Hundreds will be left without work next month with the closing of Stung Meanchey dump, an icon of poverty that has become an unlikely safety net for some of the city's poorest inhabitants.
Photo by: CHRISTOPHER SHAY
A woman combs through garbage at Stung Meanchey Municipal Dump on Monday, searching for recyclable goods that she can resell. Over the years, the dump has received a great deal of international attention, but next month, the government will close the infamous site, taking away the main source of income for hundreds of families.
SPRINTING towards an oncoming garbage truck, Phorn Sreymean hoped to beat a dozen other scavengers in fishing out the bottles and cans embedded in the garbage raining down from behind the vehicle.
For her efforts, repeated each time a truck trundle over the mounds of refuse msaking up Stung Meanchey dump, Phorn Sreymean said she might make 5,000 riels (US$1.25) in a day.
The 14-year-old said she began working the dump five years ago, after her parents divorced and she was forced to join her mother to help support the rest of her family.
Stung Meanchey dump has been written about, photographed and filmed, and through these stories, the hundreds of dirt-poor families who work the 40 hectares of steaming trash have become international icons of Third World poverty.
"The fact that so many foreigners want to come here shows that it has become a symbol of poor people in Cambodia," said Cindy Godden, an anthropology PhD candidate at the Australian National University who has been doing her fieldwork at the dump for a year.
But next month the site is to close, and the 1,000 tonnes of trash that arrive each day will instead be trucked to a new site located near Cheung Ek, about 15 kilometres outside of the city.
Scavengers will not be allowed, according to Sao Kunchhon the director of Phnom Penh Waste Management.
Though the dump has become a popular spot on the development tourism circuit, Phymean Noun, the director of the People Improvement Organisation, an NGO that runs three schools and a vocational training centre for families living near the dump, said the site is still "very dangerous".
In February, a cart on top of a dump truck tumbled onto a woman, causing her to fall headfirst onto her metal pick and killing her, Godden said, adding that, on average, one person dies a year in accidents at the dump.
Photo by: CHRISTOPHER SHAY
A young girl adjusts her gloves at the Stung Meanchey Municipal Dump on Monday. The government says the dumpsite will be closed next month.
Many others are injured - crushed by vehicles while competing for anything of value amid the trash - and the long-term health hazards of working in the stinging haze that engulfs the dump worries Phymean Noun, who says she sees many of her young students wheeze through class.
"[The students] have problems with their hair, heart and breathing.... The toxic smoke makes it hard for them to breathe," she said.
Yet news that the dump will be closed has instilled fear, rather than relief, in the people who depend on it.
According to Phymean Noun, the old site, which opened in 1965, is the main source of income for about 1,000 families.
"I am worried that when this dump site moves I won't be allowed to work anymore," Phorn Sreymean said, adding that losing her daily income would be a disaster for her family.
Only about five families actually live on the dump, while most of the others live in surrounding communities.
Phymean Noun estimates that only about 30 percent will move once Stung Meanchey closes, leaving hundreds of families without work.
Phorn Sreymean worked in the city before, collecting plastic bags from the garbage outside of people's homes, and she said she expects to return to this once the dump closes.
But she said she prefers the dump site, where she can work without being looked down upon by others.
I don’t want this place to close ... how can i live if this dump site is closed.
"I used to work in city, and it was difficult for me, because most house owners don't allow me to take their plastics. Sometimes they yelled at me," she said.
But Sao Kunchhon vowed that the city would not abandon the scavengers and hoped that closing down the dump site would force them to improve their lives, adding that the municipality is working with NGOs to provide employment skills for these families.
"Stopping them from working at the dump site does not mean we will make them suffer," he said. "We want them to have good health and work."
No matter the risks, Oum Ren, 56 who collects recyclables, said she wants to stay at the dump and does not know how she will make a living when it closes.
"I don't want this place to close, because I will lose a lot money that I need to survive ... how can I live if this dump site is closed?" she said.
Despite a 50 percent drop in the price of recycled goods since last year, Godden said that every week new people are arriving at the dump because it can still provide enough to live.
In April, the municipality approved a proposal that would turn the dump into a source for methane gas that could potentially provide electricity for 3,000 families.
In order to collect the gas, a joint German-Cambodian company will cover the landfill with soil and plant trees on top. The ultimate goal, said Chau Kim Heng, Chau Kim Heng, director of the Cambodian Education and Waste Management Organisation, is to capture all emissions and control the toxic leakage from the dump.
Though Phorn Sreymean fears what will happen to her family when the site closes, she does not want to work at the dump forever. She has another dream:
"Sometimes I am really disappointed with myself that I was born into a very poor family and have to work at the dump since I was young," Phorn Sreymean said. "I want to be a beautician."