VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews / 22 Nov) – Welcome to “Disneyland”! It is a mosaic of blue, black and white polyester unevenly blended with brown soil surrounded by green shrubs and bushes. It was a gloomy Monday morning and the air is redolent of putrid residues or whatever people in Vientiane would call “waste”.
In a vast land of piled up rubbish that form like small hills, a tiny village hides behind the bushes at the side of a paved road inside the Km 32 landfill in Vientiane Capital. It is as colorful as a playhouse as shanties are thatched with used tarpaulin, posters and plastic curtains that used to be big grocery bags.
A man in his 40s, clad in a camouflage coat and faded black pants, is burning scrap electric wires near his hut. The smoke has blended with the gray sky. His hands are black with soot as he removes the plastic coverings to reveal the metal wires. “I earn 1,000 kip for every kilo of these metals,” says Mr Lumsy Sipanya as his eyes, shaded by a dirty whitish cap, are fixed to the flame.
In front of every house in the village has a black portion on the ground that is a mixture of ashes and burnt soil as a remnant of burning. Their income is quite sustainable for a bachelor like Mr Joy, 30, who has been living inside the wasteland for a year now. They can earn 100,000 kip a day, or at least 2 million kip in a month, for selling used electric wires.
“I don’t want to go back to the city anymore. No job can suit me. Here, I can earn enough for my own needs,” says Joy while fixing his motorbike. He is wearing fake gold bracelet and earrings.
Most of the houses are empty. Smoking cookstoves and soot-coated pots are left on the ground. Some packs of salt and other seasonings, used plates and plastic cups seem to tell that the inhabitants had to hurry after breakfast.
Over 200 individuals are working in a dump site not far from the village, according to Mr Bounkham Luangparn, 35, who is hired to manage a total of 30 households living inside the landfill. Most people who collect recyclable rubbish are outsiders. Some of them rummage plastic bottles, scrap metals and cellophane bags. At least 200 tons of garbage are dumped in the landfill everyday, a garbage collector told Vientiane Times while taking a break outside the small management office.
Children also play in the “Disneyland” in a purposeful manner as they help their parents, who taught them how to scavenge and help gather the collected rubbish that can be sold. It was almost noontime when two boys arrived on a motorbike towing a steel cart full of plastic cellophane. One of them, wearing a Spiderman-inspired sweater, detached the cart from the motorbike, and then the other boy drove away.
A seemingly three-year-old boy walked barefoot while eating a pack of uncooked instant noodles like some chips. When he finished it, he went to an old lady’s house to buy refreshment. He handed a thousand kip bill to the vendor while receiving a plastic bag of brown liquid and ice cubes. His mouth immediately caught the straw and indulged in delight.
Mr Bounkham, who has lived and worked in the landfill since its inception about six years ago, says their children have not had any serious diseases such as malaria, dengue nor diarrhea. The residents get free potable water. A doctor visits them regularly to conduct medical check-up, he says as he sits in a straw hammock tied to a manzanita tree beside his humble abode.
Separated from his wife, Mr Bounkham does not have any plan to live somewhere outside the landfill. He hopes that his kids will get a good education to have a chance to choose another kind of life. But, for the kids who work and live here, they do not go to school. “They’re not interested,” he says.
The sun never comes out but “bor pen yang” (it does not matter). These villagers continue to live each day, seeing hope for survival where most people would find as an utterly stinky and filthy place in Laos.
[Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.]