Earth Matters: Hope for those literally in the dumps

by Betsy Herbert

posted in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 5/19/16

 Betsy Herbert -- Contributed Volunteers from colleges and universities come to Guatemala City to assist in teaching at Safe Passage.

Betsy Herbert -- Contributed Volunteers from colleges and universities come to Guatemala City to assist in teaching at Safe Passage.

During the past 12 months I’ve traveled through 36 countries, but it wasn’t until the last leg of my trip in Guatemala City that I encountered a place like Zone 3, infamous as the site of the Guatemala City Garbage Dump, the largest landfill in Central America.

In 2009 the Council on Hemispheric Affairs reported that 30,000 squatters lived around the 40-acre Guatemala City Garbage Dump. An estimated 7,000 of them are known as guajeros, or trash-pickers, and they depend solely on what they can glean from the dump to make a living. But in the process of scavenging, they are constantly subjected to toxic chemicals, disease and filth.

I visited Zone 3 as part of an eco-tour of Central America. We were not allowed to go inside the dump, but I did observe and photograph the dump’s entrance as well as the slum surrounding it.

 Betsy Herbert -- Contributed Residents of Zone 3 work in front of their homes, recycling trash scavenged from the nearby dump.

Betsy Herbert -- Contributed Residents of Zone 3 work in front of their homes, recycling trash scavenged from the nearby dump.

Up until 2005, children were allowed to work inside the dump. After a terrible methane fire burned in the compost piles of the dump that year, the city government walled off the dump and issued ID cards to guajeros who were authorized to work there. Children under 14 were no longer permitted inside the dump area. Still, they continue to work on the periphery.

In 2007, Hollywood filmmakers Leslie Iwerks and Mike Glad directed an Oscar-nominated short documentary entitled “Recycled Life,” about the Guatemala City Garbage Dump. The film graphically illustrates what it was like for the families living in Zone 3.

During a 2007 filmradar.com interview, Iwerks describes her experience filming at the dump: “It was the harshest environment I’ve ever experienced. ... The wretched smell of the dump, first of all, was often unbearable. It got worse the deeper into you went in . ... It was heartbreaking to see kids knowing no other life than this, and not going to school or gaining a better future through education and proper adult attention.”

In 1997, 10 years before Iwerks made her film, a young American woman named Hanley Denning visited the Guatemala City Garbage Dump. Denning was so concerned by the plight of children living and working in the dump that she sold all her possessions, relocated to Guatemala City, and started a school in a vacant convent in Zone 3.

Her vision was to remove the children from this unhealthy environment, put them in school in their neighborhood, and prepare them for a different way of life. In this way, she started the nonprofit Safe Passage, or Camino Seguro, as it is known in Spanish.

Just as she was making great strides in improving the lives of children and families living in Zone 3, Denning was tragically killed in a car accident in 2007. But her mission continues today. Safe Passage, a 501c3, has expanded. Safe Passage now has an early childhood education center, an educational reinforcement center with a computer lab, and an adult literacy program.

Safe Passage (www.safepassage.org) now serves some 500 children, ranging in age from 2 to 21 years, as well as 100 mothers from nearly 300 families in Zone 3.

While the horrific conditions of Zone 3 in Guatemala City were an eye-opener for me, there are other slums and garbage dumps in many cities around the world with similar conditions, including Manila, New Delhi, Mumbai, Jakarta, Mexico City and Nairobi. These sites are not usually tourist destinations.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who just completed a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.