Garbage to Live By
by Art Montague

Food scarcity, poverty and pollution are linked around the world. They are not always ties that bind. Here are three examples where people have responded to food scarcity with solutions that also relieve poverty and reduce pollution.

In some parts of the world, one person's garbage has become another's salvation. Can we imagine countries with no welfare checks, no food banks, no food stamps? We try, but we fall short because the notions seem alien, almost uncivilized. So, we donate goods and cash to international causes which inundate us with slick infomercials featuring starving, fly-infested children and Hollywood television stars who film pleas from refugee camps and then hop into their chauffeured Land Rovers for the trip back to the local Hilton or Marriott. So be it.

But, away from the spotlights, in hundreds of cities, millions of people are making their way independent of the aid culture. I list three here: in Cairo, in Bangkok, and in Curitiba, Brazil. There are many more.

Vegetable gardens thrive in the garbage dumps of Cairo. Toxicity? Who knows? On the other hand, the inhabitants are more than tenth generation, so presumably, some immunization may have kicked in genetically.

Cairo's garbage dump is a city in its own right. The population is mostly Coptic Christian, driven into the enclave by the Muslim majority of Egypt many decades ago, and locked in now by birth and economics. They are Cairo's garbage collectors, plain and simple. No fancy compactor trucks, no curbside recycling boxes; the collectors are just people with carts and other makeshift conveyances who collect the garbage and haul it home to the dump. They themselves do the recycling.

Schools, a hospital, some manufacturing, composting, growing--the Cairo dump has all this, built on a mountain of garbage. My first contact with this community was when, as Canadian director of the international Cheshire Homes Foundation, I responded to a request to help establish a prosthetics factory for veterans of the Suez War and for child amputees, mostly Coptic Christian refugees from the civil wars rife in the region. That facility is up and running, situated in the garbage dump and utilizing recycled materials from the dump itself. The Cairo garbage dump is self-sustaining in most respects, and monetization of other people's garbage finances the rest.

Bangkok, teeming with poverty and malnutrition, is another story. I have often extolled the significance of container vegetable gardening in especially cold intemperate climates. In humid tropical Bangkok, the opposites maintain. Here, if you can plant something somewhere, anywhere, it will grow. The Khrob Khrua Diao Kon (United Family) provides instruction on how to grow vegetables in gasoline containers and plastic buckets stacked on top of each other. This is an ideal approach because, as in Cairo, composting of waste for a balanced soil mix is crucial to success.

The harvest of fresh nutritious food is essential for people who otherwise would not get it.

Finally, in Brazil we have the example of Curitiba, a city of 2.1 million southeast of Rio de Janeiro. Here the rural-urban connection for food supply has been refined into a significant part of the city's overall "green" sustainability program. In Curitiba, the poor collect the city's garbage and exchange it for surplus vegetables from rural producers. This and other creative programs have resulted in Curitiba's per capita income being more than double that of the rest of the country. Hundreds of small, related projects abound. The garbage can be traded for school books and bus tokens. Value-added recycling and re-use programs finance parks construction and pollution monitoring programs--all of this springing from the impetus to eat.

As Paul Hawken and others have repeatedly pointed out in recent years, one of the the root principles of sustainability is that "waste equals food." It can also become a commodity in itself, so one can say the "garbage equals money." Food scarcity, poverty and pollution are subtly intertwined, and once we recognize the connections we can devise practices that solve all three problems in solving one.

� 2000 Art Montague
First published in slightly different form in eThis magazine