Charniyah doesn’t relish the idea of leaving the miniscule hut she has been living in for the past 10 years. Sitting with her baby on the porch of the hut made of cardboard, plywood and tarpaulin, she sighs, “The only skill I have is to scavenge, so every day I hope the disposal continues so we can make a living.”
The stench of garbage and the flies buzzing are familiar to her. Just off the porch, bunches of threadbare clothing dangle from nylon ropes. The yard is so full of piles of collected trash that it is difficult to distinguish between the huts and the rubbish.
As far as the eye can see, tons of trash from small mountains, where men, women and children prowl around and fight with each other for usable items before the bulldozers and scrapers cover over the garbage.
“I do worry about my safety, but I am more worried about getting something to eat,” said Charniyah, referring to the collapse of refuse heap at the Bantar Gebang dump that killed three scavengers, two months ago.
Charniyah, 23, is one of the 3,000 scavengers living in the shanties scattered around the mountains of trash at the Bantar Gebang dump located about 13 kilometers away from city of Bekasi. Most of Jakarta’s garbage is sent at the dump. Around 600 trucks work around the clock to deliver about 6,000 tons of trash every day. Reaching up to 15 meters in height, these mountains of garbage provide sustenance for the people of Sumur Batu, Cikiwul, and Ciketing Udik subdistricts.
Charniyah’s family has eked out a harsh livelihood from the urban trash for many years. By age six, she had become a scavenger and is no stranger to hardship. Her father, a scavenger too, had brought her and her mother from their home village in Indramayu, West Java, to Bantar Gebang because he could not make a living as a landless peasant.
At the age of 12, a time when most children are enjoying their time at school, Charniyah chose to quit school to help her parents. Not long after that, she got married to a scavenger at the age of 13, and now she has two sons, a seven-year old, and a nine-month old.
The scavengers in Bantar Gebang have something in common: Most of them are landless peasants coming from areas, such as Karawang, Indramayu and Semarang. They rely on their bosses, who usually have links to some factories that buy the collected garbage in large quantities.
The scavengers compete to gather saleable items from dawn to dusk. Using hooks and baskets, they pick and choose tin and aluminum cans or other containers, plastic bags, bottles and bones from the mountains of trash. They are careful, however, to never pick a fight over any item, no matter how valuable it may seem. “If you don’t compete, you get nothing. However, nobody will ever snatch away a thing from the one who first picked it up; we are all in the same boat,” said Charsiti, 25, a mother of two.
Every 10 to 15 days – when the collected trash has been cleaned and sorted, the scavengers sell it to their boss for variety of prices depending on the type and quality of the items.
The most valuable trash is aluminum, worth Rp 6,000 (US$ 5) per kilogram. Plastic bags are woth Rp 2,500 per kilo while cans and bones bring in Rp 300 a kilo and bottles bring Rp 150 per kilo.
These are the fixed prices from the boss who provides them with land to erect their huts, and a water pump for each 30 houses. He also provides electricity for each house but not for free; he charges each household Rp 10,000 monthly.
Apart from that, the boss also fronts them cash for daily meals. “We choose the boss who can pay us beforehand, because we need the money on a daily bases,” Charsiti said. “Beside, who else would see you had money for meals if you got sick and could not work for one day or two?” said the women who has been a scavenger for four years.
In a month Charniyah’s family can make around Rp 400,000 but the money is mostly spent on food, especially for the children. “With no kids in the house, we spend only about Rp 10,000 for meals a day, but with two kids, that is not enough,” she said.
She acknowledged that sometimes, after calculating the price of the garbage they collect and subtracting the debt they owe for their daily meals, they might receive no cash at all from the boss. In that case, they would have to ask for loan.
When they face certain situation, such as getting seriously ill, or giving birth, they can only rely on the helping hands of their fellow scavengers. “Most of the time it is enough to rely on medicine we buy from nearby kiosks, but when we are seriously ill, our neighbors will chip in together to pay for medical treatment,” said the woman who had to pay Rp 150,000 to the midwife who helped her give birth to her youngest son.
In another hut, Sari, 25, has her own strategy for coping with the situation. Sometimes, she and her husband can save up to Rp 50,000 in their piggy bank because they have sent their two children to their parents in their village in Indramayu.
Before her marriage to a scavenger, Sari had worked at a shellfish nursery in Cilincing, North Jakarta, but now scours the mountains of rubbish for a living. “As a woman, I have to follow my husband, whatever his job is,” she said.
“The trouble with scavenging is that if you cannot overcome the fear in your heart, you won’t have anything to eat,” said this primary school dropout.
Even with the danger of landslides in mind, she has no intention of getting out of the scavenger business. “I had looked for jobs from door to door at many factories before I started scavenging, but every door I turned to was closed in my face because ia have no skills,” she added.
Like every other women in the scavenger community, she puts her hope in her children. “Gaining material things is impossible for me. No matter how I try, I never will. Therefore I would rather have lots of kids to take care of me when I get old,” she said smilingly.
Tarwin, 40, and Watinah, 30, a couple who have been scavengers for six years, have also sent their children to their parents, but they still cannot make ends meet.
“The hardest moment for us is on rainy days, when our boss doesn’t come to buy our things while we really need some money,” said Tarmin.
“Sometimes, when things are really hard, we even pick fish or fruit out of the trash, wash and eat it. Sometimes, we can even find instant noodles, sugar, or even a sack of rice in the refuse. Thank God we are rarely ill and are still alive until now,” said Watinah.
(Jakarta, Nov 23, 2006)