Indonesia's boom eludes trash pickers

With a basket on her back and a hook in one hand, Napsiah rifles through foul-smelling garbage at a vast landfill near the Indonesian capital on a hot sunny morning. She is seemingly unperturbed as a bulldozer grinds toward her. Napsiah ekes out a living picking rubbish such as plastic bags, aluminium and anything else that can be resold at the 110-hectare municipal site, about 30 kilometres east of Jakarta.

"I'm tired, but if I don't work, who's going to feed me and my husband?" says Napsiah, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. She says her husband has long been ill and unable to work. Napsiah, who left her village in West Java's Indramayu district six years ago, says she works 7 hours a day, seven days a week for an income of around 90 dollars a month.

"I have no children to help me and there are no jobs in my village," she says. More than 6,000 people including children and the elderly work as scavengers at the Bantar Gebang landfill, where 6,000 tons of garbage, from household waste to car parts, are dumped daily. Some prefer to work at night to avoid the stifling heat. Many of the scavengers are migrants who left their villages to seek better opportunity. They live in makeshift houses built from materials found at the dump.

Some carry their babies while working on the tips, exposing them to pollutants and other hazards. The trash pickers are among millions of Indonesians who have been left behind by the country's much-touted economic boom. More and more of Indonesia's 240 million people have entered the middle class, thanks to annual economic growth of around 6 per cent. But nearly half the population still lives on less than 2 dollars a day, according to the World Bank.

Douglas Manurung, director of Godang Tua Jaya, a private company that took over the management of the landfill from the government in 2008, says the site was officially off-limits to scavengers. "They had been there since before we took over, so banning them from entering the site is like asking for chaos," he says. The landfill was built in 1986 by the Jakarta government ostensibly as a site for household organic waste. But in practice, metal, plastic and other non-organic trash is also dumped there.

Children of scavengers are often forced to drop out of school to join their parents on the tips, says Nasruddin, executive director of the Dinamika Indonesia Foundation, which provides education and health care to residents living there. The dropout rate at local elementary schools is about 20 per cent, says Nasruddin, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. "The parents pay little attention to their children's education because they see them as assets to help them make more money," he says. "For them it's enough that their children can read, write and count."

Nasruddin also says many residents suffer from health problems such as skin infections, anaemia, respiratory infections and tuberculosis because of poor hygiene and nutrition. "According to health workers who examined the children, most of them suffer from worms," he says. Karyadi, 18, says he has worked as a scavenger since he was 7 and he cannot think of any other jobs.

"My uncle drives a truck and he asked me to work as his assistant, but I refuse because I make more money here," says Karyadi, who graduated from junior high school and makes about 1 million rupiah (100 dollars) a month selling recyclables. "Maybe when I have enough money, I will build a house in my village and get married," he says. As he speaks, truck drivers and other workers are eating at food stalls set up among mounds of decaying rubbish, ignoring flies that buzz over the dishes.

Karyadi says he has rarely fallen ill during the 11 years he has worked scavenging. "Some say the food here is poisonous but I regularly eat chicken and fish I found here, of course after I cook them," he says. Karyadi says he has made some unexpected discoveries, including expensive toys, working electronic gadgets and even cash. "Today I found a 20,000 rupiah note on the back of a truck," he says.

Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2013