A lifeline or a death trap? Jamaica's largest dump faces uncertain future

by Kate Chappell | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 18 June 2020 10:08 GMT

Future of a poor community living off Jamaica’s largest landfill hangs in the balance amid debate on environmental injustice

By Kate Chappell

KINGSTON, June 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Seven days a week, Delroy Francis scours the sprawling dump beside his home for scrap metal, appliances and plastic bottles.

Francis, 51, said he has survived like this for 40-odd years, but the end of this livelihood is looming as the Jamaican government is looking at decommissioning the island's largest landfill site and replacing it with a waste-to-energy system.

The planned closure of Riverton Landfill has divided experts and campaigners, with some concerned that the exposure of poor, black Jamaicans to pollution and health hazards is environmental injustice while others worry about lost income.

"I save something every day. You have to support yourself," Francis, a wiry man with short dreadlocks tucked under a baseball cap, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as he stood outside a small shop in the community surrounding the landfill.

Francis is one of about 3,000 people who live on the fringes of the dump on the outskirts of Kingston, the capital of the Caribbean tourist nation where five-star resorts line sandy beaches but one in five people live below the poverty line.

This community of so-called "pickers" has created a complex ecosystem of daily searching, collecting, repairing, selling, and re-selling to individuals and companies, creating a business that feeds into the larger economy.

Some Jamaicans regard them and their work as a nuisance and a safety hazard, while others see the group as having no alternative but to create a way to survive despite the risks.

"(We are) of the position that no one should have to make the choice between their health and livelihood," Suzanne Stanley, CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, a non-profit focused on environmental education, advocacy and conservation.

"But waste pickers and those that live around Riverton are being forced to make that choice every day," said Stanley who wants Jamaica to improve its waste management strategy.


Some observers regarded this choice as a result of environmental injustice, including Rivke Jaffe, a professor of urban geography at the University of Amsterdam who studied Riverton Landfill for her work.

"The connections between color, class and urban space mean that low-income, black Jamaicans are disproportionately exposed to pollution," said Jaffe, voicing concerns that urban planning leaves low-income communities in housing close to toxic hazards.

"Poor, black Kingstonians are often seen as 'nasty' by wealthier, lighter-skinned Jamaicans, which echoes white colonial perspectives on Jamaicans of African descent," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The vast majority of people on the island are of African descent, and Jamaicans say racism focuses on those with lighter skin being perceived as superior to those with darker skin as well as class.

As the government, driven by an initiative out of the Prime Minister's office, moves to eliminate the use of Riverton Landfill, the pickers are worried about how they will survive, despite government promises their futures will be taken care of.

"When the dump closes, how are some of them are going to manage?" said Jacqueline MacDonald, 52, whose family has worked the dump for 15 years, selling scrap metal.

MacDonald, who lives in a small home within the warren of potholed dirt roads surrounding the landfill, said a lot of young men have worked on the dump from the age of 10 to earn enough to put themselves through school.

Gary Anderson, 49, relies on the dump to provide scraps to feed some 50 hogs that he then sells to local butchers.

"It will be rough. A lot of people live off the dump," he said, estimating that about three-quarters of the community of around 3,000 relies on it.

The government said it was committed to accounting for the pickers when it decommissions and privatizes the landfill that is spread over an area as large as almost 160 football fields, with plans for greenspace, housing and commercial use.

The process was expected to take place over five or more years, with a request for a proposal to the private sector to study decommissioning, privatizing and creating a greenspace expected to be issued by the end of the year.

"The government will certainly want to see potential investors providing jobs and training for the people who would have maintained economic dependence on the site," said Lyttleton Shirley, chairman of the government-appointed enterprise team leading Jamaica's waste-to-energy transition.

"We certainly consider the skills developed over the years by the pickers to be significantly valuable in any waste management system."


Riverton Landfill, established about 50 years ago, is run by the government's National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) and accepts more than 60% of residential and industrial waste from Jamaica's 2.9 million people. It is nearing capacity.

Like most small island nations, Jamaica struggles with waste disposal, a problem compounded by a lack of resources and poverty.

Over the years the landfill has been plagued by frequent fires and other hazards due to mismanagement, lack of regulation and inadequate funding. Until 2014 it operated without the right permits from the National Environment Protection Agency.

A 2016 report from the Public Defender's Office found that "the NSWMA failed to fulfill its legal duty to safeguard public health of Jamaicans".

Dennis Chung, chairman of the NWSMA, declined to comment.

"I saw the report but I don't know, I think that's something I would have to look at from the legal perspective. I couldn't comment on that," he said.

Most egregious have been the frequent fires, with 415 since 1996. Some of these were believed by many Jamaicans to have been started deliberately in a bid to get money from the government.

Most notable were fires in 2015 and 2018 when thick smoke blanketed Kingston in toxic fumes.

The 2015 fire is the subject of a lawsuit before the Supreme Court with four citizens arguing they were denied their constitutional rights to live in a healthy and productive environment.

"At Riverton, the people who live around there have basically been sacrificed because Kingston needs to put their garbage somewhere, and that all ties in to where you live and how much money you have," said Stanley.

The residential community surrounding the tip was built up after people moved to the area from other inner-city areas in an attempt to escape political violence.

Despite the stench, barren landscape, potholed roads and garbage trucks rumbling in and out, homes sprung up around the landfill, some legal government housing and some informal structures made of zinc roofs and boards.

According to a government profile of the community, it suffers from high unemployment and low education levels. Diana Thorburn, director of research at the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, said the problem with Riverton represented a larger issue in Jamaica.

"A lot of our problems in Jamaica are related to weak governance frameworks that aren't fixed because of lack of capacity to fix these things. There's a recognition for change, but these things take so many years," she said.

Related stories:

Son of woman killed in security operation seeks attention for Jamaica's poorest suburbs

Jamaica beaches lure tourists but calls to also make locals welcome

Jamaican women harassed as they "wait in vain" for justice on police shootings

(Reporting by Kate Chappell, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.