There is a place in Central America, sometimes referred to as the end of the world. It is located in the capital city of Managua, Nicaragua, along the south shore of the second largest lake in the country.
It covers 7 square kilometres (the size of approximately 1,300 football fields), is surrounded by high brick walls, and is home to a variety of wildlife as well as approximately 1,000 people, 50% of who are under the age of 18. What tropical paradise is this you ask?
It’s a place called La Chureca — the largest open-air landfill in Central America, and it is far from being any kind of paradise.
The term “La Chureca” is slang for “city trash dump” and the people who both work and live there are called Churequeros.
The Churequeros have actually created a community built on garbage, complete with neighbourhoods, schools, community centres, libraries and even a health clinic — most of which have been built by various international organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Don’t be fooled, this isn’t a community like anything you have ever seen — these are homes made from scavenged material, sheets of plastic, old banners and advertisements, chicken-wire and sheet-metal. A community where dirt paths cross with trails of thick white water, and men, women and children have to compete with mangy dogs and vultures for food. A community that is listed among the 10 Horrors of the Modern World.
The creation of La Chureca is difficult to determine. There is no exact date recorded, however most people remember it growing and developing into what it is today as a result of a devastating earthquake in 1972.
Records indicate that this earthquake destroyed 70% of the city, leaving in its wake grief, unemployment, poverty, and of course garbage – and lots of it. The people who remained were left with nothing, and in order to feed themselves families all over the city would go to La Chureca looking for salvageable materials for their own use or to sell. Those with homes would head back after a long day of work, but those who were left homeless began to construct homes out of the rubble itself – and so began the infamy of the Churequeros.
The landfill has grown since the 1970s and it’s estimated amount of waste is currently 5 million tonnes! To put this in perspective, the Halton Waste Management Site has buried almost 2 million tonnes of garbage since 1992.
Managua’s population has grown significantly over the last 20 years and the city now produces over 1,200 tonnes of garbage a day! There is no separation of material, so absolutely EVERYTHING goes to La Chureca. This includes inorganic waste like cans, glass, metal, demolition debris, organic waste like food, dead animals and even infectious biowaste — if you can believe that! Solid waste from hospitals is brought in, including human remains from surgery and blood (yuk).
All of this horrible waste creates an environment that is often described as a war zone. It creates a giant breeding ground for flies and microbes, with the rotting food and burning trash. The municipal government sets fires to keep the garbage from piling up and to retrieve iron and other materials, so there is always a thick cloud of smoke that covers the area, as well as a constant stench in the air.
Can you imagine working in an environment like this? Never-mind living in one!
This brings terrible health hazards to the Churequeros, they are constantly exposed to toxic fumes and pollution, and the rotting food they scavenge to eat often leads to intestinal and digestive problems.
Much of the garbage at La Chureca also spills over into Lake Managua, affecting the natural resources and contaminating the fish that are an essential part of the population’s diet.
The Churequeros are amoung the poorest people in the country and common activities for workers of all ages include recollection, classification, selling, sorting and cleaning of recyclable waste. The children working mostly handle the glass, metals and plastics – did I mention they are usually in bare feet?
They are highly organized labour chains, and like a well oiled machine they all have their own duties and responsibilities that make their system run very efficiently. It is clear this system assists with waste diversion, and the huge garbage pile would be much larger if not for the people who work there.
I don’t mean for this to be a story of desperation and depravity, but the reality is there are over 3,000 people that work at La Chureca and depend on its waste for their own survival.
This creates a predicament for the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere –- how do you remedy a situation that so many people rely on for survival, when the county itself has no money?
In 2007 the Queen of Spain visited Nicaragua and was so distraught over what she saw that she decided to invest $45 million into 3 projects; building new housing for residents, both inside and outside of the landfill; covering all open trash with dirt; and building a recycling plant.
There are 13 NGOs that have been working in La Chureca for a number of years such as the Manna Project International and Dos Generaciones (Two Generations). They are working together to form a joint plan with the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECI) and the municipal government, in an attempt to restore dignity to its population and give the children a fighting chance.
The future is still very uncertain for the Churequeros, however hopefully over the next few years we will see progress being made to improve the lives of the people of La Chureca.