Living in Trash: Life in the Guatemala City Garbage Dump

I walked the cobblestone streets of colonial Antigua, Guatemala, searching for the Safe Passage Headquarters. I had emailed the organization just the night before hoping to snag a spot on their once a week trip. Safe Passage, or Camino Seguro, is an organization that helps to educate the children and families that live and work in the Guatemala City Garbage Dump. I found the small office hidden among the many large, antique doors that line the streets of Antigua.

Inside, i helped the 11 other people in the room organize the chairs in a semi-circle around a small television. We sat making small talk until the British volunteer directed our attention to the small TV.

“In order to get a feel and understanding” he said, “For what makes Safe Passage so special, we need to watch a documentary about the beginnings of the organization.”

The documentary was a 15 minute tear-jerker. Not a dry eye in the house. In a nutshell, here is the story of Safe Passage:

In 1997, a young woman from Maine was studying Spanish in Antigua when she went into Guatemala City for a day trip. She visited the garbage dump and was overwhelmed, saddened, and frustrated that kids were living not only on the border, but inside the dump.

This woman, Hanley Denning, called home, had her parents sell all of her stuff, and began Safe Passage on that $5000 profit. Her original plan was to just give the kids of the garbage dump a place to relax, eat food and be able to be kids for a few minutes each day. Every year her vision, and Safe Passage, grew. It started as one room on the outskirts of the dump that helped 40 kids, to a compound that now helps 600+ people.

Sadly, in 2007, she was killed in a car accident. She has not been able to see the fantastic program Safe Passage has grown into. Today, they have 3 buildings: a pre-school, a school for grades 1-12, and an adult education center. All of this because a woman didn’t like seeing kids living and working in a garbage dump. Her legacy and dream continues to make a massive difference in the lives of the Guatemala City Garbage Dump Families.

It was one thing to be moved to tears by a well made documentary, it was another thing to experience the garbage dump and Safe Passage first hand.

And that is what we did.

The 12 of us piled into a 14 passenger van and off we went on the windy hour long journey to Guatemala City. The city is not known for its safety, particularly in and around the garbage dump, so as soon as we arrived we stopped and picked up our Security Detail- just a big guy carrying a shotgun.

Before we were able to see Safe Passage, the schools, the kids and the organization, we needed to see the reason behind the organization. The Guatemala City Garbage Dump.

The Guatemala City Garbage Dump is the largest dump in Central America. About 500 tons of trash are dumped in it each day, and the 11,000 people who live and work in and near the dump rely on that garbage to survive. There is no way to truly know how many people work in the dump, but as of February 2014, 4,500 work badges had been documented, according to our Safe Passage volunteer.

Before 2005, there were no work badges. Anyone could enter and do whatever they needed to do in the garbage dump. Families lived and worked inside the dump. They built makeshift houses and lived in garbage. In 2005 there was a huge methane fire that burned for days, and the government finally came in and made some regulations. They built a wall around the dump and limited who was allowed to work in it.

No one is permitted in the gates of the dump unless they have a badge, so there is no chance to see it from the ground level. However, a large, public cemetery overlooks the garbage dump where we were able to get a birds eye view.

We drove through the cemetery’s winding roads, passed apartment-building-style mausoleums (where people bury their family members-hundreds to a building) to a far corner on a cliff. The security guard got out of the van first and walked around the grounds where we would be standing, to make sure it was safe. When we got the all clear, the doors opened and out we went.

Apartment building Style Mausoleums in a Guatemala City public cemetery

Apartment building Style Mausoleums

When I stepped out of the van and onto the trash-strewn cemetery grounds, my eyes watered with the overpowering and pungent smell of garbage. I fought the urge to cover my nose and mouth like a child complaining of stinky food, and instead breathed in the thick, dirty air in the hopes that I would grow accustomed to it.

Once the initial shock of the smell faded, the next thing that hit me was the vultures. No, they didn’t literally hit me. Their overwhelming presence did. There were thousands of them. Vultures were perched on the tombstones, resting before making their next dive into the dump. They circled overhead, menacing, searching for their next snack.

Avoiding the birds creepy, soul penetrating glares, I walked to the edge of the cemetery with the rest of the group and peered over the edge into the massive hole that is the Guatemala City Garbage Dump.

Holy crap.

The pit is surrounded on all sides by rock and dirt cliffs, extending straight up and enclosing the workers. On one end there is a gate allowing in only dump trucks and whoever has a badge. At the other end, a canyon we cannot see to the bottom of. In between the two ends is where all the work is done. The people and trucks, the size of toys, move carefully over piles of rubbish; some piles smoldering, some compacted, others loose. Its as if the whole scene was not actually real, but just a twisted game someone was playing with their dolls.

Guatemala City Garbage Dump

I could clearly see the trucks and the people sorting trash. A bit harder to make out was the hundred or so dogs that were roaming through the trash, looking for their next meal. And even smaller than the dogs were the vultures that were scattered, almost invisibly, into the piles and piles of garbage.

I was surprised at how methodical everything was. The operation, of dumping and collecting trash, seemed organized. A truck drove in through the main gate and got in line with the rest of the trucks waiting to dump their loads.  We watched as a parade of about 20 trucks slowly made their way to the dumping zone for the day. Every couple of days, the area where the trucks unload their garbage, changes. This disperses the piles throughout the whole pit.

Guatemala City Garbage Dump The long parade of trucks waiting to dump their garbage.

The long parade of trucks waiting to dump their garbage.

Men and women surrounded each truck, putting a hand on it as if to say, “This one is mine”.

 

We learned that is exactly what they were doing.

Each truck is numbered based on where in the city it is coming from. The workers know the numbers of the richer neighborhoods, and fight for those trucks, as they will most likely get more valuable things. It is known that once your hand is on that truck, you have the right to pick through it

Once the truck dumps its load, people begin to scavenge. They are looking for plastic, aluminum, food and cardboard, and of course anything that they might be able to sell. The men and women (and children over the age of 12, as that is the minimum age for working in the dump) fill massive, industrial sized plastic bags with the various ‘treasures’. When they fill a bag of garbage, they sell it to a middle-man, who then sells it to the recycling companies. For a full bag of plastic, they can make 10-12 Quetzales($1.50), for aluminum and cardboard they get 3 quetzales per pound ($0.40). On average, a full days worth of work, brings in about 40 Quetzales, or $5 dollars, for a worker.

A great find is leftover food, particularly from chains like McDonalds and Burger King. The workers will eat the food garbage, bring it home to their families, or sell it.  They are able to sell meat to street cart vendors, who then re-cook it.

McDonalds in Guatemala City found out that the workers at the dump were recycling their food waste and decided they had to put an end to that. They started soaking all of their garbage with some kind of oil (I can’t remember what kind) so that the people of the dump could not re-use it. Like that is the biggest problem for this corporation, they can’t let starving people eat their garbage. It hasn’t stopped the workers from using it though, according to our guide, they are able to burn off the oil and still eat it.

At the end of the dump there is a deep canyon where, we were told, bodies from the cemetery are dumped when they are “kicked out” of their resting places. Bodies are dumped when families do not pay the rent for their deceased family member. It costs something like $60 a year to keep someone buried in one of those apartment style mausoleums. Sometimes dump workers climb their way down the dangerous path to the canyon to pick through the dead bodies in hopes of finding something valuable.

Guatemala City Garbage Dump

The deep canyon on one end of the dump

As we watched the scene unfold before us, our guide pointed out some spots in the dump where makeshift shelters were starting to pop up. Despite the regulations, people are still finding ways to live in the dump. It is necessary for some because they need to work, but also need to take care of their children.

Makeshift shelters beginning to pop up

Makeshift shelters beginning to pop up

At the end of the day, those who have not made their camp for the night in the piles of trash, head across the street to their ramshackle huts made from….garbage. Tin and plastic and recycled materials make the tiny, unsturdy homes of the Garbage Dump Families. They are essentially squatters and can be kicked off the land at any time. The alleyways of the neighborhood don’t look much different than the dump itself: Garbage piled high, street dogs roaming, dirty children.

The families of the Guatemala City Garbage Dump are stuck in a never ending cycle of poverty. They are uneducated, and know nothing more than the dump, as that is the family business. The government doesn’t do much to help the people who rely on the garbage dump to feed their family. And as with most areas affected by severe poverty, drugs, theft and violence are issues in the dump and the neighborhoods. Police are present, but don’t do much to keep the area safe.

Some of the make-shift huts the Garbage Dump Families Live in

Some of the make-shift huts the Garbage Dump Families Live in

We had enough of staring into the depths of hell on earth, and filed back into the van to see the good that was being done to help those who live and work in the dump. Organizations like Safe Passage are working to educate and feed the bodies, souls and minds of the Garbage Dump Families. The first part of our morning was an eye opening slap in the face to what life is like for some in Guatemala City. The second part of our afternoon was uplifting and inspiring as we experienced first hand how life is changing for a lot of the Garbage Dump Families.

*My experience exploring the Safe Passage schools will be continued in another post.*

A Boston Globe Photographer was able to get a pass into the dump a few years ago and published this photo essay on the dump. Worth a look for some amazing and powerful photos of what life is like working in the Guatemala City Garbage Dump.

Boston Globe- Dangerous Work: “The Mine in Guatemala” 

Have you ever experienced extreme poverty before? How did you react?

*Pictures are my own and from the volunteer at Safe Passage

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13 Responses

  1. Kate

    This is an incredible thing to read about. In South Africa, we have people coming into the suburbs out of the townships that sift through garbage once it’s put out on the street for collection, they also then sell it onto recycling companies. The level is nowhere near this however! Thanks for all the detail, can’t wait to read about the rest of the project!

    Reply
    • Katie McGrain

      Thanks Kate! It was so much more than people collecting garbage on the street, which you can see almost anywhere, right? I was definitely blown away by the scale of it.

      Reply
  2. Franca

    I’ve never experienced anything quite like this during my travels, it must be very hard to be a spectator of such reality. The poorest areas I ever saw where in Laos where in some very remote villages people had literally nothing. They were living off what ever they could grow by themselves, some kids didn’t have any clothes and/or shoes, and in some areas there wasn’t even electricity or running water, in fact they were bathing and doing the washing in the close by stream.
    But that was nothing compared to this, it’s such a sad reality but at least some organizations are trying to help them in any way they can.

    Reply
    • Katie McGrain

      Franca, I too had never experienced poverty quite like this before. To see someone, literally, living in garbage…you don’t really know how to react.

      Reply
  3. Matilda

    Very powerful post, Katie. I’m horrified that McDonalds actually takes the time to pour something over their garbage simply so others can’t use it. We’ve witnessed poverty in a number of places before but definitely not to this level. I look forward to reading your next post about Safe Passage.

    Reply
    • Katie McGrain

      Thanks Matilda! I, too, was horrified when I heard that. Like that is such a big problem? They can’t let starving people eat their garbage..

      Reply
  4. Carolyn S

    I lived in Guatemala for 3 months and have also went there several times to visit between 2006-2007. After living in Minnesota and also seeing “poverty” in the inner city in the USA, going to Guatemala was an experience I will NEVER forget. The disparity between the rich and the poor is unimaginable by US standards. The beauty that can be found in places like Antigua and the countryside and the hotels and then just the horror that can be seen every day on normal travel on the roads to and around Guatemala City is just…well, beyond words, really…ever seen a family of FIVE such as mom, dad, 4-6 year old, toddler AND infant on a motorbike (NOT a motorcycle) weaving between traffic going 50 mph on a highway before? It’s a VERY common occurrence in Guatemala! Along with their slang names for their roads such as “death highway,” “murder road”, etc. But, what struck me most is that the people are either young OR old in more ways than just years. The young are mostly happy outside the city…kids can be malnourished, dirty, barely dressed, playing in the dirt with only a stick (outside their shack, if they’re lucky enough to have one, made of boxes and sheet metal and all sorts of dangerous things that you would normally keep kids AWAY from) and still be seen laughing, the young teenagers (12-15) are all “in love” and seen kissing on every park bench, but then it’s hard to tell the age from 18-45, as it seems like after the “in love/have kids” part, the reality sets in and you can see it reflected in their eyes and the toll on their bodies. I met a woman who was 31 and I would have sworn she was in her LATE 50’s. The people from Guatemala are wonderful and welcoming and gracious, but you can see that they have survived SO MUCH by the “beaten” look in many of their eyes. The look of desperation, hopelessness, anguish and despondence from living in extreme poverty is there is the eyes of so many and it just unforgettable – especially when they have children with them that are not in school and you know that the cycle will just continue for the next generation. It’s truly beyond heartbreaking on so many levels. I will never ever forget the profound experience of being in Guatemala. Currently, in the USA, we are talking about our police force and our growing lack of trust…believe me, it’s NOTHING compared to there. There, you have to worry about the police pulling you over to check out what you have so that they can contact the banditos further down the road to just rob you if you’re lucky and murder you if you’re not. We take so much for granted here in the US that we don’t even realize how lucky we are, but yet when I read the internet, I’m amazed to find how loud we complain. Thankfully, there are organizations like this that are working hard every day trying to make a difference for those in Guatemala…especially those that live in the “4th world” like the Guatemala dump.

    Reply

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