A quick dump follow-up

On January 26th, we returned to the dump again to visit and see how people were doing, as well as to speak with a number of people who had medical problems. If you read the last few posts on this blog, you saw a photo that showed most of a row of homes still standing after the majority of the homes on the dump were destroyed. This is a photo of the same row of houses.

Except, they’re kind of missing now, because they were destroyed when the police returned later on:

And this is the machine that does double duty as trash organiser and destroyer of homes:

The trucks keep coming, though, so many of the dump residents return and try to eke out a living despite the risks they face with the Thai police. After all, there’s a reason they chose to live on a dump rather than remain in Burma.

One young boy had a wound that was infected, so we convinced his mom to let us take him (and her, of course) to a clinic to get it cleaned out properly and check that he was generally healthy (at least, as healthy as one might expect for a child who lives on a garbage dump). Note the flies in mid-air, going in for more:

After being treated at the clinic, his leg looked much better and he said it was much less painful as well.

Later that afternoon, my favourite restaurant employee told us that there was to be a partial annular solar eclipse that day so I googled it and found out what time it would occur. At the midpoint of the time range, when the moon was covering the biggest area of the sun, I took this photo. If I had been in the precisely correct part of Indonesia or the ocean, this would have shown a thin white ring around a black circle.

More on the Mae Sot rubbish dump

The last post, 2 days ago, was a very short look at the Mae Sot garbage dump in Thailand. The problem with the people living on the dump (when I say “on the dump” I really mean it literally – most of the homes are actually on the piles of trash) is that they have no documents permitting them to be in Thailand. They live on the dump for a reason: it’s better than the life they left behind in Burma.

For a number of reasons, which are far too complex for me to explain in a concise blog post, the Thai police regularly arrest ‘illegal’ Burmese migrants in Thai cities and deport them back to Burma. The dump has not been the regular focus of police efforts, until recently.

On January 23rd, my friend and I found out that the police had raided the dump site early in the morning and arrested any inhabitants who weren’t quick enough to run away. They took the arrested people to the police station, where they sat them down in rows outside, and eventually drove them in a caged truck to the border crossing nearby where the migrants were handed over to the Burmese authorities. They were given no food during their detention in Thailand, and we found out later that they were also given no food during their detention in Burma, despite many toddlers and young children being among the hundred or so people arrested.

Here’s a scan of the photo that was put in a national Thai newspaper the next day. The caption reads “Aliens: On the 23rd of January, 200 members from the Mae Sot police force, volunteer forces, municipality of Mae Sot, and Tak immigration department arrested illegal immigrants in the Mae Sot area. They arrested 116 people in total, made up of Burman, Bangladeshi, and Karen people.”

Of course, there was no news story to go with it, just the caption. The official story was that they were illegal migrants who had crossed into Thailand and were working in the city, whereas we had met a number of the people recognisable in the newspaper, so we knew better.

The following are a few photos of what the dump looked like on the afternoon of the 23rd, after the police had left and a few of the migrants had returned from their hiding spots. As I mentioned in the last post, the Hyundai excavator normally used to keep the trash organised, was used for something else this time around: to destroy their homes.

Here’s the “theatre” that was demolished. The dump residents had saved up to get a generator to show videos on occasion, mainly for the children, a huge expense to try and add some normalcy to their lives, and something of which they were immensely proud. The police stole the generator, fuel, television, etc.

Homes partly demolished. The excavator simply punched them in from the top, causing them to collapse. Of course, that was after the police kindly stole any food items, electronics, cooking equipment like pots and pans, from the homes.

Some of the homes in this row were left standing, supposedly because of confusion over a property line nearby, not wanting to upset the owner of the land.

The home in the foreground and some of the homes in the background were demolished, and the residents’ few belongings lay strewn about, left in the frenzy of trying to run away.

This man was able to avoid arrest and is disassembling his home, to take the useful parts with him back to Burma. He will try and start over again in the jungle there, and hope for the best.

More destruction:

This man has loaded up everything he can salvage and is walking back to Burma. He’s tired of the treatment in Thailand, but doesn’t know whether life will be any better in Burma, which he left because of the impossibility to earn a living and the danger ordinary people face at the hands of the Burmese authorities.

We talked a lot with the few people who were around in the afternoon, and they asked us to return and spend the night, in case the police came back (they threatened to burn all the houses, and had even brought a fire truck with them on the first raid), to witness and perhaps moderate the potential for excessive use of force by the police. So we left, bought some food for ourselves and the small number of people who would be staying on site at night (most of them went into hiding at night), and returned. We slept for a few hours in someone’s home that hadn’t been destroyed, though the family wasn’t there. At 4am we got up and went to the ‘central’ area of the dump to sit around and wait, and hoped that we were waiting for nothing to happen.

This young man woke up and started a fire around 5am to warm up (it gets very cold at night in Mae Sot in the winter). There’s no shortage of old tires, which burn very well once you get them started, though the black rubber tire fumes are probably terribly unhealthy. He kept the fire from getting too big by throwing water on it occasionally.

One of the few homes left standing:

Another fire close-up. The wires are from the tire. The dump is littered with these fine metal wires which tried unsuccessfully to trip me constantly.

Two 30-second exposures. The second one is me with my headlamp, and my friend pushing the shutter release on my camera which was resting on the Hyundai excavator track (the linked plates on which it rolls).

Our friend warming his hands (it was really, really cold)

As daylight slowly arrived, people began to straggle back to the dump site to start searching for recyclables to earn money for food. Before starting, they generally sat around various tire fires to warm up a bit after a long and cold night. These are by far my two favourite photos from my visits to the dump:

Tire fire smoke and morning fog ensured the air
was not clear in the morning…

The dump residents’ pigs managed to evade the police quite easily the previous day. The people at the dump don’t eat the pigs, as it’s better for the community to sell them to local restaurants and use the money for cheaper food, which can feed more people. So, if you’ve been eating pork in Mae Sot recently, it might be one of these guys. What’s the best thing about them, according to the dump inhabitants? There’s almost no work involved in rearing them, as they don’t stray too far and they don’t need to be fed – they get very large by finding their own garbage to eat! Everybody wins :-)

Normally, when a garbage truck arrives, there are quite a few more people to sort through the new delivery, but many were still in hiding. The good news is that the women and children held in Burma were released later the same day. Most of them then walked back to the dump, which took quite a while. The men, however, remained detained, and I don’t know even now whether or not they were all released eventually.

Working hard to help themselves, rather than joining the beggars in the streets of Mae Sot:

Everybody works. This is the same boy from the background of my two favourite photos above, a very nice kid:

The sun rising in the east, while dogs scavenge for scraps of edible trash:

There’s a long and complicated story that follows this event, but you’ll have to ask me in person to find out the details, as it’s not really suitable at this point in time to be telling the whole story online.

The Mae Sot Garbage Dump

In a previous post in January, I posted a downloadable large-size photo of the dump in Mae Sot, Thailand. It is/was (the ‘was’ is the subject of a post to come in two days’ time) home to many migrants from Burma, who pick through the trash to find recyclable plastic and certain types of metal, which they take to a depot to earn a minuscule (and I really mean minuscule) amount of money. My friend is making a documentary film about the situation, and he asked me to join him to help out a bit and take some photos as well. We met many of the dump inhabitants who shared their stories and the problems they encounter with the Thai authorities, as they are undocumented migrants. They want their story shared, even though there is a risk that more attention will increase Thai authorities’ efforts to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ of Burmese migrants, as they see it.

A man and his child at the dump:

There were a LOT of people living at the dump, around 300 according to many estimates.

After trash has been delivered by garbage trucks, the Hyundai excavator moves it onto the massive piles of garbage that rise skyward.

In the next post on this site in a couple days you can see another, far less innocent, activity the excavator was used for…

Spot the Problem

There’s a dump here in Mae Sot and, like many dumps, it’s dirty and it smells. Trucks deliver garbage, and a Hyundai excavator moves things around into very high mounds of trash. Here’s a photo of the excavator at work:

The dump in Mae Sot, sadly similar to those in a number of other developing countries, is not only frequented by excavators and garbage trucks. In the uncropped version of this same photo, there’s one clear problem. Can you see what it is?

*The photo above is downloadable at high resolution. Click the photo to view the high-res copy, and then right-click on that image and select “save image as” to save it to your computer. Free to keep on your computer, please request permission first if you’d like to use it for anything.*

Over 300 people live on the trash (many of their homes are literally sitting on top of refuse), earning money by picking out recyclable plastic to take to a recycling depot a ways away. They used to earn 5 baht per kilo brought in, but that’s now down to 1 baht per kilo (that’s CAD 3.6 cents per kilo or CAD 1.6 cents per pound). If you weigh 200 pounds, you’d need to carry your own body weight in recyclable plastic about a mile to earn CAD $3.20. Not the kind of work your average ten year old girl should be doing to help her family survive.

The people living at the dump are illegal migrants from Burma, a country where life is so difficult for them that they are willing to live (if you can call it that) on a garbage dump. They’re not pitying themselves and crying, and they’re not begging in the streets as some able-bodied people do here. They’re working hard, for little pay.

There is no official funding to help pay for better food, warmer clothing (it’s VERY cold here at night), better footwear, medicine for the common diseases (tuberculosis, worms, malaria, dengue fever, bronchial infections, etc). Publicity is hard, because too much attention causes the Thai government to periodically send in the police to clear all the people out, who then sneak back in a few days later, rather than try and help the people.

There is one kind man who has been going in multiple times a week for over a year now, doing his best to help the people with some of the worst problems they face. If you feel like donating a small amount of money for his efforts while I’m still in Mae Sot (until the end of this month), send me an email and let me know. There’s no charitable donation receipt, so it’s up to you if you want to trust me to receive the money from you and withdraw it from my Canadian bank account on this side, then tell you what it was used for.

A number of people are currently working together to try and find a durable solution to help the people on the dump relocate to a new home away from the garbage, earning money doing other things. This planning will take quite some time and is only really in its infancy, so at the moment there is still a significant need to help meet the basic daily needs of these people.