Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Unit 2: Rural and Urban Trends

Do not let the boring title fool you, this unit was quite intense. I was a unit facilitator for this unit along with 5 other classmates. Our job is to prepare and present a briefing before the unit, facilitate exchanges with communities and organizations, and handle the general logistics of said exchanges which are the meat and potatoes of units. This unit was slightly different from the others as the 6 days and the 27 group members were split in various ways. The group was split in two, one half went to live and work at a landfill first while the other half was split again and sent to two different slum communities. These smaller groups were reunited after a few days and sent to the landfill community to relieve the previous group half. The half that left the landfill was now split in two and sent to two entirely different slum communities. If you didn't understand that its because its confusing.

Anyway, I was initially sent with 5 other students to the Parnsawan Slum community. All the communities we visited have been working with various NGO's and Networks to attain land leases. The communities of squatters are all set up on previously unused and neglected stretches of land near train tracks. The SRT (State Railroad Authority of Thailand) owns the land they have been living on for, some of the communities are as old as 60 years. Recently (past 15 years or so) the SRT has been threatening to evict these communities because in an effort to increase their revenues want to sell/rent these pieces of land to private business. The State Railroad hasn't been doing so well in Thailand and they desperately need to make more money or risk closure. As a result many people were displaced and once squatters became homeless. Organizations such as NGO-CORD and CODI as well as the Khon Kaen Slum Network and 4 Regions Slum Networks have been working with these communities in an effort to get them land leases so that they wont be kicked out of their homes. The communities we visited were in various stages of this process. In addition to achieving leases the NGOs also assist these communities by providing them with money for infrastructure, bt 20,000 per home for reconstruction. Also when a home receives a lease they are alotted a permit number which allows them access to electricity and clean water for much cheaper. If the community is "illegitimate" they have to pay for temporary meters which are more expencsive.

The community I stayed with is quite successful, they have a 30 year lease on their land that they have to renew every 3 years. A road through their small community, access to clean water, irrigation, meters for electricty, and even a small community center. The ideal success story. Yet the threat of eviction still looms over their head, their lease is only for 30 years, half the age of the community, and there is no promise or guarantee they will be allowed to renew it after that time. It is still SRT land and they can do whatever they want. Other communities are not as successful as Parnsawan.

The other students went to Robmuang, they are not as far along in the process as Parnsawan but they are working diligently to catch up. Certain people there have fears, their lease is only for 3 years, so they are hesitant to use the bt 20,000 on their homes if it is just to be torn down. There are many other communities that have been struggling for a long time and the NGOs and Networks are doing their best to aid, but it is an uphill fight. I was impressed however by the sense of pride the communities have, they are by no means wealthy or living in comfort ( at least by western standards) yet they are all happy and grateful for everything they have. I found my communities inspiring but I know that there are just as many unsuccesful communities that are not quite as lucky ( I always have to fin the negative).

We said goodbye to our "slum" community, I say "slum" because we joked that ours was like The Ritz-Carlton of slums, quite cushy - I slept on a bed, and my neighbors had a western toilet complete with toilet paper (luxurious). Then we met up with the other small group and went to the landfill. We heard from the previous group that the landfill was "intense". But that word doesn't fully prepare you for the grotesqueries we were about to endure. We didn't live ON the landfill perse, about 20 meters away to be precise, close enough that it's stench was easily carried on a soft breeze.

Here is about where the Unit got a bit nasty. We worked on the landfill with the community digging with hooked tools for recyclables: bottles, cans, bags, cardboard, whatever was worth some money. We donned heavy rubber boots, long pants, and many of us (myself included) wrapped scarves, kerchiefs, or t-shirts over our mouths and noses to better cope with the smell. For some the fetor combined with the intense heat and heavy work was overwhelming, a few vomited, some immediately gave up and went back to the houses. Most managed to hang on and work but for all it was a bitter struggle. Id like to say that this has to be one of the hardest most brutal jobs out there. I used to pride myself and boast that I could handle just about any hard laboring job there was; I have toughed it out working as a logger, clearing trail for the forest service and fighting forest fires. All of those jobs were intensely physical but I could do them again. I sincerely doubt I could do this again, nor do I have any desire to. I barely lasted a day but these people do this all day, everyday, and many have been doing it since they were children.

There are nearly endless health and safety related violations and issues. The water which they drink, cook, and wash with they get from a well behind one of the houses. It has leachate from the landfill in it. It was tested for arsenic (which it has a low level of), but thats the only chemical it was tested for. They have requested for more tests but there has been some sort of delay for the past 2 years (great). There is a nearby incinerator for some of the more hazardous wastes, as a result the air is heavily polluted and many of the children develop respiratory problems.

Just being on the landfill itself poses a myriad of safety concerns. The children frequently play there or help their parents scavenge. The adults wear thick boots but the children often run about in sandals, no one wears gloves or proper masks. The boots are good but not the best, many have sliced their feet deep on broken glass that went right through the rubber. Also there is the threat of medical waste, the hospital has to dispose of their waste properly, but many smaller clinics dont have the same restrictions. Their used needles end up in the landfill, one of the older community members stepped on one once and it went through his boot and into his foot. The potential for the transmission of diseases is omnipresent as well as the threat of serious injury, a child was crushed to death a few years ago by a dump truck that couldn't stop in time as she dashed in front of it.

The community has to search harder now for the recyclables, they are harder and harder to find, this is because of the economic crisis. Because of the crisis there are more street scavengers competing for the valuables. Most are snatched before they make it to the landfill. The landfill workers have to spend more time digging on the landfill to make ends meet. Despite all these hardships they dont want it any other way. Threats have been made to close the landfill for years now, the community claims that they will follow the garbage wherever, it is their livelihood and many know no other trades.

Just seeing the landfill, working in it, smelling it, was extremely disconcerting. I have read about landfills and seen them on TV and in documentary but you can never fully fathom what it is until you are in it. It is a towering monstrosity of stink and filth and disease and disgustingness, and it is entirely manmade. While wandering these dunes of waste I came to ponder humanity and how we are truly living in an unsustainable society. Miles of trash how could we possibly go on like this? How can we consider the production of this amount of trash okay? Its because we have stigmatized it, and rationalized it and MADE it okay to not care where it goes. We dont have to deal with our waste. We produce it and place it in a bin and put on the curb and then on tuesday its gone. Out of sight, out of mind - we never have to see that yogurt carton again. It was that realization that hit me the hardest, that I had helped create this, that I was just as much a part of the problem as anyone else. And no one is intentionally creating this, its just how things are. Undoubtedly I was rooting through some of my own refuse, I have been in Thailand long enough now. Its odd that I have more a relationship with my garbage in Thailand than I do in the states. I have no idea where my garbage goes at home, I take it to the dump on saturday, and they take care of it.

But what is the answer? How can we create less trash? There is no formal recycling in Thailand, and if there all of a sudden were to be recycling then all these scavengers would be jobless, it would be removing their livelihood. Do I worry about environmental impacts or human rights violoations? What is the proper course of action?
There is none, I hate that. As an idealist I have to have something to do, something to work towards, a goal an ideal. But some problems are just that: problems. And theres not a whole lot you can do but maybe alleviate some of the symptoms; give these people better boots, clean their water....keep making garbage? I feel very powerless right now, and I hate to leave off on such a note especially because there were many positives to this unit I could elaborate on. But for now I have a bunch of assignments to attend to.

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