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New dump at Choeung Ek
Many scavengers now commute from Stung Meanchey to the new dump at Choeung Ek, which the government once claimed would not be accessible to the freelance recyclers. Charlotte Pert

Scavengers linger at long-dead dump site

When Stung Meanchey dump closed six years ago, a new site opened in Choeung Ek. But the network of NGOs that the old dump spawned ensured that many scavengers stayed put

Scavengers at Choeung Ek search the dump during the night, and sort through their pickings in the day
Scavengers at Choeung Ek search the dump during the night, and sort through their pickings in the day. Charlotte Pert

The Stung Meanchey rubbish dump was once a notorious symbol of poverty in the developing world. Images of scavenger families sleeping under makeshift shelters around – sometimes even on top of – “Smoky Mountain” snowballed around the global media, and encounters with children sifting through waste for recyclables led to the founding of a flurry of NGOs, who sought to transport the dump’s 1,000-odd families away from a world of dangerous, backbreaking labour.

Today, almost six years after its closure, the dump is still there: a strange, silent hillock topped with grass and shrubby bushes, with plastic bags and other non-compostables peppering its sides. But rather than contracting or shutting down when the site closed, the work of aid organisations in the area has been expanding ever since.

Buildings, buses and the clothes of chattering children remain emblazoned with the cheerful logos of a multitude of benefactors. Since 2009, Phnom Penh’s scavengers have been working a new site – trucks now tip their loads seven kilometres down the road in Choeung Ek commune. But it’s Stung Meanchey that continues to bustle with activity.

Sreydouch’s son helps out recycling after school.
Sreydouch’s son helps out recycling after school. Charlotte Pert

“[The government] just closed the dump – it doesn’t resolve the problem of poverty,” Pin Sarapich explained. Sarapich is the director of Pour un Sourire d’Enfant – an NGO that began bringing meals to dump workers in 1995, and today provides schooling, vocational training and healthcare services to some 3,000 families in Stung Meanchey and beyond.

Sarapich says that once the dump was picked dry, many scavengers left for the provinces, to work elsewhere in the city, or to follow the promise of government relocation schemes. But the compact network of NGOs entrenched around Stung Meanchey meant that for many families, sticking around their old workplace was the best option.

Din Chor, 36, has been seeking employment as a construction worker and working as a motodop for the past six years. He lives on the perimeter of the dump, in a village where some houses are currently half submerged in dirty water following the filling in of an adjacent flood plain.

But he insists that the neighbourhood has improved greatly since the noxious dump stopped receiving fresh loads, and he knows that this is a place his family can be sure of getting the help they need. “There are still many NGOs that continue to help,” he said. “It is better that we can take our children to school regularly.”  

As well as providing a schooling network that has left few children unaccounted for, NGOs offer support to families who keep their children in class. Chor’s family receives a rice stipend, while other organisations offer cash to compensate families for the loss of a wage earner.

Grass grows out of rubbish at Stung Meanchey.
Grass grows out of rubbish at Stung Meanchey. Charlotte Pert

It’s an approach that has its risks. Muriel Stockheim runs the small educational NGO A New Day Cambodia, which caters to about 80 students. The organisation used to give local families $10 a month per child in their system, but recently it has reduced that amount to $8. “I could see that the families were getting too dependent,” she said.

Stockheim is aware of the bind that aid can produce if it incentivises families to stay in unfavourable living conditions. “I think we have not even a third [of pupils’ homes] that I think would be hygienic or safe,” she said, adding that although most children at ANDC are weekly boarders, sometimes the family situation is deemed too severe: “Our littlest fellow here, we won’t even let him go home, and the mother agrees.” Sometimes it’s the physical environment that she deems to be unsafe, but often it’s the social setting – a family history of drugs, alcohol addiction or violence is common.

But Stockheim believes the alternative for former scavengers is far worse. “If the kids weren’t here, what would they be doing and where would the families be? I really think they’d be on the street.” 

One of the largest organisations operating in Stung Meanchey is the Cambodian Children’s Fund. From humble origins in 2004 – their goal was to cater to the educational needs of 80 children working on the dump – they now work with 10,000 individuals, and have expanded into many impoverished areas of Phnom Penh.

When the government failed to put in place any social programs following the dump’s closure, CCF expanded the resources and training it provided to adults to fill the void. Then, two years ago, they began building housing on the scrubland around the old dump – more than 200 are already occupied by CCF families, and more construction is on the horizon.

Some workers say Choeung Ek offers richer pickings than the old dump.
Some workers say Choeung Ek offers richer pickings than the old dump. Charlotte Pert

As a result of their provisions, Sok Channouern – Country Manager of CCF – estimates that 80 per cent of the families they were involved with pre-closure have stayed in the area: far higher than the 30 to 40 per cent that local residents’ estimate to be the overall average.

Their success has left them reckoning with some unanticipated scenarios, including desperate families migrating to Stung Meanchey to try and access support.

“But at CCF we work very smart on that – we don’t just accept anyone who comes in that migrated a few weeks ago,” Channouern explained.

Stung Meanchey continues to play a central role in the work of these three NGOs and others like them. Stories of encounters on the dump are recounted on their websites, and PSE’s home-page navigation icon remains an image of workers walking across the waste, although Sarapich said they planned to update it very soon. 

What is strikingly absent is any mention of the dump’s successor.

When it took over in 2009, the Choeung Ek dump site was heralded by the government as a scavenger-free zone. But Choeung Ek has mushroomed into a sprawling mountain of rubbish, and the scavengers have flocked to it, with some claiming that pickings are richer than at the old site.

Although there are some permanent encampments around the site, it has none of the sprawling slums of its predecessor: most people who work there are commuters, choosing to stay based in their old homes in Stung Meanchey.

There are some shacks at the new dump, but most workers commute.
There are some shacks at the new dump, but most workers commute. Charlotte Pert

Deoun Sreydouch, 30, travels to the dump with her husband for about three days at a time. The couple work nights and sleep outside in the days to avoid having to pay to rent – land at Choeung Ek is expensive – and earn between 20,000 and 30,000 riel per day between them. Their children board with an NGO.

Sman Mok, 27, helps the couple to pick through a pile of metal and plastic salvaged from the dump. “There are only a few organisations in this place unlike the old dump,” she said. “We searched to ask [CCF] to help the children to get an education.”

Channouern from CCF explained that the absence of many NGOs at the new dump was intentional. “If we move there, it will seem like we are encouraging them to relocate,” she said.

For some, this position is contradictory. Sophal Ear, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, is an academic who studies the difficult consequences of entrenched NGO culture. “[CCF are] basically saying that the people who are living in the new dump shouldn’t get the services of CCF because ‘we don’t want to encourage that’,” he said when asked for comment via Skype. “By virtue of that logic, why is CCF still at Stung Meanchey?”

Channoern counters that the distinction is clear: the families at Stung Meanchey had been entrenched for decades, whereas scavengers had to make a choice to move to Choeung Ek.

It is hoped that avoiding the creation of a new NGO-dependent community at Choeung Ek will help limit new instances of the bind that Stung Meanchey’s benefactors must reckon with: if they weren’t there, what would happen? It’s what Ear describes as the “Good Samaritan dilemma”.

In Stung Meanchey, the old dump is a stone’s throw from CCF’s housing.
In Stung Meanchey, the old dump is a stone’s throw from CCF’s housing. Charlotte Pert

“It’s basically a game of chicken with the government,” he said. Although the government has announced that it wants to take over from NGO providers, it has not stepped up to the mark. Long Dimanche, spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipality, told Post Weekend that the government had no projects planned for the area.

Although the NGO network around Stung Meanchey looks likely to expand further before it contracts, both the families and the organisations that cater for them say they want to end the system of dependence.

“We don’t want to keep everyone with us for a lifetime just so we have work to do,” said Channouern.

Ex-scavenger Hong Sokly, 37, echoes the sentiment. “I was born on the dump and had no education,” she said. Although she is living only a stone’s throw from her old workplace, her environment today is greatly altered. She is the proud resident of one of CCF’s new houses, and her six children are all in school. “I only hope that all my children will have a bright future and escape from this place.”

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