The smoke from burning garbage is dense over Hulene. It is almost 40°C, and pearls of sweat are dripping from my forehead. A group of informal workers, four men and one woman, are staring at me as I approach.
Hulene is Maputo’s only landfill. About 800 tonnes of garbage is dumped here daily, overflowing the walls of the dump and spreading into the surrounding residential area. Informal garbage collectors, nearly 300 in total, are scavenging around broken glass, toxic flames and empty drinks cans.
“We are here because we are poor”, says Augusto Enoque, one of the informal collectors.
Hulene is the result of decades of uncontrolled urbanisation. The protracted, 15-year civil war left the country’s infrastructure in ruins, and by the time of the Rome Peace Accords in 1992, Mozambique was one of the world’s poorest countries.
Marco Correia, who has conducted research with regard to waste management in Hulene, explains that Maputo served as a safe-zone during the civil war.
“Of course, everyone wanted to be in the safe-zone”, he tell Think Africa Press. “People began to settle in the outskirts of the city, which resulted in a semi-urban zone around Maputo. There were no roads, no structures, no laws – just dirt, dirt and more dirt. It was an irregular urbanisation –and the government had no time to do anything about it.”
According to UNICEF, between 1970 and 1990 Mozambique’s annual urbanisation rate was 8.3%. This rate dropped to 5.7% between 1990 and 2010, and is projected to decrease to 3.8% over the next 20 years. By 2010, 38% of the population lived in urban areas, adding to an already congested urban waste management system.
Today, Hulene extends over an area of 17 hectares. According to Hafido Abacassamo, former director of waste management at the municipality, Hulene is the only solution at the moment.
“The landfill is causing major problems for the environment, such as toxic methane gas releases, fires, disease and security”, he says. “But it is a problem that the city needs. Without a place where you can dump the waste, the municipality cannot guarantee any waste collection at all!”
The dump lacks the resources needed for effective and sustainable waste management. Bulldozers even out the waste, and organic rubbish rots, while everything else grows into huge piles. This follows a continent-wide trend – a 2009 report by the Economic Commission for Africa notes that “poor waste management practices…aggravates the problems of generally low sanitation levels across the African continent”.
“It hurts to see”, Correia says. “The environmental degradation that is going on there is shocking. I am sure that the drainage system is very polluted, but no-one wanted to provide me with data.”
For the informal garbage collectors Augosto Enoque, Paulino Angelo, Augosto Fernando, Joaquim Alberto and Milegrosa Inacio, Hulene is the only source of income they know. All were born and raised in Hulene.
“We used to come here and play when we were children”, they tell Think Africa Press. “Now, we are looking for plastics, metals and glass, which can bring in some money.”
For 1kg they can get .03 MZN (about $0.10) and during a working day they can collect about 10kg. Work is not organised and cooperation is rare.
“This is individual work”, says Inacio. “It is only about friendship, there is no team.”
So far, everyone still feels healthy, but the dump is a dangerous place. Violence is common, as are fires, and the heavily polluted air will eventually affect their health. And because of the work they do, many people discriminate against them.
“They see you as a member of an inferior race”, says Alberto.
Solutions have been presented, both short- and long-term. But so far, state resources, know-how and willingness to invest in sustainable waste management have been lacking. And given that there are only six garbage trucks in Maputo, the solution must come from either the private sector or from the donor community. Marco refers to some small social entrepreneurs who did successfully engage in garbage collection. But in order to succeed in the long-term, it must be conducted on a larger scale and in a more formalised manner.
For private investors, Hulene is still not interesting. Correia describes the conundrum:
“On the one hand, we produce more waste than we can handle. On the other hand, it is not enough to generate any kind of profit.”
The aim is to close Hulene in 2014 and open a new, more high-tech landfill in Matola. But few believe that the timetable will hold – there are simply not enough resources. Almost half the national budget comes from foreign aid, and education, healthcare and poverty reduction are the top priorities.
“No city in Mozambique can afford to fully finance waste management”, says Abacassamo. “The cost of a landfill is enormous, not to mention the investment that needs to be done in the process of garbage collection, handling and recycling.”
Closing the landfill would also have negative consequences for the more than 300 informal garbage collectors who earn their living there. Enoque and his friends are aware of the risk. “If it happens, we will find the new location and continue to work there to survive. Just like now”, he says.
Their fate shows how Hulene is more than an environmental problem. As in many other developing countries, factors like poverty, a lack of resources and know-how interact.
“It is a social problem, a health problem, an urban management problem and a government problem”, says Correia. “Maputo recently celebrated 125 years as a city. That is 125 years of garbage.”
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