A number of children in Phnom Penh are kept out of school to earn an average of $10 a month from finding and selling garbage that can be recycled. (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy, AFP)
May 26, 2009
Scavenging for bits of plastic, metal and glass that earn them an average of $10 a month, the children of Phnom Penh’s municipal garbage dump are among Cambodia’s poorest.
Hundreds of families live on and around the 40.5-hectare site, making their meager living from the materials they collect on the steaming heap of garbage, replenished daily with 900 metric tons of the capital’s refuse.
“We don’t go to school,” said 13-year-old Mek. “I’d like to but I need to pick the litter and earn money. I have nine siblings and they all work the same job as me.”
Dump trucks rumble in and out of the Stung Meanchey landfill site throughout the day, while the toxic waste that covers sink holes burns in the sun.
“I really worry about the children working on the dump especially because of the garbage trucks that sometimes hit the children, because it’s hard to see them up there,” said 26-year-old father-of-two Chan Samon.
His fears are not unfounded — in February a 16-year-old girl was killed when a bin fell on her head. There have been numerous victims like her since the site opened more than 45 years ago.
Chan Samon said he earned a pittance selling mostly bottles and cans to Vietnamese buyers. Middlemen come to nine storage depots at the dump’s entrance to buy materials, before selling them on to recycling companies for profit.
One kilogram of plastic fetches 10 cents, while one kilogram of iron or a glass bottle goes for 2.5 cents.
But these slim pickings are all these families have. Many of them arrived in Phnom Penh from the rural provinces in the hope of finding better work, only to discover their only option was to join those foraging for garbage.
Now Cambodia’s authorities are closing down the site and moving the dump several miles outside the capital.
None of the residents are clear who is evicting them, only that they have been told to expect to move at any time.
“I heard something about the dump moving but I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Mek, who has worked at the site since he was 3 years old.
The move has been discussed locally since 2003, residents said, but a recent letter sent out by municipal authorities to all Phnom Penh residents confirmed the closure would take place in the “second quarter” of the year.
It said garbage collection prices would need to rise because of the move, which it said was necessary because of the “environmental impact” of the site, citing the noise, smell, smoke and poor underground water quality.
Until the proposed eviction a few lucky children had escaped the grimy work, thanks to about a dozen charities set up around the landfill site.
The organizations pay parents for lost income while they provide their offspring with schooling, clothes, food and a clean place to sleep.
“When I was up on the dump I met [charity outreach worker] Theary and he was interested in helping me and he brought me here,” said 10-year-old Srey Neat, one of 96 children being looked after by Theary, who goes by only one name, and the charity he works for, A New Day Cambodia.
The center pays parents $10 a month to keep their children away from the scavenging work.
But with the dump’s closure, that helping hand may not be able to stretch far enough if the dump dwellers move further afield.
“We have some concern about whether some of the parents will need to move away and would like to take their children with them,” said the center’s director Annette Jensen.
The landfill site is expected to be rebuilt next to Cambodia’s infamous Killing Fields, where thousands of people were killed and buried by the communist Khmer Rouge regime during its 1975-79 rule.
Chan Samon said he would have no choice but to take his wife and two children and move over to the new site.
“If the dump moves we will have to move with it. I have no choice because I don’t have any other job,” he said.