Returning to Takhmao Dump, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with photographer Joost Vandebrug was the first time I have seen a totally childfree dump. Joost looked around and exclaimed ‘but there are no kids to shoot’. He was right, and it was because our project has gotten all the children off the dump and into nursery or school.
I have never felt so happy and proud on a rubbish dump before. Mey, our Cambodian project director, and I walked round and spoke to parents, all of whom told of how their children’s health had improved and how pleased they were that they had somewhere safe for them to go while they worked on the dump.
It is amazing to see that it can be done; it’s not something we often see – as mass production and mass consumption grow, so too does waste… at an alarming rate, as does the gap between rich and poor. This humanitarian crisis spirals out of control as more and more marginalised families head to landfill sites to eek out a living.
Every time I see or read about the Jungle in Calais and the horror expressed at how families are living in subhuman conditions, it makes my heart ache, because it is unacceptable and we can see that now it is on our doorstep, but the conditions, on dumps and in the sorts of camps we are seeing in Calais and Dunkirk, are far more widespread than we realise and just like taking responsibility for our (The UK’s) involvement in the refugee crisis (the provision of weapons from which refugees are fleeing) so too are we responsible, in the west, for global waste. The world spent $1735 billion on war in 2012 and yet it would take approximately $135 billion to totally eradicate poverty.
So the problem of children living and surviving in subhuman conditions on landfill sites and rubbish dumps is growing and working in them can, at times, feel like working in quick sand,
where as soon as we have helped one child leave the dump, another takes its place. So it is rare that smiles are had on site visits.
But in this small corner of suburban Cambodia, we were witnessing first hand, that with funding and organisation and a great team, a solution is possible.
Our charity has come a long way from just giving out shoes, thanks to the support of Comic Relief and travel company Scott Dunn. We are again working with partners Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), the very same organisation that rescued our project manager Mey from a dump as a child and who we did the first ever welly project with over six years ago.
Together we have now set up a Children Support Centre (CSC) and nursery and enrolled all older children in school. The CSC also provides a safe place for them to play, wash, eat and do their homework, and childcare for nursery age children, enabling parents to work on the dump and not expose their children to risks.
So it is possible, with better organisation, good partnerships and funding, that children can leave rubbish dumps for better futures; once an effective model is established it can be rolled out and improved and delivered to create solutions over and over again.
No children should be living on rubbish dumps or in camps; everyone has the right to have their basic human needs met and they are not as hard, or as expensive, to meet as people think: France and the UK spend as much on keeping refugees out with policing and walls as Germany do on keeping them warm and safe. We create more waste food than the food needed for all: 925million people are hungry and yet 1.3billion tonnes of food is wasted each year.
A big thank you to Joost for shooting our empty dump and our full nursery- see his photos here.
You can also see how he has used photography and film for his own foundation Cinci Lei, in Romania, which support children in taking small steps out of the sewers ‘A place where kids can feel safe, empowered and inspired’ and rescues puppies!
You can get regular photo updates direct from the project in Cambodia in the teams’s facebook album here, showing the progress of the children and the centre growing together.