On previous posts we have discussed the definition of the “ultra-poor” in Thailand to consist of those lacking food security, Thai nationality, land ownership, or social/physical capability. The following is a tangible example of such a community that we have met on the Thai/Myanmar border.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
On the outskirts of a Thai border town there is a landfill. It consists of a few old buildings, a water reservoir and a towering heap of trash, much as one would envision when thinking about a landfill. The heap is as wide as it is long, meaning it covers several dozen acres, and is easily 50 feet tall at its' highest. We had a chance to visit here for the first time in November.
Over eighty families live on this landfill. Living in handmade roofed structures (calling them “houses” would be quite the exaggeration) on and around the trash heap, these people make a living by sorting through waste from the nearby city for goods to resell—cardboard, plastic, glass, metal scraps, and other things with remaining market value.
Why would someone voluntarily choose to live on a landfill? I understand the idea of migrant workers, and I have seen the Thai side of the border. There are many short-term “jobs” that a Burmese illegal migrant could find—construction, factory work, street cleaning, and even begging. How could living in trash possibly be better than any of these?
The reasoning for this makes sense once you hear it. These families had come to Thailand looking for work and a future, ran into difficulties with those normal veins of work, and needed somewhere to go. Somewhere to hide. Somewhere to be left alone. If a family has been threatened or feel that they are in danger, do not have a security net of other Burmese people to live together with, or simply have disabilities and cannot have a physically taxing job, then places such as this provide some isolation from the outside world.
Upon our first visit there, I wasn’t sure how to act. The community members here do not like pictures being taken of them, especially by foreigners. Because of this, we refrained from taking pictures of their faces (only ours), and asked permission before taking any other types of photographs.
There were several fires burning along the main path where most of the huts were located. The smell that we all know from a wet trash can was strong, but not overbearing. Dogs barking, children running around, adults rummaging through smaller orderly piles of specific recyclables that they had already collected. I wonder who purchases the recyclables, and for what prices? Do they come here to purchase, or do the families travel somewhere else? How much income can a family of four that is good at collecting garbage make, on a good day? What about a bad day? And families with a single parent? How much food can these families afford, what kind of food, and where can they purchase it? Does the local government have an opinion on these families, and is it one of annoyance or tolerance? How long have the families been living here? There are many questions to ask when thinking about this area.
The funniest thing about our visits has been the attitudes of the children there. Most of them attend a nearby migrant school, but some are kept at home to help with work. Outgoing, happy, not shy to say hello or ask our names. One boy had a laugh so contagious, so happy, that I wanted to move in there as well just so that the pre-emptive Thumb War he declared on me could continue on a regular basis.
Being Creative To Survive
Having our Burmese field officer with us, we decided to speak with a few of the families about food sources and if they were interested in growing vegetables. The most vocal man in the group explained that he already grows some veggies and motioned for us to follow him. Upon following we found a secluded area behind his families' hut, where he had been growing chilies, rosella and also had long beans climbing up an electricity line. He had a small amount of space to use, but was using it in a very creative and effective way! He also had a patch of land behind his house in mind for expanding the garden. However, he lacked the tools to do so. The following is video of when we visited him:
We purchased four sets of gardening tools and seeds for him to use, some concrete rings for a well, and also asked him to encourage other families in the area to begin farming with him. Within a month he has cleared the small area behind his home, dug a ten foot-deep well, used old tattered netting from the landfill to construct a fence and has begun planting long beans, pumpkins, kale, mustard greens, more chilies, and morning glory. The more work he does, the more interest his neighbors are showing to begin growing as well!
Check out the updates of his garden, from Day 1 to Day 45.