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Traffic in Garbage

A small group of middlemen is picking a million dollars a month out of Cairo's rubbish bins - and not even getting their hands dirty. The enterprise is underpinned by several thousand unpaid child labourers who are born, live and not uncommonly die in the festering dumps around the city.

With the destruction of Beirut, Cairo is unrivalled as the number one Arab city and play centre. But apart from street sweeping in the wealthier areas, waste removal is left to an ageold system which has been portrayed as a triumph of waste re-cycling. In fact it is a middleman's triumph whereby impoverished people not only scratch their living from what others throw away but also pay for the privilege.

The collectors are the Zabaleen, whose suburbs are the rubbish tips of the city, whose homes are built of rubbish, whose streets are carved through rubbish and who seldom leave the dumps except to bring in more rubbish.

The middlemen keep a tight grip on the rubbish business. They carve up the city's richer sectors between thempaying landlords for rubbish collection rights and, in turn, selling collection contracts to the Zabaleen.

The system is good for the landlords and the middlemen. It is adequate for the rich whose rubbish is collected early every day by a ghost of a man, or woman, or most often a child, and taken away in crude solid-wheeled carts. But it is not good for the city whose sprawling poorer areas go unattended while the money, which could help pay for an efficient city scheme, is creamed off by the garbage bosses.

The Zabaleen, a Christian group originally from Upper-Egypt, have had the collection of Cairo's rubbish pretty much to themselves for 30 years. There are some 20,000 living on the 13 dumps around the city. They live in a sea of waste. Their homes have no windows and usually consist of a single room shared by all members of the family. Each shack is built at the entrance of a private sorting yard, with walls built of waste. At the back of the yard is an area fenced off for pigs and heaps of ready-sorted materials - rag, bone, glass, paper. The incoming rubbish is dumped at the entrance for sorting, so the Zabaleen live right on top of rotting garbage.

A recent Oxfam survey found that what the Zabaleen are really interested in is the food waste. They feed it to their pigs which account for 90 per cent of their income.

The other waste is really a penalty they pay to get the food. There is a small market for some of the paper, rag and metals. But the returns are poor.

Problems with their fellow-men apart, the Zabaleen run high risks of disease and infection. The dumps are louse and rat infested and a thick infected haze of garbage dust and smoke hangs permanently in the air. Fumes given off by the decomposing rubbish are noxious and there is broken glass everywhere. Eye, skin and respiratory infections and suppurating wounds are common. The death rate among children is abnormally high.

The true cost of the collection system is hidden, the work being done by young children who are unpaid. Because they have to work they get no education and so are not equipped to do anything else. When the city does introduce a proper programme, unless they are incorporated, they will find themselves out of a job and unemployable.

New Internationalist issue 084 magazine cover This article is from the February 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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