Scavenging for bits of plastic, metal and glass that earn them an average $10 a month, the children of Phnom Penh’s municipal rubbish dump are among Cambodia’s poorest.
Hundreds of families live on and around the 100-acre site, making their meagre living from the materials they collect on the steaming rubbish heap, replenished daily with 900 tonnes of the capital’s refuse.
“We don’t go to school. 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,” said 13-year-old Mek.
Dump trucks rumble in and out of 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 rubbish 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 earns a pittance selling mostly bottles and cans to Vietnamese buyers. Middlemen come to nine storage depots at the dump’s entrance, before selling it on to recycling companies for profit.
1kg of plastic fetches 10 cents, while onekg 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 rubbish.
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 three 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 rubbish 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 organisations 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 and he brought me here,” said Srey Neat. AFP