto a slightly elevated and open apron. Standing in the middle of this clear space is a gentleman sporting sunglasses and sharp brown shorts. He repeatedly blows on a whistle to indicate where the new loads should be dropped.

As the bed of each truck is slowly tipped upward the frenzy begins. The collectors (primarily men and women, but also many children) poke and smack at the descending bags before they even reach the ground. A bulldozer then sweeps in, narrowly missing a few members of the scavenging mob, all knee-deep in garbage, to push the pile to the side, where the whirlwind chaos continues.

An outsider’s view of Stung Meanchey, referred to as “smoky mountain” and located about 15 minutes by car from the city center, is likely that of a harrowing scene of maddening futility. Yet for the thousands of workers toiling atop its reeking mounds, the dump provides a dubious means of survival.

Equipment is simple. A pair of rubber boots, a mesh bag, one hooked metal stick, and a decent fabric covering for one’s head are the basics. Some workers can be seen at the edge of the fracas leisurely sharpening the ends of their sticks with stones.

“It is not difficult,” says Ki Lorn of the work. “If I don’t have a job, I don’t eat.”

With a red check scarf around her head, the forty-year-old Lorn estimates her daily gains to be between 1.75 and 2.50 dollars. One kilogram of plastic fetches ten cents; one kilogram of iron is worth a quarter of that; and a single glass bottle goes for two and a half cents. The native of Takeo Province, which borders Vietnam, says that she has never found anything overly valuable during her searches but knows of some lucky hunters who have found small cash and mobile phones.

Nine storage depots line both sides of the dump’s bumpy entrance road, which is filled with scurrying chickens and stray dogs. Venders arrive from within Cambodia or Vietnam to break deals with middlemen to haul away the materials.

It is an understatement to say that the work is fraught with hazards. Upon their descent from the trucks, some bags get stuck and workers smack at them with their rods, often causing the contents to literally explode into the air. A blast of sawdust or plant clippings can turn the conditions from highly hazy to very non-breathable.

Lorn has seen multiple deaths over her nearly 4 years foraging at the dump. Two months ago was the latest one she witnessed — a man, between 25 and 30 years old, was crushed. “A bulldozer pushed a mound of garbage right onto him,” she remembers.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Stung Meanchey is the number of children digging through the piles. One young boy, a half-empty bag slung over his shoulder, can be seen on this day scurrying through the site wearing a black visor from McDonald’s – which does not have a franchise in Cambodia — that reads “I’m lovin’ it” just above the bill.

“Three children have died over the past year because of accidents with trucks and bulldozers,” says Mech Sokha, president of the Centre for Children’s Happiness (CCH), an orphanage that takes children from the dump and provides them with education and training. “They often work in the night until midnight with small lights on their heads. But sometimes the drivers cannot see them or the children are in such a hurry to grab valuable things that they do not care about safety.”

CCH, founded in 2002, is a non-governmental organization that receives enough private donations annually to support 140 children within its three facilities, all of which are located in southern Phnom Penh. In addition to being given the opportunity to attend nearby primary schools, the children receive lessons in mathematics and English and training in cooking and motorbike repair.

The children of CCH have no competent guardians, and nearly all having been pickers at Stung Meanchey at one time or another. Many were previously roaming the streets in ragged clothing, drifting within a tenuous existence of hopelessness. One motherless eleven-year-old girl arrived at CCH soon after escaping from her father’s third failed attempt to sell her into prostitution.

Sokha makes regular visits to Stung Meanchey to assess the condition of the children working the grounds. He has noticed that the smoke from the perpetual fires, which are fueled by the natural release of methane, cause lung problems in many children. Further, many consume meager meals of noodles and rice from vending carts, whose bowls and spoons are washed with brown water. During the rainy seasons the clinging clouds may subside but depressions in the topography turn to swamps, exacerbating common ailments like diarrhea brought about by dysentery.

Many children do not wear shoes or boots, Sokha says, so injuries due to contact with broken glass, iron plates, nails and needles are common. (Used hypodermic needles are considered fairly valuable considering each returns one cent.)

Sokha has numerous success stories to tell. Many graduates have gone on to get decent jobs that pay fair salaries. “But most importantly,” he says, “they feel confidence and motivation through their own actions and decisions. They now know how to live in a big society safely, peacefully, and in happiness.”

With the capacity limits of Stung Meanchey already being tested, proper waste disposal is an ongoing problem for Phnom Penh that will likely not improve soon. The metropolis, the capital city of an economy that over the last three years has grown an average of 11.4 percent annually, generates 667 tons daily – a figure that is expected to double right along with its current population of 1.2 million in less than a decade. In some areas of the landfill, the rubbish is already so staggering that it rises five meters high, adding to the misery of the slums that occupy the three nearby villages.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) funded a study that in 2005 formulated a master plan to relocate Stung Meanchey to a new 100-hectare site in Dang Kor (to the south from Stung Meanchey) that will contain a buffer zone for adjoining properties and feature gas removal and litter containment installations. However, conflicts with neighboring property owners have put these plans on hold. A mew location is now being considered.

Given few options, likely the collectors will be making the move as well. “I have no chance to get another job,” Lorn says. “Everything is here.”

Note: The Centre for Children’s Happiness can be found on Web here. Donations are welcome. This article originally appeared in December 2007 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.