Article written and published for Victoria Street Newz - June 2011, Volume 8 #3

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Dear Couz ......
Puerta Vallarta’s Garbage Dump

by Jennifer Hastie

Hi Couz!

We’re back from Mexico with news to report: the highlight of our trip was a tour of the Puerto Vallarta garbage dump to witness the ongoing re-cycling occurring and the efforts to improve the awful working and living conditions there.

While we were staying in a resort called “Paradise Village,” we learned that it was possible for us to take a tour of the Puerto Vallarta garbage dump. The tour brochure emphasized that this would be an uplifting, positive experience for us. It was free, supported by the resort who supplies the Van and the gas to drive us there and back.

Why would a resort sponsor such a program? Well, Couz, the owner of this resort was once an immigrant to Canada, actually, to North Vancouver. He made a fortune, apparently, and decided that he would show his appreciation for his success in the First World by helping to make the Third World a better place. Through his support of a small Canadian non-profit organization, he has enabled millions of dollars to be raised and directly applied to the garbage dump issue.

There were 8 other people on the tour that morning along with the two of us. John, a volunteer working for the Canadian non-profit group, helps to run free tours out to the dump 5 days a week from the resort. The Van was driven by Randy, another Canadian volunteer. John and his wife appear to run the Canadian non-profit society mostly via e-mails and a website, allowing a great deal of money to be filtered directly to the “pickers” at the dump without the intervention of a large office and paid staff.

Along with the others in the Van and 2 or 3 regular volunteers that morning, we did a little work for the families who live here. My husband became a “bean counter,” measuring out beans to package and place in the store that is operated and run by local garbage dump personnel. I volunteered for the preschool program. My work entailed rocking young babies and looking after preschoolers who are dropped off by their moms at the Center. This program allows the mothers to shop, work in the dump or in the small service areas that the volunteer group and the garbage dump people have developed. The Moms can bring a spare set of clothes for the children and those clothes will be washed and returned by the end of the day. I was lucky to escape holding the baby who poo’d over one of the other volunteers!

Another volunteer from Canada eagerly showed us the computer program for young people and the two small classrooms that they are running for the children. They also have small groups for parents in computer skills and English in the evenings. Also, in the evenings, the young people can play on soccer teams, coached mainly by the fathers of the households of this impoverished community.

How the store is run is interesting. Everything costs 10 pesos (about $1.00). Depending on how valuable the item is, they can purchase 1, 2, or 3 of the item for the price of 10 pesos. “It helps us sort out who is really hungry and who isn’t,” says a Canadian volunteer. For example, anyone whose family is really hungry will pick a bag full of beans, rather than a sugary breakfast cereal for their family.

We were asked not to take any pictures. The organization wants to prevent pictures of the dump from showing up on the internet. They also want us to respect the individuals whose lives we are peering at from our protected role as people from the First World. The dump merely looks like a bald hillside from our vantage point.

One member of the group asked about the water on the road. “You don’t want to ask,” says John, “just don’t drink it.” He mentioned that a delivery truck comes a couple of times a week to fill barrels with drinkable water.

As we drove slowly along the dirt road next to the dump, John continued to tell us about the problems and successes that their organization has had. Occasionally a religious word would pop in to his vocabulary, but promoting the Christian religion is very far from his goal.

Small businesses, for example, a store and a restaurant under a tarp, have been started. Others run stores from makeshift shelters where they live. John explains how a recent lengthy power outage (weather related) in the surrounding community was a great boon for the population here. The outage allowed them to hook their shelters up to electricity, without running the risk of being electrocuted in the process.

In contrast to Mexico City, the Puerto Vallarta city government is understanding of the people who live in the dump. Such an electrical “procedure” is not contested by them. Also, when the volunteer organization is able to build low-cost housing, the city government has said that it will supply electricity, water, and sewage to the housing development. On the other hand, our understanding of the Mexico City dump situation is that the low-cost housing development there has to wait 3 years before the government will supply any services to the people who have been relocated. I remember a tour guide mentioning this fact as we drove to an historical site outside Mexico City on a day tour back in 2005. The guide was rather critical and unconcerned about homeless people who are struggling to survive in their massive garbage dump. Yet, that group has managed to develop a school classroom and a soccer field built right within the dump. As of 2005, the “pickers” were still living in amongst the garbage. In Puerto Vallarta, thanks to the owner of Paradise Village, the Canadian organization has managed to relocate the pickers to the edge of the dump within only 5 years.
The resilience of the human being in the face of such extreme poverty is incredibly uplifting!

The Puerto Vallarta dump recycling project consists chiefly of plastics and metals from the First World tourists, along with some First World garbage that wafts in from the ocean. The dumpsters ship the sorted items to places like Japan for re-manufacturing.

Alas, the garbage pickers will experience a sharp decline in sales of their raw material since Japan’s earthquake disaster. It has affected their manufacturers’ ability to access power for their plants. In addition, the present tourist season in Mexico is now coming to a close because the weather is simply getting too hot for North Americans to come south any more this year.

“What about social problems,” we ask. “Drugs and violence are present in this group, too,” replies John. He says that the only thing that “works” in the end is the volunteers’ role modelling. Also, Mexico is still a macho society and when that kind of culture goes off the rails, the women and the children suffer.

There is also prejudice toward the garbage dump people from the surrounding community. One situation that provided a new understanding occurred when the community noticed that some male adults from the garbage dump group were observed to be good soccer players. It was arranged through the garbage dump soccer coach that these players would play on the local soccer team. From there, attitudes began to change on both sides.

You know, Couz, I learned a great deal on this trip about the survival of human beings in the face of extremely bad conditions. However, I also learned that:

  • Even if you’re rich, you can still have a heart of gold and care for those less fortunate than yourself, your network of friends, or your family.
  • I learned that a handful of people from Canada, formed to make a non-profit society, have done wonders in 5 years at the Puerto Vallarta garbage dump for a large group of disadvantaged people. More information on this group, a registered non-profit society in Canada, can be accessed by computer at www.familiesatthedump.org. They will appreciate any amount of money, should you wish to donate to them.
  • I learned that it is possible to stay in a fancy, First World resort and still volunteer time to help others so much worse off than yourself.
  • I learned that Walmart and Sam’s Club do a lot of donating behind the scenes in Mexico.
  • I learned that re-cycling must become a global issue, where cooperation and economic supports are put in place among all countries before we poison everyone on earth and deplete our natural resources.
  • I learned that resistance is sometimes a sign of hope within the impoverished; for some who are resistant have simply not let life knock the stuffing out of them.
  • I learned that human beings, even in the face of extremely poor living conditions, can survive and strive to improve their lot in life, especially if they are given a small hand up, rather than a hand out.
  • I learned that the proper term for the “Mexican language” is really the “Castillian language.” The Spaniards invaded Mexico and plundered the people of Mexico and countries all up and down the North and South American coast for 400 years. The Spanish even came as far as north as Yuquot, known as “Friendly Cove,” on our West Coast. These Spaniards came from the province of Castille. They were brutal, cruel and destructive, robbing New World peoples of their gold, their health, their lives, their self respect, their system of government and their trust of strangers.
  • I re-learned that there’s a common spiritual bond among all indigenous peoples, perhaps all over the world. It seems to me, Couz, that the non-native conquerors from the First World, driven by power and economic opportunity, are really the odd men out, not the conquered peoples who continue to suffer the effects of Colonialism today.

Jennifer and her husband live in Victoria today. She is a healthy, active senior who enjoys writing volunteer articles for various publications.


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