Thursday, May 14, 2009

Matagalpa Invests in 2nd Sanitary Landfill in Nicaragua

When Gene and I rolled into Esteli, Nicaragua, I hoped to bump my "hablar" and "escribir" into the next text bracket. My one-on-one Spanish instruction evolved into field trips with my teacher, Elsa, to local dumps. This post is about our visit to Matagalpa, the home of Nicaragua's 2nd sanitary landfill.

Elsa and I took a 1.5-hour bus ride over to Matagalpa. This breadbasket region of Nicaragua has onions, rice, coffee, tobacco, and vegetables pouring out of fields and into markets. We walked through the city of Matagalpa, past the cemetary, and up a few kilometers on a rolling, dirt road. We turned a corner, and there it was: the current Matagalpa dump. It is a beautiful place surrounded by lush, green hills.

We walked through the trash scenery, heading towards a group crowded around a truck that was unloading its waste. Cows milled in one corner. Vultures picked at a bag dripping with a suspicious, red liquid. The leader of the waste pickers, Miguel Angel Betanco, came out from the group and greeted us.

Miguel gave us some numbers and stories on the Matagalpa dump.
  • Amount of time he has worked in this dump: 15 years.
  • Population that scavenge in the Matagalpa dump: 50-80 people.
  • Amount of trash delivered per day: 8 truck loads.
  • Average income per person per day from gleanings: 40-50 cordobas per day ($2-$2.50).

As we talked, a group gathered around and dogs came in close. The key ingredients to any scavenger's wardrobe is sturdy boots and a stick. The best materials to collect are aluminum, copper, and scrap metal. Miguel said that people routinely get food out of the trash, but that most are careful to check the expiration dates. As he spoke, I watched a kid reach his hand into the pile of trash, dig out a mango, and take a bite.

Unlike the chaos I saw at the landfill in Guatemala City or the scenes depicted in Slumdog Millionaire, this Matagalpa landfill was tranquil, almost bucolic. They arrive at the landfill in the morning, sort through trash, then return home. I admit: I'm a romantic. We didn't visit anyone's home, and from what I understand, their houses are largely dirt-floor shacks with marginal roofs that leak in the rainy season. No one wants to live like this for very long. One organization that also works in Tijuana, Mexico, is currently fundraising to get the kids clean water and a place to study. Clearly these people have needs, but overall, it seemed mellow.

By the time we had finished our interview, everyone had finished scavaging and the cows had moved in on the pile. We said goodbye and walked back into town to the mayor's office. Elsa and I met with four people that afternoon. They were all helpful, organized, and motivated. It was amazing. The head of Solid Waste offered to bring us on a tour of their yet-to-be-opened-brand-spanking-new sanitary landfill.

The next morning after a two-hour delay, we finally hopped in a truck and went 11km outside the city. The road was bumpy. At one point we forged through a river. Our guide, Fernando, mentioned that the river would make the dump difficult to access in the rainy season. Not a single piece of litter lined the road. This is completely virgin land: only touched by the farmers that currently live out there.

We saw the processing facility.
We peeked into the storage facility that will hold segregated items for sale.
We looked at the composting structure, which was basically an overhang with two hose bibs.
We drove out to the sanitary landfill, which is a big cement swimming pool with a filter running down the middle. They plan to install 23 of these swimming pools, ahem, landfills, throughout the property by the end of the project. Total cost of the project: 17,000,000 cordobas ($850,000USD).

Essentially, we saw lots of freshly-poured cement.

I could not see any redeeming quality about this new site. It is 3-4 times further away from the current site, which will increase transportation costs. There's that issue of getting over the river in the rainy season. It is in untouched countryside. In a region with very cheap labor and very few mechanics, its operation plan seemed equipment-heavy.

GIVEN THIS INFORMATION... (Thank you, Aldo Aravz, Director of Municipal Services).... Matagalpa, population 109,000, has 14,920 residences and 18 commercial centers. The topography of the city (very hilly) makes collecting waste challenging: only 83% of the city gets waste services. Thus, there are 63 illegal dumping spots. The City has 7 trucks, but only 5 of them work. The river that runs along the west side of town is chronically filled with waste. Approximately 70-80% of the city's waste is organic. Only 35% of the town pays its waste collection bill.

Given this information, they built buildings, poured landfills, and made plans to buy more trucks??!! They installed a four-system sort bin outside their office with "glass" as a category? No one carries glass bottles in town.

THIS IS WHAT I WOULD DO...Flatten out some land at the current landfill. Buy a 20-foot industrial conveyor belt. Hire folks from the landfill to sort the materials that arrive. Spread out the hiring so that all families from the current-landfill-working-families benefit. Start sorting everything; start composting. There are only eight truckloads per day; once the loads from those trucks is sorted, start sorting the landfill waste that is already there. Employ people while making the landfill smaller each day. At the same time, start an education outreach campaign in the city. Invest in rubber boots and rubber gloves, and begin a River Clean Up effort on the first Saturday of every month. Also, invest in the collection of dues: currently only 35% of the population pays their garbage bill? As the collector knocks on each door for 10-50 cordobas ($0.50-$2.50) per household per month, if people cannot pay, sign them up for a 2-hour clean-up slot where they will pick up litter in their neighborhood.

Why is this hard to do? Because it is so much easier to invest in infrastructure than it is to invest in people.


Unknown said...

There should be more initiatives like this one. Our planet deserves this.
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Unknown said...

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