Inside the Hulene dump, at least 500 people scavenge through garbage every day to survive, and as preparations are underway to close the space where 16 people were buried in 2018, fear hangs over the heads of those who depend on garbage to earn a living.
What should be a reason for natural joy – the end of an open-air dump – generates anguish: “The removal of the dump, without thinking about these people [waste pickers], can generate chaos,” Justino Cuna, a 36-year-old waste picker who is trying to create an association to defend the rights of waste pickers in the city of Maputo, warns Lusa.
Most of the collectors who scavenge the 25 hectares of the largest garbage dump in Mozambique are women who live on the poverty line, from different provinces, although most are from the neighborhood of Hulene, on the outskirts of the Mozambican capital, Maputo.
Although official data indicate that there are at least 500 waste pickers at the Hulene dump, Justino Cuna, who has worked there for more than 10 years, says the number is double that.
Hanging from the back of a garbage truck or dodging the front shovel of a backhoe that drags waste from one side to the other, in this job, among the huge mountains of garbage, whoever gets there first succeeds.
Every day, it is estimated that more than 1,200 tons of solid waste are deposited in the Hulene dump, located along one of Maputo’s main arteries, the avenue Julius Nyerere, a Tanzanian independentist.
Not even the gases caused by small fires and the strong smell that invades the surrounding neighborhoods are able to stop the collectors, who daily, in the early hours, climb mountains of garbage from all corners of Maputo in search of waste for reuse.
“We depend on this place,” says Justino Cuna, in the middle of a group of young waste pickers waiting for the next garbage truck to arrive a few meters away from the main entrance.
But the nightmare of the early morning of February 19, 2018 ushered in a threat to the business of Justino Cuna and so many other Hulene waste pickers.
A total of 16 people living in the surrounding area lost their lives when rain caused a portion of the dump to collapse on the slum with the height of a three-story building.
The tragedy would lead to the current plan to close the dump, which has been postponed before.
Besides the risk of another incident, the authorities justify the closure of the dump by the need to stop the environmental impact.
Poverty means that there are residents who “are still very close to the dump and, given that it is in the open,” are more subject to pollution.
“The air that is released from this dump has particles that are harmful to health,” Adolfo Guambe, manager of the Hulene dump, admitted to Lusa.
Although they fear for their livelihood, Cuna and his group agree with the closure plan.
But they warn: it is necessary to help those who depend on the garbage to survive, pointing out, among several aspects, the need for training of several young people who wander around the site every day.
“The removal of the dump without looking at this situation can increase the level of prostitution,” says Cuna, “bearing in mind that a good number of these collectors are women.
There is also a risk of an increase in crime, he adds.
For those who live next to the dump, the appeals of the waste pickers are understandable, but the long-term environmental impacts are more frightening, considering that the dump was created in colonial times.
“When there is smoke or bad smell, it affects all these areas. This is bringing diseases to our community,” Armando Jeremias, the head of the 69 block of the Hulene neighborhood, tells Lusa.
Since the 2018 incident, the municipal authorities have been receiving various support for waste management, with emphasis on initiatives supported by Japan, but the closure, budgeted at about 110 million dollars, according to data from that year, still has no expected date.
While waiting for its closure, Justino Cuna and his association will continue to seek sustenance by scouring the 25 hectares that receive waste from all over the capital of Mozambique.