Dumps like this are found in most Nicaraguan cities, with the largest one in Managua. This is a photo of the dump in Jinotepe. Back behind the trees there is a small community of people who live in shack-houses, and sort through the garbage looking for recyclable materials that can be sold. Around 1,500 people live and work in “La Chureca”, the dump in Managua. Unemployment is extremely high, along with drug use and prostitution. There are elementary and middle-schools, but youth have to travel outside La Chureca to attend high school, if they are lucky. Discrimination of people who live in the dump is a huge barrier.
I have visited La Chureca twice, both times accompanied by long-term volunteers who work in NGOs located within the premises (the Manna Project and Juntos Contigo). The volunteers I’ve encountered are hesitant to give tours to visitors–both for security reasons and the impression it sends to the residents. However, because of my longer-term status here in Managua, they made exceptions. I have heard that sometimes groups of North American tourists make rounds in a tour bus, with their cameras, moved I’m sure by what they see, but not necessarily giving the type of help/attention that is needed or desired. Least to say, I did not bring my camera on my visits to La Chureca.
In many ways it felt like entering a disaster zone. Smoke ascends from piles of burning waste, while vultures circle overhead. Children are found working alongside adults in sorting glass, plastics, paper, and metals, all layered in piles of waste. A rotting stench of shoe glue fills the air, and many children run around barefoot. Health hazards here are obviously high. Many families search also for food discarded from restaurants amidst the trash.
Learning of the health statistics, rates of violence and abuse is a hard thing to comprehend. However, there are signs of hope. A small organization called Podcasts for Peace works with kids and youth from the neighborhood, helping them tell their stories through digital media. They offer this clear summary of the area on their website:
“More than 70 percent of the population work in the informal sector, about 30 percent as trash foragers, and 70 percent live in extreme poverty. In Acahualinca, as in many places where people live in a volatile environment, there are kids addicted to glue, a high illiteracy rate, gangs, prostitution, malnutrition, machismo, and domestic violence.
There have been dramatic changes in the past years since the Vice President of Spain, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega visited in 2007 and was moved to help. She promised 30 million Euro to close the dump, create a recycling plant and build houses to the families. A large pile of trash is now covered with dirt, and some 40 houses have already been built. However, some people who live there are fearful of what the changes will bring. They aren’t sure what the job opportunities will entail, or how it will change their lives.
Visiting both La Chureca, as well as seeing other garbage dumps around Nicaragua overwhelms me. I wonder what the Nicaragua government is doing in response to these living conditions, and I see it as a huge social injustice that is generally overlooked by those in power. As an American, I have learned the ways that the U.S. has been a political and economic oppressor over the course of history here in Nicaragua. What would happen if those powers turned their attention to the needs of the poorest? How do I as a volunteer, and yet incredibly privileged person, confront this extreme poverty?
As I continue to learn about Nicaragua, in all its beautiful and ugly parts, I become aware of my remaining ignorance and wealth. I pray I never get accustomed to suffering and can continue to offer my support as I’m able to.
Links, sources, and organizations:
– short article by a nurse practitioner who visited the dump
– Podcasts for Peace, powerful testimonies and stories made by youth from “La Chureca” and surrounding neighborhood.