Sunday, September 4, 2011

Trashy Jobs

Santa Lucia is a barrio or neighborhood in the northwestern sector of Santiago, Dominican Republic. In many ways, it could be one of many barrios in the Caribbean nation. To a North American, of course, it seems to be woefully under developed; with a clay road which can be traversed only slowly, and housing made largely of stacked concrete blocks with tin roofs and few modern conveniences. But in a nation where 40% of the population lives in a situation of poverty, these conditions are hardly exceptional.
What does set Santa Lucia apart, however, is the giant landfill that dominates the “skyline” of the community, and the consequent lifestyle that has sprung up around it: that of the “buzos.” Buzos are individuals who make their living by digging through human trash, usually in order to find valuable items that can then be sold. The effects that this “profession” has on the already delicate public health of the region are deplorable; not only to the buzos themselves, who can, and do, pick up diseases while on the job, but also to the surrounding community.
Although difficult to quantify, the physiological effects of the buzos are equally damaging to the community. Elizabeth from the organization “Niños Con Un Esperanza (NCUE)” translated “children with hope” notes  (paraphrased from the original Spanish) “Children who grow up as buzos are extremely difficult to integrate back into regular society. It stays with them.” Elizabeth continued, saying “People of all ages usually get involved in buzo activity because they must. The high unemployment and lack of economic activity often leaves people with no other option than life as a buzo.”
In order to combat this alarming phenomenon, NCUE has proposed an ambitious program called “Reciclado de Deseclas Plasticos en el Sector de Santa Lucia” (Spanish for “recycling of the abandoned plastic in the Santa Lucia sector). This program would construct an easily accessible plastic recycling center within the community. The recycling center would be overseen and operated by NCUE and staffed by 20 people selected from the community. For Santa Lucia, this program would not only slightly ease the high unemployment by creating jobs for 20 community members, but also mean cleaner streets because it would provide buzos with the incentive to collect plastic. In addition, since plastic is a relatively safe material to handle, the buzos themselves would benefit because there would be less need for them pursue more dangerous material such as glass or metal. Perhaps most importantly, however, once the recycling center is able to become profitable, the  extra income would go to NCUE, which could then afford to take more children off the streets and away from the buzo life style. NCUE is currently applying for the prestigious ping grant to fund this community project. With this program we hope to improve the community by providing opportunities for dignified work,” says Elizabeth. “This directly benefits Santa Lucia with increased economic opportunities.”
Of course, no one program can solve a problem as pervasive and deleterious as that of the buzos overnight. However, organizations that persistently work on several fronts to remedy the situation can begin to make a difference. NCUE, for one, is currently working with over 200 children and providing them with a structured learning environment, life skills, and, in some cases, a first taste of human compassion. The program “Reciclado” would expand and augment this process by addressing the buzo issue more directly and providing alternative means of income for community members. Although small, this program would be a step towards a better life for many, and in a community like Santa Lucia, that is not to be ignored. “If nothing else” says Elizabeth, “we would like to provide the community with hope.”   
   -Joseph Strzempko 

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