Return to site

TheWomen at the Last Place on Earth

A Memory by Marshall Riggan

The most terrible thing I ever saw was in the highlands above the Rio Tomebamba in southern Ecuador. I was helping filmmaker Mark Birnbaum document the lives of a community of women who were forced by circumstance to live and work at the Cuerna garbage dump.
We drove out to the dump to film the workers at night. It began to rain just before the garbage trucks arrived. The lights of our van lit a nightmare scene. The women huddled on the dump surrounded by maybe hundreds of dogs, their eyes bright in the headlights, women and dogs waiting for the garbage trucks that would assure their survival for another day. Then the trucks came, one after another. Mark and I went onto the dump. I held my poncho over Mark and the
camera because it was raining very hard now. The dogs began to howl, an awful plural calling, like wolves. Then the howling was drowned out by the engines of the garbage trucks as they backed into position and began to dump their garbage. Occasionally we could see large rats scurrying in the lights of the trucks, competing with the dogs and humans for the dump’s harvest. As usual,
Mark got very close to the action, filming women with their long-spiked poles, working the new garbage, seeking treasures, breaking open the plastic bags, pulling out and sorting the contents. Of course, the smell was almost overpowering. The pack of dogs circled and sometimes fights broke out among them and they snarled and howled again in the rain. At one point we were so close to the garbage trucks that the garbage fell around us and on us and terrible vapors rose, filling our lungs and our minds. I kept the camera covered with my poncho and kept watch on the dogs, all of which were probably rabid, and I wondered where I could get rabies shots at this time of night in this faraway place. When we felt we had covered the action we escaped to the van and were silent for a long time. What we had seen was both horrible and noble. Surely this was the ghastliest workplace on Earth. But the women were working. It was honest labor. They were earning their daily bread doing the best they knew how. We turned out the van’s lights and the world grew absolutely dark. The rain drummed on the roof and the dogs howled.

Women had been working on the dump for three generations. It was the only work they
could get. Most had been abandoned by their husbands or were single or their husbands, being male, had been able to find work in town. The women suffered grinding poverty, earning, at most $35 a month. The work was terribly dangerous to their health. There was no one to care for their children and so the youngsters often had to work alongside their mothers on the dump. When they did find something they could sell (cardboard, paper. glass, plastic), they were often cheated by middlemen. They fought among themselves, seeking the most valuable items to sell. They were marginalized, stigmatized, outcasts from town, living in mud and tin shanties at the edge of the dump. An oft repeated saying in the nearby town of Cuerna was: “the women who work in the garbage are garbage.”
When we arrived at the dump the lives of the women had begun to change. With the help of Care
Canada, the women organized and had begun to set goals that would improve their lives and the lives of their children. The first goals related to health and safety: obtaining masks, gloves and aprons to help prevent disease and infections, creating a facility for showering after a day sifting through the filth. Already they had created a makeshift clinic, but it needed expansion and supplies. High on their list of goals was a childcare center, and literacy training for the mothers.
An important goal was to circumvent the unscrupulous middlemen and sell their products directly to recycling concerns. They also decidedto make their products more appealing to recyclers by sorting and packaging paper and cardboard, cleaning glass and metal products and adding value to bottles, like perfume bottles, by decorating them with colorful designs. They needed a facility where this product upgrading could be accomplished. Another way they were extending their product line was worm farming. By feeding the organic waste collected on thedump to worms, the worms converted the waste to a rich fertilizer, a process with a potential to produce thousands of pounds of fertilizer, a product much in demand by gardeners, especially rose farmers. So far 33 women had begun individual family-owned worm farms and one community farm had been established on the outskirts of the dump. Every six months a family farm could produce up
to 1500 pounds of fertilizer that sells for $3 per 100 pounds. A pretty good potential income for workers who previously sold their product for merely pennies per 100 pounds, if not cheated by the middlemen.
Another important goal was to produce a public relations campaign that would create the idea that the people on the dump provided a valuable contribution to the community. They were central to the area’s recycling efforts, work with significant environmental implications. They were neighbors whose work had value.
However, to achievethese goals required money. With the help of Kim Johnson, the Care
representative in Quito, and Katy Orellana, the project director at the dump, the woman presented a proposal to Care for a $250,000 grant.
During the time we were filming, excitement about the Care grant ran high. The prospect that they might receive funding was all they talked about. There was a rising mood of optimism. We even filmed a high-hearted soccer game in the dump where the women joined their children playing
in a field they had cleared of garbage. It was an amazing, mind-bending sight.
One day Katy and Kim arranged a special celebration for the community. They had received word that the grant had been awarded. They told Mark and I, but the woman didn’t know. It would be a surprise. They thought they were gathering for a different reason. For days the women had expressed a desire to see the footage we had taken. Since we were shooting video, Mark edited a 30-minute collection of scenes from the camera’s playback monitor onto a VHS tape deck. Care provided a huge tv monitor so everyone could see. Presentation of the video would be the main event of the celebration. As the women moved through the mud and misty rain, it seemed they had been miraculously transformed. They were wearing their finest. Several were quite beautiful, many carrying or leading children fresh and scrubbed. It was hard to imagine these were the same women we filmed picking through the garbage. We created an improvised theater beneath a canvas canopy
behind one of the women’s house.
Many of the women had never seen television. One woman said she was afraid of television sets; afraid that the little people in there would come out and get her. When they began to see themselves, especially the close-ups, the images brought howls of laughter and applause. Obviously, the film was a great success.
Then Kim made the announcement about winning the grant from the Canadians. She began by talking about all the dreams the women had for the future. Then she shouted, “We got the grant!” Four words that would change the women and their children’s lives forever. The women were overcome by emotion. Tears flowed and women embraced. Champagne was served in paper cups. The women toasted the future and then the singing began. I don’t know what they were singing, but it was loud and it was joyous.
The Rio Tomebamba will continue to flow. The dump trucks will continue to come with their awful cargo. The rain will fall. The dogs will howl. The women will still work the
dump with their long, spiked poles. But they will work in safety and dignity and with a small flame of hope for the future.