Blurred by smoke and putrid steam, eagles and flocks of ravens hover overhead and swoop down to feast on colonies of rats. On the ground, a solitary pig roots through household debris, its snout buried in discarded plastic and rotting cardboard. This unappealing ecosystem in Kyrgyzstan is not merely home to wild animals: the Bishkek municipal dump, deemed a health hazard by ecologists, is also work site for human scavengers, mostly economic migrants from rural parts of Kyrgyzstan.
Single parent Aizat Isabekova and her four children one day recently could be seen sifting through the discarded bits of food and dead animals looking for plastic bottles to recycle. A migrant from southern Jalal-Abad Province, she has been living on the outskirts of Bishkek in informal accommodation for over two years. “You get used to it,” she says of the plumes of smoke that rise out of the rubbish mounds even in winter. “I can’t find work this profitable in the city.”
With the help of her children, who do not attend school because as a migrant she does not have the necessary documents to register them in Bishkek, Isabekova says she can bring in more than 500 soms (USD 11) a day. She sells plastic bottles for 30 tiyin to middlemen who resell them for 50 tiyin (one US cent) to vendors who wash and fill them with homemade dairy products and condiments.
Kemal, 43, and his wife Nurgul, 40, both of whom refused to provide a surname, have resided at the dump’s nearby novostroiki – new settlements – since migrating to Bishkek eight years ago. Kemal says his seven children live with their grandparents at home in Osh Province, where they go to school. “They don’t need to know how their parents earn a living,” he said.
Nevertheless, the couple admitted there are advantages to working at the dump. As she sorted through a bag of “perfectly good” discarded clothes, Nurgul said she used to work at a sausage factory but quit because scavenging for recyclables was more profitable. “What you can find here, you can sell. You don’t have to wait for a salary. Also, it is warm enough at the dump. Even in January and February, there’s no snow on the ground here.”
This phenomenon concerns ecologists. Dmitri Vytoshkin, a program coordinator at BIOM, a local environmental non-profit, explained why the dump “smokes” even in deep winter.
The fumes “are the result of a chemical reaction. The sun heats the mass of waste up, and the layers of plastic and glass prevent that heat from escaping. Without any oxygen, the waste beneath the surface neither burns [fully] nor decomposes, but smolders all year round,” he said. Vytoshkin estimated that temperatures at the bottom of the rubbish mounds were between 60-70 degrees centigrade.
The problem is festering.
According to Gulnara Ibraeva, an expert from the Social Technologies Agency, a Bishkek-based NGO researching social and gender issues, the dump has expanded from 10 hectares to over 25 hectares over the last eight years, and is now encroaching on the city limits. “The site has grown out of control. As many as 500 people work there now. Municipal authorities arrive periodically with heavy-duty packing machines to try and consolidate the waste, but young men working at the dump chase them away. Even the police are afraid of them,” Ibraeva told Eurasianet.
Many trash sorters have organized themselves into militant brigades in order to defend territory and economic interests. Explaining why a pitchfork-wielding man chased two Eurasianet correspondents from the site, Kemal said; “People don’t want their relatives to know that they work here. It can be seen as a disgrace. Perhaps he thinks you want to show Kyrgyz people in a bad light.”
Environmentalists are eager to find a solution, but realize they may have to choose between the lesser of two evils. In the last five years, Italian and Japanese investors have made separate offers to build a waste-incineration plant. The government announced at one point that both bids were successful, but so far there has been no more movement toward construction of such a plant. More recently, a domestic initiative to solve the problem by the end of 2010 has been delayed by ongoing political uncertainty.
Vytoshkin is one of many observers who feel the dump is an environmental time bomb. “Naturally, waste incineration factories [produce] their own negative environmental consequences; any plant would have to be in compliance with international standards,” he said. “But the alternative – no system of waste management at all – is worse. Here, livestock carcasses are dumped in the same place as household waste. No one knows what diseases these animals might have.”
While efforts to take decisive action have lost political momentum, Nurgul and her husband remain firmly opposed to any plans that might institutionalize waste management in the city. “What we do here might be dirty, but it is honest,” she said. “Why does the government want to prevent me from making a living? I don’t interfere with them, why should they interfere with us?”
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.