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Bantar Gebang: Trials and tribulations of Indonesia's 'trash heroes'

Jakarta Globe - February 8, 2019

Aleasha Bliss, Bekasi – Every day is Christmas for flies and trash-pickers alike at Bantar Gebang in Bekasi, West Java. A haze of bugs hovers over the stench of rotting food and mounds of fermenting garbage in Southeast Asia's largest uncovered landfill site, while people crowd under diggers, being showered in tons of Jakarta's rubbish, desperately hoping to find the best moneymaker for the day, dinner for their children or perhaps a new roof for their homes.

Among all the decay, there is new life. Baby chicks, goats, kittens and puppies frolic through the chaos. Children roll around on mattresses, giggling as they build structures with sticks, and treasure the toys they acquired from the landfill as their most prized possessions.

Scavengers are scattered across the gigantic mountain of trash. Women and men carry huge baskets on their backs, loading them with whatever useful they can find to provide them with sustenance or an income. One thing is for sure, it is a hard life for these "trash-heroes," as it provides neither thanks nor dignity, instead posing many dangers, diseases and dire living conditions.

These people own nothing they have not acquired from the landfill and yet, they are smiling, happy and generous. Insisting that we take refuge in their personal spaces to shelter from the rain. The estimated 3,000 families that reside and work at Bantar Gebang have very humble abodes, but they are immaculate; perfectly mopped floors, uncluttered living spaces and freshly laundered clothes hang from their patios, showing the pride they have in personal hygiene.

Resa Boenard, lovingly nicknamed "Princess of the Dump," created BGBJ (Seeds of Bantar Gebang) to provide education, food and empowerment to the children of the landfill, aiming to break the cycle of poverty and encourage them to continue with school.

BGBJ is a little piece of paradise in the heart of the landfill, it is also her home, which she opens on Sundays to foreigners, who can stay in the hostel, help with maintenance, build toilets and teach the children new skills, showing them that there is life outside the landfill. Her foundation is "built on love," and offers a sense of family and community, provides birthday celebrations and offers a free, healthy meal once a week to each of her students.

Health problems

Skin conditions, injuries and respiratory problems are the leading health concerns among the workers in Bantar Gebang. It takes a lot to make one of them sick as they are used to eating off the landfill and their immune systems are quite strong, Resa said. It is only upon falling ill that it can turn deadly fast as the workers have no access to proper care and go downhill quite quickly.

"I heard about Doctors Without Borders, but don't know how to access that one," Resa said cheekily.

"I would love BGBJ to have medical assistance. Since 2004, when we started our organization, it's been difficult to find medical professionals, such as dentists," she said.

Once, one of her students named Alec developed an infection in his knee. His family could not afford medical assistance for him and started treating the pus-filled wound with powder and flour, and finally, perfume as the infection became worse and began to smell.

"It made me want to puke. I loved this little boy and wanted to help him; I went around every day and cleaned the wound and taught the mother to clean the wound properly," Resa recounts.

She got the boy help from a doctor and paid for the medicine to help him recover. She said the people of Bantar Gebang are often scared of hospitals and their lack of money sees them turn to home remedies, while many illnesses and injuries result in death.

"We teach them how to clean their bodies and stuff – but maybe not enough. If they heard it from a doctor, it would be powerful," she said.

Sexually transmitted disease

HIV is also an issue at Bantar Gebang, not only due to drug abuse and accidental needle jabs. There has been an influx of prostitutes setting up shop very close by, resulting in the spread of this infectious disease.

"HIV exists in Bantar Gebang because of human behavior. Bantar Gebang is not far from a prostitute area. I knew a few people that died from it. In Indonesia, if they catch HIV, they hide it; like a secret. Because people are embarrassed, and they don't get the right treatment for the disease," Resa said.

BGBJ presents workshops on HIV and AIDS, so the people know it exists and understand the consequences and ways to avoid contracting it. Resa believes this is an important lesson the children must learn, not just to prevent the spread of the disease, but also to discourage the students from becoming prostitutes in the future.

Ranto, 48, is a former soldier and employs 50 people, aged between 17 and 45, to recycle plastic bottles at Bantar Gebang. He sells the plastic to external recycling companies and the business makes about $100 a day, which is split according to the weight in plastic each employee collected.

Many of his employees are unskilled workers, have criminal records, are uneducated, or have grown up at the landfill site, which was created on rice paddies in 1989. He said a worker died earlier that day after falling into a crusher. It was not known whether it was an accident or suicide.

Injuries are a regular occurrence at Bantar Gebang and with the medical assistance Resa is hoping to get from her sponsors, the 3,000 families living at the dump will have happier and healthier lives.

"Contributions are not always monetary, as the experience and skills the children are gaining is crucial to their development and hopefully will make them want to achieve outside Bantar Gebang. Skills and smiles are welcomed," Resa said.

Source: https://jakartaglobe.id/context/bantar-gebang-trials-and-tribulations-of-indonesias-trash-heroes