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Environmental Justice

Health and environmental justice are important topics that have grave implications in La Carpio. These terms are a little vague, so let me provide a little background.

Put simply, research in the U.S. has shown that hazardous waste sites are disproportionately located near poor and black communities (Robert Bullard). That is, if you look at the socioethnic demographics of communities living near hazardous waste sites, you are likely to see more poor and black people living in those areas – not white, middle-class, suburban residents. There are lots of reasons for this, but the result is a cruel impact that affects these populations worse than other groups. The most impacting descriptions of this I read in the books “Amazing Grace” and “Ordinary Resurrections,” in which the author casually describes the impact of a hospital incinerary on the children in the South Bronx. Of course, there are other factors, including lead-based paint and faulty construction – all of which create quite horrifying health hazards for children in the area.

La Carpio is currently the location of Costa Rica’s largest sanitary landfill, receiving 1200 tons of the country’s solid waste, per day. The garbage dump is a Canadian owned company (EBI) with the polite euphemistic label of the “Parque de Tecnologia Ambiental” – the Environmental Technology Park (PTA Uruka). The misleading site name is so painfully blatant, it is not surprising that the surrounding La Carpio community through which the 1200 tons of garbage passes every day is anything but “sanitary.” Although I never heard anyone complain of the garbage dump within La Carpio, I know that rich foreign property buyers across the valley have complained frequently about the smell, including a blog called “Save Cariari” that was written in an attempt to save the elite guarded community across the valley from the woes of the landfill eyesore and the accompanying odors that waft across the valley. The author of the website is aware, I am sure, of the La Carpio community of 30,000 “squatters” without legal possession of their land living on the same peninsular protrusion of land as the garbage dump. However, most of the complaints about infractions of the landfill on the “people” refer to the rich people in luxurious homes across the valley and their eighteen-hole golf course of the Cariari Country Club.

I feel a little convicted as I write this particular entry, because it is probably quite insulting to suggest that the commendable efforts of the people in the La Carpio community toward building a better life occurs within this material context of pollution and health risks. I never got the impression from those I lived with that we were living on a trash heap. I even observed an internal stratification within which those who gleaned through garbage and worked the trash route seemed to be at the bottom end. However, I have chosen to exclude the dignity, resourcefulness, and pride of the La Carpio community members from this particular account, in the hopes of being more detailed and explicit about the very real environmental hazards that they face. The La Carpio community is less than 25 years old… more aggressive confrontation of these issues could avert the same plight that we have irreparably constructed into our U.S. society.

Some of the pioneering members of the community, particularly those in the area in which I lived, are aware that the terrain was originally used as a disposal site for hospital waste. Anecdotal accounts tell of bones, bags of blood, hands, syringes, and all sorts of horrifying medical waste that had to be cleared in order to make the place inhabitable. The sanitary landfill, if I understand correctly, was officially inaugurated in 2000. To be fair, its presence is controversial to members of the community, and EBI has assisted the community in various ways such as sponsoring soccer teams and building a classroom location (one of the three elementary school sites). That is, it has made attempts (with sugary PR releases) to compensate the community in various ways in exchange for their presence in the community.

Indeed, a good deal of the local economy seems to revolve around what is true utilitarian recycling, resourced by the garbage trucks’ daily route through the community. Costa Rica boasts a “culture of recycling”, which often shows up by artistically re-purposing pieces of trash. I didn’t see any native examples of this, although outside parties (myself included) tried to experiment with various ways of making artisan crafts out of local garbage, and get people interested in it. In La Carpio, the reality of waste re-purposing is a complex system that is quick, dirty, and purely utilitarian. I cannot say for certain if the trash circuit is formalized, but a brief description of my observation follows…

The garbage trucks thunder across the thin land bridge, and slow down for the first “muerto” (speed bump). The first buildings on the right of the community are always open during the week while the garbage trucks run, one with the cryptic message “Dios Padre / Bless takers” spraypainted across its grey doors. Young males from about 14 and up leap onto the trucks and begin pulling off anything that can be re-purposed – computer parts, wood fragments, electronics, etc… They then drag these mangled masses of trash back to the huge buildings where they break them down into their most elemental form. Signs at the entrance explain the price given for different raw materials – copper, aluminum, bronze, etc…. Copper seems to be the most valuable – most electronics and wiring can be broken apart for their copper innards. Some of the trucks slow down or stop, and some seem to have special loads of salvageable waste, some of which can be repaired and resold within the community. I suspect that some of the electronics I saw used in the homes, such as televisions and computers, had been repaired at one of the many shops on the main road. There are places along the main road that specialize in various forms of re-purposing and repair – carpentry, electronics, clothing, etc…. I was never able to understand how much of this process is formalized, and which parts were ad hoc. For example, I can’t tell why some trucks slow down, and others barrel through. Some require the kids to clamber up top and push materials off the top in a race before the truck gets to the dump, causing a rain of plastics and electronics to fall from the several meters high the entire length of the main road through the community (a 1.2 km stretch, taking about 5 minutes by vehicle without traffic). As I mentioned before, there is a progression of trash quality and even social position on the trash route, which I only know of because the family of one of our computer technicians claims that pulling materials at the entrance to the community is inferior work to going to scout out junk at an undisclosed location near Channel 13, the news station at the other end of the land bridge connecting the community with the rest of the city by road. The Dios Padre/Bless Takers location is dirtier and will make you sick, they explained. Indeed, it looks like brutal, exhausting, dangerous work.

The environmental hazards do not stop with the garbage dump, but this is probably the environmental characteristic most closely linked with the economy of the community. The two rivers enclosing La Carpio feed into what later becomes the most polluted river in central america (Rio Tarcoles), by some accounts. A confidential wikileak document notes that rivers and water treatment in Costa Rica is basically non-existent (less than 3% of wastewater is treated before being dumped in the rivers and ocean). La Carpio is near the end of these rivers’ route through the city, which is part of the reason a water treatment plant is scheduled to be constructed there in 2015. At the entrance to the community while I lived there, two signs were put up protesting the installation of the water treatment plant. One of the rivers is dammed at the far end of La Carpio to generate hydroelectric electricity, which travels into the city via high-voltage towers passing over the community.

And here I will enter into a short imaginative exercise that has no scientific basis, but is interesting to consider. First of all, if we consider the total OUTPUT of work, power, and resources that flow outward from La Carpio, and compare that to the amount of resourcing INPUT from the city, I would estimate there is a considerable amount of imbalance. Most of what comes IN is pollution from the rivers, garbage from the city, discrimination and insults from the media and general public, and police force. The tally of what goes OUT is countless jiggawatts of hydroelectric power, recycled raw materials, busloads of workers in the morning taking jobs no one else is willing to do, and sand from the cement quarry. In summary, you’ve got a lot of garbage and waste heaped into the community from the outside, while simultaneously the country is extracting every natural and human resource it can possibly take. This is a dangerous, exploitative relationship.

Watch/listen to an original presentation I wrote about environmental justice issues in La Carpio

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