Environment

Riverton City dump: Economic lifeline for many of Jamaica's poor

BY DENISE DENNIS Environment Watch staff reporter dennisd@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, February 29, 2012    

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ROSE, her son in tow, stands guard alongside disposable bags filled to overflowing with a variety of plastic bottles inside the Riverton City dump. At their feet lies a growing stack of similar bottles waiting to be bagged.

It is mid-morning of February 21, and on this day, she is making a solid contribution to recycling. However, her real motivation for turning up at the garbage disposal site — where she endures the blistering hot sun, dust and noise from the garbage trucks going to and fro, in addition to the almost unbearable stench — is the $7 per pound of plastic bottles she can earn.

She sorts through heaps of garbage in search of bottles, seemingly engrossed in the task at hand. But suddenly, she erupts in protest when the Environment Watch photographer points his camera at her and her son.

Rose objects to them being photographed, noting that her son — who looks to be about 12 years old — is a student at a school in Denham Town and would be teased if he were to be recognised. For herself, Rose says she is a member of a church and would not like the congregation to know she makes her living from the dump.

No sooner does she return to her task, a group of men some distance away pounce on a delivery of chicken feathers and entrails a truck has deposited. They are looking for meat they claim they will use to feed the pigs in a large makeshift pen along the Duhaney River, which borders a section of the dump. Seemingly oblivious to the obnoxious odour from the bloody pile, they place their find in bags and crates.

For everyone present at the site, it's just another day on the job. The recent fire, which is estimated to cost the country just under $60 million and which left several people nursing respiratory ailments, seems of little consequence to them.

Still, Rose offers: "They can get the dump in a better way, where they can know seh with the fire, it can be controlled before it get out of proportion because it can be dealt with. But them have to spend money for it to be dealt with."

She is 30 years old and says she does not relish living off the dump, but feels it is the only way to make enough to support her five children.

"Many work not in Jamaica for youth, even young girl like me. If you don't have so many subjects with ones and so on, it hard to get a work. Me with five kids without father, how mi a go manage?" Rose says. "Mi nah go seh mi a go dwell the rest of my life on the dump, you understand? This is just a assistance now that can help me out."

She adds that the dump is a place for people who have no other employment options and believes it helps to prevent crime.

"All these youths and so, if dem can't get money to how dem break themselves, dem good as go out a road go take up gun and start kill," Rose notes.

Instead, she says persons from all over the island — from as far away as Westmoreland and St Thomas — travel to Riverton City to 'work' on the dump.

"We work everyday. [We] sit down here, pack bottles 'til we can reach an amount to sell and buy food," she says.

Meanwhile, Rose is unconcerned that the dump could be relocated as part of efforts to better manage solid waste on the island.

"Where dem a go find a next place fi make a dump inna Jamaica? Mi nuh say it can't find, but where dem a go find it?" she queries. "From mi a little girl, mi know this dump here."

Her sentiments are shared by a young man who speaks with Environment Watch on condition of anonymity. He is certain the dump will not be moved.

"The people that the dump affect now want it move," he says, referring to those affected by the smoke from the recent fire at the site. "So it not going to affect nobody else when dem move it? This is the biggest dump in Jamaica; where dem a go move this and put this?"

Another young man, who gives his name only as Oniel, reveals he is involved in the cash-for-gold trade. Crouching in the shade underneath a small wooden structure near to a vendor with several igloos selling bags of juice and sodas — next to a plucked chicken turned golden brown from 'baking' in the sun and with a group of flies buzzing over something unrecognisable — he attests to the benefits of 'working' at Riverton. He recalls one occasion when he found a piece of jewellery, valued at some $70,000, in the dump.

Another man passes by the shack where Oniel is taking shelter carrying a mattress on his head; the covering torn half off. He ignores the Environment Watch team, as do most of the other people present.

To Oniel's right is another small, albeit more comfortable wooden structure. Its occupants seem almost familial as they, too, take a break from searching the dump.

Oniel laughs at the idea of moving the dump.

"Anywhere dem move the dump to, it will come back here," he says.

At the same time, he and his companions insist the accusations that they are responsible for starting the fire is ludicrous. Oniel says 'no hustler' who 'works' the dump would start the fire as it would not benefit them in any way. He points out that they make their living from the dump and so would not destroy it.

Meanwhile, Oniel, like others on the site, are calling for the government to provide them with work and roads.

"We need work, we need road, we need the house dem fi finish," says one woman, referring to the houses in the community of Riverton Meadows that were started by the government many years ago.

"You have people here who would throw dem money together fi live in a proper house," she notes, adding: "We need to see things a gwaan fi the young girls. So many young girls, so many mothers [are] unemployed."

The Government some two weeks ago announced that the much-touted Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme (JEEP) will be taken to the people who work on the Riverton dump. Minister of Local Government Noel Arscott was reported as telling the House of Representatives on February 14 that the Government would be looking to streamline jobs at the dump.

It was promised that Dr Omar Davies, who is responsible for JEEP, would outline the elements of the project at a later date.

Rose resumes packing her bottles. She is upset that the television reports refer to them as scavengers. She feels the term carries an offensive connotation.

"We are one, made by God in His own image," she said.

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