Photo : Fundasaun Mahein
Maria, a twenty-five-year-old woman from Ermera, stands on a mountain of cardboard boxes, broken glass, plastic bottles, used clothes, and tangled cables. With a self-fashioned, rusty metal rod, she picks away at the mounds of waste around her. The mounds grow as trucks arrive every ten minutes or so to offload more rubbish from Dili. It is midday, and the heat is scorching. Throngs of flies swarm around Maria as she extracts reusable items from the piles – iron, copper wires, tyres, and plastic bottles. She works bare-handed, her torn trainers and shorts offering little protection from the hazardous materials of the dumpsite. An old ragged T-shirt, wrapped around her face, keeps some of the stench and dust of the landfill at bay.
The dire conditions of life and work for waste-pickers in the Tibar landfill are symptomatic of a bigger problem with waste and waste management in Dili. Plastic pollution is prevalent along roadsides, in water canals, on beaches, and in gutters throughout the city and its outskirts. Officially, rubbish is stored in metal or brick-and-mortar containers (locally known as bak sampah) and then manually emptied into smaller containers or sacks, for transfer to garbage collection trucks that travel to and from the Tibar dumpsite. Yet the containers are not fully enclosed and therefore not effective in containing waste, which is invariably found overflowing onto sidewalks and roads. As reported by the Asian Development Bank in 2014, the containers pose “a significant risk to public health and environmental quality.”
A 2018 article published by researchers at the National University of Timor-Leste (UNTL) notes that the systematic recycling of waste is still non-existent in Dili, with most waste separation, treatment, and recycling initiatives being led by non-governmental institutions with foreign funding support. Waste management services also represent only a small fraction of the Ministry of State Administration’s budget at US$700,000 and $800,000 per annum. According to a Development Policy blog dated 24 May 2021, Timor-Leste declared its intention to become the world’s first plastic-neutral nation in 2019 – but this vision has yet to materialize. As the capital’s population continues to grow, the average 0.55 kg of waste per day generated by each citizen is likely to increase. This in turn is sure to aggravate the health and environmental impacts of unregulated waste disposal in the capital.
Waste-picking activity, Maria explains, is most prevalent in the early mornings and evenings, when the heat is less intense. This activity is technically not allowed – but people come in through the mountains around the landfill nonetheless, eking out a precarious existence by salvaging what can be resold from the estimated 120 tons of waste that reach the 25-hectare landfill daily. The waste is then weighed by a local company based at Pantai Kelapa, from whom Maria receives 10 cents per kilo collected. Some of this waste is kept by the pickers for their personal use – for instance, planks of wood or pieces of metal used to build or refurbish their homes. On average, Maria makes $140 a month, but sometimes nothing at all. “It all depends on what we can find,” she explains. On bad days, Maria continues, “I walk four hours for nothing, because I find nothing to salvage from the dump.”
Maria is one of approximately two hundred individuals who work as informal waste-pickers in the Tibar dumpsite, located about fifteen minutes’ drive west of the capital of Dili. She has been working at the Tibar dumpsite – the only existing landfill in Timor-Leste – for two years. She walks here from Tasi Tolu – a two-hour journey in the company of fellow waste-pickers – in order to scavenge reusable waste for resale. The money she obtains goes to feed her family and cover the schooling of her four young children. Maria looks far older than her age – a fact she attributes to the difficult conditions of labor in the landfill, where she toils from 6 am to 6 pm almost daily. The impacts of this work include nausea, shortness of breath, skin irritations, and gastrointestinal problems such as dysentry. Every so often, her description is interrupted by the clouds of blinding dust raised by passing rubbish trucks, or by cardboard boxes sent flying into the air whenever the wind picks up. The work is “exhausting” and “hard,” Maria says, but “necessary to make a living.”
Of greatest concern for individuals working in the Tibar dumpsite, and as documented in a Technical Report by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme in May 2023, is the lack of protection for the rights, livelihoods, and welfare of informal waste pickers in existing laws and policies pertaining to waste management in Timor. Such concerns were raised by 25-year-old waste-picker Julia from Tibar village, who has been working at the landfill for two years in order to cover the food and living expenses of her extended family of eleven, as well as her husband and three children aged six, four, and one respectively.
Sitting in a shack fashioned of corrugated iron, wooden planks, and used tyres, which waste-pickers build out of landfill materials as shelter, Julia explained that work in the landfill was exhausting and dangerous. She spoke of the insufferable heat, of her difficulty breathing when picking waste, and of the many cuts she had suffered from the metal and glass shards littering the landfill. In order to continue making a living, Julia had worked in the landfill throughout her latest pregnancy, up to the point of labor, and then returned after a six month break. The hardest time to work in the landfill, according to Julia, is the wet season, when the dump transforms into a vast mudland, and reusable materials consequently become harder to identify and extract.
The information received from waste-pickers indicates that the operations at the Tibar landfill have seen some changes in the preceding three months. Both reported that open-air burning – a regular occurrence at the dumpsite and also a primary contributor to air pollution in and around Tibar – had ceased. Children who would work in the dump on weekends, they added, were no longer allowed to enter the site. Scavenging animals like goats, cows, dogs, and pigs, used to roam free in the dump, but are now rarely seen.
An in situ operator explained that these changes were part of a broader rehabilitation of the landfill initiated as part of the Dili Solid Waste Management Project (DSWMP), with funding from the Asian Development Bank, International Finance Corporation, and various Australian donors. This rehabilitation aims to separate waste into “green” (decomposable waste for composting) and “recyclables” (reusable waste including iron, aluminium, tyres, plastic, and paper), and on eliminating the entry of “unacceptable waste” such as animal carcasses and expired foods, the latter of which, according to the operator, was often consumed by waste-pickers themselves.
Maria and Julia had heard of the rehabilitation plans, but both expressed concerns as to how these plans would affect their ability to access and make a living from the dumpsite in the future. Indeed, there appear to be no provisions for waste-pickers in the March 2021 draft Tibar Dumpsite Rehabilitation and Upgrading Project Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) or in the earlier EIA Non-Technical Summary of July 2020. Maria, for instance, worried that the number of waste-pickers allowed into the site would be restricted, whereas so far entrance had been unregulated. Julia, on the other hand, noted that the use of heavy machinery to tranform the landfill from open to closed, meant waste was now being buried and the terrain flattened. This makes it increasingly difficult for waste-pickers to extract materials for resale.
Waste-pickers like Maria and Julia are thus caught in a troubling double-bind. Work on the landfill is undoubtedly dangerous and taxing – but it remains a preferred source of income for people living in highly precarious conditions. Initiatives to address and remediate the landfill’s adverse environmental impacts, as intended by the DSWMP, are important. But it is also critical to consider the consequences of such projects for the people who continue to depend primarily on waste to support their livelihoods. This includes identifying alternative sources of income for waste-pickers should access to the landfill in the future be prohibited. On this basis, we offer the following recommendations to the government of Timor-Leste:
- Ensure that existing waste-pickers are provided with protective equipment including gloves, masks, and boots, as well as adequate waste-picking tools, in order to ensure their work health and safety in the landfill.
- Ensure that all existing waste-pickers receive comprehensive, timely, and accessible information about the Dili Solid Waste Management Project, including the project’s aims, activities, and implementation timeline.
- Assess how the Dili Solid Waste Management Project will affect the informal economy of existing and future waste-pickers, including 1) their ability to procure and resell materials from the landfill to support their livelihoods 2) the alternative employment opportunities available to waster-pickers, should they lose their source of income as a result of the landfill revamp
- Conduct a comprehensive assessment of the social, health, and environmental impacts of the landfill on Tibar village inhabitants, including but not limited to local waste-pickers.
- Develop government policies and processes for waste separation prior to its arrival at the landfill, including at the levels of household, village, and municipality.
- Develop government policies and processes for the recycling of materials including metal, plastic, and glass at the municipal and national levels.
The FM research team and a University of Sydney researcher obtained data towards this blog during a field visit to Tibar landfill on 27 September 2023. Supplemetary data was obtained through interviews and conversations with Dili inhabitants between 25 – 29 September 2023. Pseudonyms have been used for all persons cited.