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Jakarta’s Trash Mountain: ‘When People Are Desperate for Jobs, They Come Here’


BEKASI, Indonesia — Even in the pouring rain, in the middle of the night, they are out scavenging, wearing headlamps to scan a mountain of rotting garbage more than 15 stories high.

The trash pickers, some trudging up the heap in mismatched plastic boots, use a hooked metal tool called a “ganco” to flip items over their heads and into large rattan baskets strapped on their backs. A few sort through the trash with their bare hands.

The stench is overpowering, but it’s only one of many workplace hazards. As they pick through the jumble looking for discarded wood, cardboard, plastic tarps and anything else that can be recycled, they must be careful not to come too close to the bulldozers distributing the waste across an ever-rising plateau. Landslides are a constant danger.

This is Bantar Gebang, one of the world’s largest landfills, more than 200 football fields in size, accepting as much as 7,000 tons of waste a day from Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.

Processing all that trash is a 24-hour operation. On a typical day, a thousand orange trucks, filled with garbage and surrounded by hordes of buzzing flies, line up at the base of the landfill to dump their loads. Like a mechanical bucket brigade, giant excavators then relay the waste to the top, more than 150 feet above.

Dozens of squalid villages have sprung up around the mountain. Officials say about 6,000 people reside near the landfill, eking out a living from the trash. Local residents put the number at 20,000.

In some families, children as young as 5 scour for usable trash alongside their parents, said Asep Gunawan, the head of Bantar Gebang district, which includes the landfill.

“They have kindergarten and Quran study there, and when they finish that, they help their parents,” Mr. Asep said. “It is easy to pick trash with just an iron stick. And they have no other choice.”

The trash pickers, known in Indonesian as “pemulung,” typically earn from $2 to $10 a day, from the plastic, metal, wood and electronic waste they collect. Even animal bones have value, used to make jewelry or as an ingredient in floor tiles or concrete.

A few entrepreneurs have set up makeshift shelters on wooden pallets where they sell drinks, snacks and cigarettes to those working the pile.

When the facility is operating at full tilt, hundreds of scavengers swarm around the heavy equipment rumbling on the mountain. But the global economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic has reached even here, adding to the misery.

Most recycling companies that buy waste from the trash pickers have closed their doors, so fewer pemulung are working because they have no place to sell what they collect, said Resa Boenard, co-founder of Seeds of Bantar Gebang, a nonprofit that helps the community.

New social distancing rules imposed by the provincial government took effect this month in Bantar Gebang, prompting even more trash pickers to stay off the pile.

“Since the virus has spread around the world, it has made life even harder now,” Ms. Resa said. “Most of them are staying at home because they cannot sell plastic anymore.”

As of Sunday, Indonesia had reported 8,882 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with 743 deaths. Jakarta, a city of about 11 million, has been the hardest hit, with about half the confirmed cases. The virus has also spread to neighboring communities, including Bekasi, where the landfill is.

No cases of the virus have been reported in the landfill’s villages, but no one has been tested there, either, said Mr. Asep, the district head. The trash pickers don’t qualify for government coronavirus aid because they are not registered as residents.

There is a widespread belief in Indonesia that living in unsanitary conditions helps people build immunity to diseases like the coronavirus — an unscientific view that will be put dangerously to the test in the landfill’s shantytowns.

“People in Bantar Gebang are not really scared about this virus,” said Ms. Resa, 34. “I don’t see it has really changed their habits.”

She was 6 when her family moved to the area. Her parents bought a rice field, but it was eventually swallowed up by the ever-growing mountain of trash.

At school, other children called her “Princess of the Dump” because her clothes smelled of the landfill. The nickname stuck. But she excelled in her studies and a Turkish family gave her a scholarship to help her through university.

She could have been one of the few to escape the landfill for a better life, but she returned to help the families there, especially the children.

Now, with the economic slowdown, her organization helps feed 600 families a day and has launched a campaign seeking donations.

“People don’t need masks or hand sanitizer,” she said. “People need food to feed their families.”

One volunteer in the makeshift community is Juni Romamti Ezer Laumakani, a soap salesman who lives about 20 minutes away. He has been giving children at the dump free guitar lessons for 15 years.

Because of the pandemic, he stopped the lessons a month ago but still visits the villages to check on the families and offer encouragement.

“Even though they have collected a lot of trash, they have no place to sell it,” said Mr. Juni, 40. “So those things have no value. And it’s stressing them out, too. There’s no income but they still have expenses.”

The landfill opened more than 30 years ago, and residents of the surrounding district have long complained about the stench and the skin problems they suffer.

“The ground water in the landfill area is contaminated, and they cannot use the water anymore,” said Mr. Asep, the local official. “All of the people are upset.”

Most of those who have migrated to Banter Gebang were farmers whose crops failed during the dry season. Some have stayed for a decade or more.

“When people are desperate for jobs, they come here,” Ms. Resa said.

Although fewer trash pickers are working, the garbage trucks keep coming. Many items that could be recycled are instead being buried under the incoming crush.

Ms. Resa hopes Jakarta residents will get the message to throw away less stuff.

“We are telling people in Jakarta, ‘please reduce your waste,’” she said. “We can’t process it because we can’t sell it. It just makes the mountain grow higher.”

Adam Dean reported from Bekasi, Indonesia, and Richard C. Paddock from Bangkok. Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting from Bangkok, and Dera Menra Sijabat from Jakarta.

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