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Activist says expansive open-air dump is killing people and threatening children

When the burning begins, teachers frantically evacuate students. Outside, they meet thick smoke enveloping the land. Children choke as they attempt to flee. Their frail bodies struggle to catch a breath as the sky looms gray and terrifying.

  • 10 months ago
  • August 14, 2023
4 min read
Faced with an economic crisis and a lack of ressources, Sergio Almada turned to garbage collecting in the region of La Quema. He quickly realized the negative effects the landfill had on the residents of the neighborhood and decided to fight, but plans to make change continue to face the fierce hand of business interests. Faced with an economic crisis and a lack of ressources, Sergio Almada turned to garbage collecting in the region of La Quema. He quickly realized the negative effects the landfill had on the residents of the neighborhood and decided to fight, but plans to make change continue to face the fierce hand of business interests. | Photo courtesy of Sergio Almada
INTERVIEW SUBJECT
Sergio Almada grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He worked as a garbage collector in the landfill known as La Quema. He is an also an activist, and one of the many residents affected by the garbage burning in the neighborhood. He openly speaks about the practices employed, and their effects on the local children.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Open dumps are sites where solid waste is disposed of indiscriminately, without operational control and with few environmental protection measures. In Argentina, there are more than 5,000 open air dumps, which means, on average, more than two dumps per municipality.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — When my father first arrived in Entre Ríos, he worked as a garbage collector. As a child, I watched mountains of waste grow from scratch in what became known as the landfill La Quema. For 50 years, authorities have deposited 120 tons of garbage into the landfill. Many families work there to earn a living.

I see the consequence of the practices employed at La Quema. The systemic burning of garbage has impacted the lives and health of generations. On top of respiratory problems, people suffer from gastrointestinal ailments, rheumatic issues, and zoonoses [diseases passed from animals to humans caused by harmful germs].

Read more stories in the Environmental category from Orato World Media.

When garbage burns during summer, the heat from the sun extends the fire, endangering houses and the elementary school, which sits just 200 meters away. When the burning begins, teachers frantically evacuate students. Outside, they meet thick smoke enveloping the land. Children choke as they attempt to flee. Their frail bodies struggle to catch a breath as the sky looms gray and terrifying. Every time this scene unfolds before me, it breaks my heart.

The practices at the dump turn more dangerous for residents nearby

Facing an economic crisis, I began working at Le Quema, as my father did two decades before. They paid me poorly, so I took on a second job as a street grubber to make extra cash. I worked in the garbage dump for about three years. As I sorted through the waste, I often found worms in my socks and flies landed all over my face.

With barely enough money to make ends meet, at times, my family and I resorted to eating leftovers we found in the dump. At those times, atmospheric tanks frequently poured liters and liters of liquid sewage in a sector of the property. One day, I noticed a huge boil on my nephew’s knee. I later found out that many of the children in the neighborhood experienced severe eczema. Eventually, one of my granddaughters was diagnosed with serious chronic respiratory problems. 

We took her to a doctor who advised us to leave the neighborhood as soon as possible, but we could not afford to go. Desperate to do something, we reasoned with the people in charge, speaking of the damage being done to the residents. We created a petition, and the entire neighborhood signed it, but nothing changed. Undeterred, we began holding assemblies to push them to stop dumping waste nearby. We hoped our efforts would make a difference.

The future remains uncertain and we fear for generations to come

Years went on, until finally, they heard our pleas. In October 2022, they decided to close the landfill and construct an environmental center. The plans included the installation of an integral waste treatment plant. It also meant they would improve working conditions for the waste pickers, with funds from the Inter-American Development Bank. 

The Environmental Center also included a daycare for the workers’ children. To date, 70 percent of the landfill is closed, and the new center is half-way complete. Just as our hope soared, a federal judge stopped the landfill reconversion project for no good reason. In January 2023, after a presentation at the Ministry of Environment of the Nation, officials revoked the injunction and the landfill resumed operating. A sense of distress permeated my entire being.

Every day, they burn the garbage on the landfill, resulting in heavy toxic smoke surrounding the residential areas around it. | Photo courtesy of Sergio Almada

The residents and our supporters hold onto our dream to convert the La Quema landfill to a recycling plant and environmental center where urban recyclers can work in decent conditions, but business interests continue to hinder our progress.

I feel so much despair today. An enormous sadness lingers, and I fear the project will be completely abandoned. Many people will suffer if they make that decision. Sick and starving families will be left to die. We have seen neighbors die in fires and drown in smoke, suffering from the many diseases this landfill brings. Something needs to be done, or else their blood will be on the hands of our officials.

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