A Different Reality

Life has been falling into a routine. My project on globalization and health is underway. Family life is good. Frederissa and Freidelly are getting used to having an Americana around. We play cards, I taught them go fish, and enjoy meals together. I have made good friends with the other students in my program who live in my barrio, Yerba Buena. We have a mutual bond in that our houses are on the lower end compared to many of the other students, but we are getting used to the cucharachas and logartos, lizards, that frequent our homes. Water and power aren´t always dependable, but I am grateful for an overhead shower. My friend Jessica has to take bucket baths. The culture shock is slowly wearing off, and I am getting accustomed to the sights and sounds of Jarabacoa. Last week, we visited the dump of Santiago and visited some far worse living conditions. I think we were all a little more grateful for our current situations.

In Santiago, a large city of over half a million people about an hour away from Jarabacoa, we visited the city dump, or vertedera, and the community skirting its edge that makes a living foraging for plastic jugs, scrap metal, and other saleable items. We climbed atop the mountain of trash set on the outskirts of the city to survey the open-air untreated trash pile quite distinguishable from an environmentally managed and relatively deliberate landfill characteristic of many found in the United States. In the morning, before we ventured to the dump, we visited the stunningly modern national art museum in Santiago. The museum’s art collection showcases a number of works creating a timeline of the DR’s art history. It portrays the beauty of the island and its people and their struggle for sovereignty and equality. In another way, we witnessed this struggle first hand at the dump.

The community sits in the shadow of the mountain of trash formally known as Santiago’s city dump. The town literally grew out of the dump. Homes are constructed out of found items, everything from discarded signs to rusted bed frames to splintered wooden boards. The people in the town are the poorest of the poor. They take great risks in living so close to such profound pollution. The creek that cuts a small gorge between the enormous heap and the growing town runs black with contamination. Children bear scars and burns, injuries sustain while sifting through the refuse permanently set ablaze. A cloud of putrid smoke hangs over the dump, the result of fires, both natural from combustion and manmade, which burn away the organic material such as paper, food and yard waste exposing the valuable scrap metal within. The air pollution is an important health concern for the local population, but when the winds shift, all of Santiago can smell its smoldering trash.
While scavenging through trash may be a detestable job for most, we met people who make a living off the dump selling plastic, glass and metal to feed their families: a different reality. Unfortunately, many children are forced to work this dangerous job, and children who work collecting refuse often miss out on schooling, setting them so far back that completing a general education becomes impossible. We met a woman who runs an NGO dedicated to combating this form of child labor by supplementing the children’s formal education and teaching the community about the numerous health concerns the dump poses. Lead by an eager young local boy, we hiked to the top of the dump and were greeted by a herd of cattle grazing amongst the trash. In the distance was a group of people sorting through the heap for potentially valuable items. While there are many reasons this lifestyle is hazardous and potentially deadly, they do portray a lesson in resourcefulness. … is a place where the old cliché, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” reigns true. Men, women and children collect scrap metal that may eventually be refined down into useful material, possibly sent as far away as China to construct the massive Three Gorges Dam. These Dominican’s labor to reuse and recycle means one less acre of forest or mountainside will be sacrificed or mined for human endeavors, but however hard many of them work, it is a life perpetuated by trash that few can escape.
Tim Kiefer, an environmentalist who escorted us on our visit to the dump, explained that roughly 90% of Santiago’s trash ends up in the dump; the other 10% lines the city streets. In Jarabacoa, waste flows through the arroyos and ends up in the rivers that carry the human waste downstream. “Everyone lives downstream,” is the motto of a photographic essay he made to portray to the Dominican people that pollution runoff upstream arrives as polluted drinking, bathing, and cooking water downstream. Tim estimates that only 20% of the people in Jarabacoa have a septic system to treat their waste water. The rest: toilet water, sink water, and other runoff drains into the streets as black water and emptying into the arroyos that run through the city as fast flowing, highly polluted streams on their way to the deceptively beautiful river Yaque del Norte. From my perspective, this is a public health and environmental disaster.
Coming to the Dominican Republic I expected a uncomfortable degree of trash, but I didn’t expect it to great me each morning lining the sidewalk outside my home. On my way to class each day, I avoid with a vengeance the refuse and black water constantly flowing through the deep street gutters. Classes are held at an ecological center on the banks of the Rio Yaque called La Posa, and every day we witness people bathing and fishing along its stretch of the river, either unaware or unconcerned about the threat to their health. In what appears to be some perfectly kayakable rapids lies pollution made apparent by the plastic bottles and bags of trash that collect in the eddies just upstream. The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country, but the amount of neglect is discouraging. I´m surprised how I am getting used to seeing trash everywhere, on the way to being desensitized like most everyone else. Peace...Allyson

1 comment:

island_redneck said...


This is going to be random, but I'm running out of ideas and came across your blog. I'm a grad student at the University of Hawaii getting ready to head to the DR, just for fun though.

Chasing down vsrious leads for one one my favorite pasttimes, river tubing, I've received tips that this is possible from La Posa in Jarabacoa down to La Confluencia. Basically you just sit in a giant truck tire inner tube and float down the river.

Then I saw your pollution stories. Is this a stupid idea? I've done this activity all over the world in some questionable areas, but never seen such a bad bill of health beforehand for the river.

If you get a quick chance and could share a little advice, it would be greatly appreciated!