San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Scavenging in the Central Valley Dump

It’s nine in the morning, and one of the dump trucks just dropped off a nearly full five-gallon bucket of sherbet in the heart of the sprawling Río Azul dump.

The buzos, or scavengers, gather around like hungry puppies fiendishly competing for a mother’s tit. Some use halves of twoliter Coke bottles to scoop out their share of the bright tangerine substance, which is a sharp contrast to the grimy scene around it.

Once they’ve had their share, they go back to work,where each heaping delivery of trash is pounced upon like airdropped emergency supplies in a devastated war zone.

A dump truck pulls up and lifts its hatch. Buzos gather around and wait behind it, moving about anxiously. Like working out a boisterous mechanical bowel movement, the truck squeezes out eight tons of its waste innards at them. The dump truck pulls away, and buzos mount the mound of refuse it leaves behind, pulling out broken umbrellas, hamburgers, shirts and mystery bags.

It’s like taking an every-man-for-himself game of King of the Mountain and adding the danger of heavy machinery and countless health hazards. Only it’s more real, because this is no game – it’s how they eat.

“The men get up on the trucks and get the food. It’s good stuff. A woman can’t grab anything,” said Angela Cano, one of more than a dozen women who work as buzos at the dump.

Nearby, a woman roots through a pile of red bags fresh from the hospital. They contain medical waste, and have labels on them that read “dangerous waste.” Pedro Bolaños, 33, who started working here at age 13, said he was once rooting around in the trash and pulled out his hand with a needle stuck in it.

Lucrecia Zúñiga, the landfill administration’s spokeswoman, later told The Tico Times that “in theory” medical waste shouldn’t be arriving at the dump, and clients bringing trash should inform the dump ahead of time about any potentially dangerous materials so they can be put in an area separate from where recyclers work.

She said many dumpers are unaware or negligent of the rules, but added that the dump administrator “can’t review the trash bag by bag.”

For buzos, the enemies are dust and wind and putrid rot and syringes and toxic juices and rats and pitiless sun.

Groaning mammoth metal beasts cast shadows across them and the sea of waste in which they labor. The machines wouldn’t hesitate to bury them in junk if they’re not careful. It’s happened before.

A yellow monster with giant wheels caked in trash nearly runs over one woman. It prompts José Zamora, also known here as “Galleta,” to tell the tale of his recent run-in with a back-end loader.

“They call me ‘Iron Man’ now,” said Zamora, who wears sunglasses and a beanie. “I don’t blame the driver.”

The driver, who no longer works here, apparently didn’t see Zamora before he ran over his leg and fractured it. The buzo spent a month in the hospital.

Up on the hill above the pit of trash where workers labor, a bee suckles a lone flower that has popped up out of the trash near a pond of toxic sludge. A golden dog chases a spotted one between workers and trucks, and mounts it.

One worker is wearing a pizza box. He ripped a hole out of the middle and put it on his head as a makeshift sombrero.

A gust of wind comes and picks up pieces of trash and sends them twisting in a twirl of airborne waste. As the squint-inducing sun bombards the hill with light, it’s impossible to tell the difference between wind-tossed trash and scavenging birds.

“It’s nice because the wind blows the heat away,” said leathery-faced buzo Victor Marín, 42. “We don’t have any sunscreen. When you’re poor, sunblock is expensive.”

When the wind picks up like this, workers get more infections. The sun splits their lips, for example, and the wind kicks up the rot and dirt into their cuts, said Xinia Madrigal, who was standing on the outskirts of the dump with swollen, infected lips.

Around 1 p.m. buyers start trickling in with their trucks to purchase paper, aluminum and other recyclables from workers.

They wait in the shade beneath garbage bags propped up on long sticks while the buzos rest on the outskirts of the dump and prepare to turn in their day’s collections. They’ll pawn off their recyclables to buyers, but they keep the riches for themselves.

A woman goes through her goods in a cardboard box: a stuffed raccoon, an old wallet and some toy soldiers.

“The best is chicken, there’s lots of it,” said Juvenal Herrera, standing over a bag full of fried chicken, his chest puffed with pride and arms swaying heavy with hubris like a hunter towering over a kill.

The buzos collect on their day’s work, and the landfill’s bald face lends a panoramic view of the sunset over the smoggy Central Valley.

The afternoon turns lazy as the workers trudge down the hill into their homes in Tirrases, a slum at the bottom of the hill where residents either rummage around in trash for a living or are related to someone who does.

“We don’t have titles like engineers or anything like that,“ said Carlos Porras, “But we are.We’re engineers of trash.”

Río Azul buzos face an unclear future as the landfill closure looms.



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