The Waste Land

For Nairobi's poorest, the enormous trash dump that's slowly killing them is also the only thing keeping them alive.

NAIROBI, Kenya – Leaving the bustling arrivals gate, a dump truck joins a fleet of airport taxis full of deep-pocketed safari goers, business travelers, and missionaries departing from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the largest hub in east and central Africa and a proud symbol of Nairobi's growing economy and global presence.

Carrying food waste from the day's flights, the truck eventually turns toward the city slums, while the cabs continue to the capital's affluent business district. Their routes expose two very different, yet interwoven, narratives to the rise of east Africa's most populous city.

At roughly the same time every day, the unfinished salads, sandwiches, bread, yogurt cups, and refuse from Nairobi's incoming flights are transported to the Dandora Municipal Dumpsite -- the capital city's only dumping location.

Far from the expressways and skyscrapers of downtown, the truck meets a landscape of smoke-filled horizons and metallic, waste-born mountains. Smoke from burning piles of trash scratches the inside of the throat and obscures the bent backs of human and animal scavengers scattered across the smoldering lot. When the sun is overhead, the smell of four decades of waste is overwhelming.

As the truck arrives, children -- who've skipped out of school for the occasion -- meet it on a rutted dirt road just outside the dumpsite's entrance. The older ones clamber up the truck's sides as it waits to enter the dump, pulling directly from the pile -- a half-eaten brownie, an un-opened, liquefied yogurt cup -- while the youngest sort through waste tossed on the ground.

Once entering Dandora, the scraps hardly make it out of the truck bed before dozens of men fight over the haul. Baked by the heat of the Kenyan sun and reeking of spoiled milk, the congealed food waste is thrown into mouths or placed in strewn Kenya Airways bags for later.

Avoiding the frenzy, women wait for both the kids and the competitive pack of men to disperse before picking through what remains.

One woman pockets a handful of wrapped candies.

"School work rewards," said Rahab Ruguru, 42, a mother of six. "Working here is how I am able to feed my children. Of course it is not a usual job. Dodging pigs, used condoms, eating what I find; no, it's not good for me. But it is a job and I have to persevere."

Ruguru and the other rummagers sort and place into large sacks the materials that cannot be eaten, but can be sold for recycling -- metals, rubber, milk bags, plastics, meat bones, and electronics tend to be among the most sought after.

This informal chain of middlemen and women -- an estimated 6,000 people -- has long done the dirty work for recycling companies. Hundreds of self-employed pickers scavenge the sprawling 30-acre dumpsite from 5 a.m. to sundown. Community buyers purchase their day's work at nearby weigh stations, eventually selling a larger aggregate stock to informal truck drivers who are ultimately paid upon delivery by the recycling companies. None of the workers make much more than $2.50 per day.

This largely invisible survival ritual -- essential to the upkeep of the dumpsite, but not officially condoned by the city -- has continued since the first trash started arriving at Dandora around 37 years ago -- 22 years longer than international environmental law allows and 11 years after the site was declared full by the Nairobi city council. Over the next five years, the city hopes to finally decommission the crude dumping site, raising a fraught debate between the haves and have-nots of this east African boomtown.

Dandora is a symbol of a larger problem: Even as Kenya touts continued economic growth and cultural influence -- including proudly hosting the Nairobi Securities Exchange, the financial hub of east and central Africa, and regional headquarters for the likes of General Electric, Google, Coca-Cola, the United Nations Environmental Program, and U.N.-Habitat -- its poorest citizens have been left behind by their country's rise.

A new constitution, accelerated advances in information and communications technology, East African Community integration, and the discovery of oil have many optimistic that Kenya will continue to be the regional powerhouse economy. Nearly two thirds of Nairobi's population, though, will continue to live in the city's slums.

International organizations have long been working to bring attention to these neglected voices -- including Amnesty International's "Kenya: The Unseen Majority: Nairobi's Two Million Slum-Dwellers" report and the World Bank Institute's "Putting Nairobi's Slums on the Map" project -- yet this attention has often focused primarily on Kibera, the city's largest slum. On the opposite side of the city, however, reside more than 1 million people living in informal settlements around Dandora.

"If you look at economic growth statistics then you might think things are getting better, but this wealth is clearly not trickling down to the poor," says Aggrey Otieno, a human rights activist born in Korogocho, one of the slums bordering Dandora. "We have a lot of people investing in Nairobi. Malls, KFC's, Apple stores, factories; they are being built citywide, but without a solid waste management plan, without a focused desire to truly improve the living standards of all Kenyans, we will be dealing with these problems for a long time."

This isn't just a debate about trash -- it's a debate that captures how Nairobi and other fast-rising African cities treat their most disadvantaged citizens, says Otieno. And that is why a seemingly mundane municipal issue like the fate of a trash dump can turn into a political flashpoint.

"[Trash pickers] are squarely situated in the informal sector, which cities have consistently demonstrated an inability to govern," says Rosalind Fredericks, an assistant professor at New York University who specializes in the political economy of development. "Many African cities just cannot keep up with the population growth they are seeing and urban up-grading in sub-Saharan African cannot be done by simply erasing informal settlements; they have to be somehow absorbed into the economy and operations of the city."

Nairobi city council members recognize the problems, but in the same breath blame the megapolis's rapid population growth -- the city has grown from 827,775 in 1979 to 3.2 million today -- and the city's overwhelmed bureaucracy for their slowness to act on Dandora.

"Population growth has superseded our facilities, and it is because of the inadequate capacity of the city council that we are here," says Mutabari Inanga, an environmental and public health officer in Nairobi's city council. "The infrastructure of waste management in Nairobi is not well structured at all. There has also been very poor cooperation between city council and residents, and as a result [Dandora] has become an environmental and health crisis for which we have had no one to take responsibility."

Inanga says the city is prepared to decommission and relocate the site, but that it is waiting for the final go-ahead from the new dumpsite's projected neighbor: the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Airport officials fear the new site will attract birds that will interfere with air traffic. So the plan remains on hold.

The endlessly pending relocation has led a variety of voices, from across Nairobi's fractured class system, to weigh in.

On one side are Nairobi's political reformers and slum advocates. Health studies in-hand, frustrated human rights organizations and Dandora community leaders claim that the decommission process is long overdue. A 2007 study by the U.N. Environmental Program is among the most comprehensive analyses of Dandora's impact on the surrounding communities. The report revealed that Dandora soil samples contained fatally high levels of lead, and found that 154 of the 328 children observed living near the dumpsite suffered from respiratory problems and had concentrations of lead in their blood that exceeded internationally accepted levels.

A well-known reformer and the country's newest chief justice, Willy Munyoki Mutunga, said he believes Nairobi's urban reformers should take a stand on the removal of Dandora in the country's coming county elections.

"It is time the pro-poor leadership seize political power in Nairobi," says Mutunga. "The dump site reflects Kenya's unacceptable status quo. That dump site is a violation of the constitution and I hope my compatriots in Korogocho will task the Legal Advice Centre to move to ... remove this site of death, poverty, ill health and the current unacceptable distribution of national resources."

But on the other side, the trash pickers worry that their needs and livelihoods aren't being fully considered. They are fully aware that Dandora is not good for their health, but a slow death is better than no life at all.

Julius Macharia was born in one of Dandora's bordering slums. He grew-up eating leftovers from Nairobi's airline passengers and is now one of the dump's gatekeepers.

The dumpsite is controlled by an unofficial cartel of local residents who claim to provide security to the pickers; though they mostly use intimidation to control who is permitted to pick where, often to the detriment of the women. They charge city dump trucks -- and even journalists -- a small fee every time they enter.

Macharia, who prefers the name Tiger, is one of the cartel leaders. He proudly displays a pool table he moved to the center of the dumpsite and the shelter he constructed for it using scattered scraps. Trash pickers pay 10 KSH (about $.12) a game to use the table during breaks and rainy weather.

While Nairobi's business district dithers and shirks responsibility for the fate of Dandora, Tiger worries about what will happen to those who depend on it should the government ever really take an interest in their affairs.

"If they come, what will happen to us? We are like these birds and pigs to this city," he says, gesturing toward the animals that scavenge for food side-by-side with the pickers. "They don't recognize us as people. They don't care what happens to us, and if they relocate this place then we will have nothing."

City officials have long-term plans to turn the dumpsite into a park, but the pickers hardly see how they will achieve such a goal, nor frankly what use they would have for a park.

Inanga says the city has also "earmarked money to sustain the livelihood" of the pickers who lose their jobs. "I can't pin-point what exactly, but something will be done," says Inanga. "We envision some of them fitting in at recycling points [at the new dumpsite] ... others will be given something to help sustain their livelihoods."

Ruguru rolls her eyes at the prospect. Weighted with candies for her children in a pocket, a collection of milk bags and bones in two different sacks on her back, and a blue plastic bag in-hand, full of cabbage she found earlier in the day and plans to cook for dinner, she walks home as the sun starts to set.

A mother of six children between the ages of four and 17, she moved to a small home directly bordering Dandora after the country's 2007 post-election violence forced her family from their Eldoret farm near the western border of Kenya.

"Look at my leg," says Ruguru, pausing to reveal a large wound she received at the site two years ago. "I know working here is bad, but I am here because of hunger."

She lost her newborn son to tetanus last November. Ruguru's doctor said he contracted it from her, likely from the wound on her leg. She returned to work at the dumpsite only days after he was buried.

Asthma makes life even harder for Ruguru. Toxic smoke from small fires of burning waste spreads to every corner of Dandora and across the surrounding communities.

As a mother, she worries daily about the toll that the site will take on her children's' health and spirit. But what bothers her most is the foul language her children pick up as a result of working alongside adults.

Save her four-year-old, the entire Ruguru family scavenges Dandora with their mother on weekends and after classes to earn money for school fees, books, and uniforms. Her 12 year-old daughter, Sophie, hates working at Dandora, but the dumpsite has hardly worn her spirit. She has plans for her future. "I don't want to become a doctor, I plan to," she says with a sack of milk bags on her back.

No matter what regulations the bureaucrats in Nairobi may issue, Ruguru doesn't see a time they will stop picking through the leftovers of her country's success story.

"I really don't like that [my children] hear how adults talk by being out here, but we have no choice," she said. "If this site moves then I will move with it -- or we will not survive."

Micah Albert


The New Narco State

Mexico's drug war is turning Argentina into the new Wild West of the global narcotics trade.

BUENOS AIRES — Last September, Argentine Judge Carlos Olivera Pastor emerged from his courthouse in the northwestern province of Jujuy to find a box next to his parked car. Numbered as if it held judicial files, Pastor removed the box's top and found instead a decapitated head, the eyes glassy and open. In October, two men savagely assaulted a penal secretary from the same district, warning that the next time they would murder him. According to officials at SEDRONAR, a government agency that fights addiction and drug trafficking, most of the drugs that enter Argentina pass through the sparsely populated northwest of the country, and the judges, who frequently handle drug-related cases, avowed narco-traffickers were responsible for the incidents.

Long a secondary shipping hub for drugs destined for Europe, international trafficking groups have recently expanded their activities within Argentina, increasing exportation and transforming it from a transit point into a destination for consumption and synthesis. Although Argentina's drug problem is not as dire as Colombia or Mexico's, "things have begun to change a great amount," says Monica Cuñarro, an independent prosecutor who formerly served as executive secretary of the National Commission of Public Policies in Issues of Prevention and Control of the Illicit Traffic of Drugs.

In 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, drug traffickers capitalized on the country's poor border control, lack of aerial surveillance, more than 1,500 illegal air strips, and long stretch of Atlantic coast to export more than 70 metric tons of cocaine -- mostly to Europe, which consumes about 123 metric tons every year.

Busts over the past two years suggest that Spain is an especially popular entry point for drugs dispatched from Argentina. In April 2010, Spanish officials seized 800 kilograms of cocaine from a truck disguised as an official support vehicle for the Dakar Rally off-road race, later affirming that the drugs were loaded in Argentina. Last January, an executive jet piloted by two sons of Argentine dictatorship-era air force generals arrived in Barcelona from Argentina laden with 1,000 kilograms of cocaine, with the ties to the military piquing concern about institutional corruption. These busts suggest a clear transit route between the two countries and raise questions as to how such a high volume of drugs are exiting Argentina undetected. According to an official report compiled by Martin Verrier, a security advisor for Argentine congressman Francisco de Narvaez, 95 percent of the cocaine shipped from Argentina safely arrives at its destination."In Argentina, the situation is such that narcotraffickers enter and exit without inconvenience," laments Claudio Izaguirre, president of the Argentine Anti-Drugs Association, a Buenos Aires-based NGO.   

As the volume of drugs coursing through Argentina has increased, so too has the amount of drugs available within the country's borders. "Drug mules who move shipments through Argentina are often paid in a mixture of cash and drugs," explains Natalia Gambaro, a congresswoman for the province of Buenos Aires who specializes in security issues. As a result, Argentina's drug consumption rates have exploded.

"Pretty much everyone I know does it," says a 30 year-old Argentine waitress who buys about a gram of cocaine a week. "It's very easy to get hold of and the nightlife here makes it all but necessary. You can work on it and you don't have to sleep." In Argentina, a gram of pure cocaine sells for about 100 pesos, or less than $25, whereas the same amount would cost $120 in the United States. "Buying cocaine in Argentina is like buying coca cola -- it's ridiculously easy," says a 25 year-old American female who lived in Buenos Aires until this April, and enjoyed the ease with which she has been able to buy cocaine, acid, and ecstasy. "I've never felt I had to worry about the law. I've even had friends take bumps as they walk down the street." In 2008, Argentina surpassed its neighbors and the United States: it now has the highest prevalence of cocaine use in the Western Hemisphere: approximately 2.6 percent of the country's population aged 15-64 uses cocaine, a 117 percent increase since 2000. Argentines now consume five times more cocaine than the global average and has one of the highest usage rates in the world.  

Equally worrisome is the country's role as a producer of chemical precursors, the substances used to extract and refine drugs such as cocaine, morphine, and heroine. These chemicals are especially hard to police since they are also necessary to produce legal substances such as plastics, pharmaceuticals, perfumes, cosmetics, and detergents. "This is the gravest problem in our country," claims Cuñarro, the prosecutor and expert in drug-related crime. "Argentina continues to be a place of transit, but because of its chemical capabilities, now it is also part of the production chain."

Smugglers move raw cocaine from Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia to clandestine laboratories in Argentina, where they refine it before shipping it to Europe. Approximately 250 such labs are hidden around Argentina. As chemical import legislation tightens in other countries in the region, the laboratories' narco-chemists are also producing shipments of heroine, ephedrine, and methamphetamines, which are dispatched to Mexico by sea, and then finally trafficked across the border to the United States. While no estimates exist for the total amount of precursor chemicals present in the country, in 2010, authorities seized more ephedrine in Argentina than in any other country except China.

As anti-drug efforts have intensified in their home countries, Mexican and Colombian cartels have shifted parts of their operations, as well as their families, abroad. Last June, U.N. advisor Edgardo Buscaglia travelled to Argentina and confirmed that the Mexican Sinaloa cartel, headed by Chapo Guzman, "the world's most powerful drug trafficker" according to the U.S. Treasury Department, had established a network of bases in the country's north. Other reports suggest Guzman lived in Argentina with his wife and step-daughter until 2011. "Big narcotrafficking organizations are capitalizing on the current characteristics of globalization: the immediacy of transactions, intangible assets, transport, and so on," says Verrier. "Countries with weak institutions, like Argentina, are more exposed to the penetration of these organizations."

The bonds between narco-traffic and terrorism in Argentina also seem to be strengthening.  Since 2001, the United States has had intelligence of "terrorist cells in the triborder area (where Argentina meets Paraguay and Brazil), some of which engaged in narcotrafficking," says former FBI director Louis Freeh. In February 2010, President of Argentina Cristina Kirchner expressed concern about the triborder area to a U.S. congressman.  A few months later in June, Interpol arrested a suspected Hezbollah financier just across the Argentine border in the lawless Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este.  According to a former Obama administration senior security advisor who asked for anonymity, "there has been a big increase in cooperation between organized crime, drug cartels, and terrorist groups" in the triborder area over the past few years.

In reaction to the country's deteriorating drug environment, last July Kirchner announced a new plan called Northern Shield, which will involve the installation of 20 aerial radars and an injection of 6,000 Gendarmerie and Coast Guard personnel, plus 800 Army Special Forces in Argentina's northwest. The Ministry of Security declined an interview request and none of the agencies contacted would comment on the current military presence in Argentina's northwest. Recent announcements by the head of the country's counternarcotics agency SEDRONAR suggest that Argentina might soon decriminalize the possession and consumption of marijuana, allowing the government to redirect its resources away from punishing individual users and towards pursuing drug-trafficking organizations.

Argentina, however, recently lost a key partner in the fight against drug smuggling. In July, Argentina's Ministry of Security ordered the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to suspend its activities in the country until further notice, citing the need for an internal review of cooperative international counternarcotics programs.   The U.S. State Department, in their 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), suggests that the suspension might have also been related to a February scandal in which the Argentine government accused the United States of smuggling guns and surveillance equipment into Argentina under the guise of supplying a police training course. The DEA and the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires both declined interview requests about the drug situation in Argentina.

Verrier, the U.S. congressional security advisor, believes the split may have been more mutual. "We believe that the suspension of the collaboration with the DEA has to do with the strategy of the government to introduce the de-penalization of personal drug consumption this year -- a strategy the DEA has always been against," he explains. 

Whatever the source of the rift, without DEA assistance Argentina's drug interdiction capabilities decreased markedly: cocaine seizures dropped from 12.7 metric tons in 2010 to 5.8 metric tons  in 2011."Decreased seizures may be linked to the constraints imposed on DEA activities, as well as the Government of Argentina's limited capabilities to mount complex, long-term counternarcotics investigations," the State Department wrote in their unusually harsh INCSR Argentina section.

Argentine drug experts are equally critical of their government's efforts. "There are not mixed commissions that work. There are not bonds between judges and prosecutors; judges and prosecutors distrust the law enforcement agencies, and the law enforcement agencies in the provinces don't coordinate with the national law enforcement agencies," says the prosecutor Cuñarro. "It is ridiculous that even now we don't have a collaborative program with Colombia ... it's unintelligible from where I see it."

While experts avow that Argentina will not become a narco-state like Colombia or Mexico, they admit that the country is at a crossroads in its anti-drug efforts. Huge judicial backlogs of trafficking subjects and subpar port and ground control have yet to be addressed, while the decentralized nature of international trafficking groups operating in Argentina will make them much more difficult to disable. "Even when Argentine law enforcement agencies make successful busts, it is usually at the lower levels of the operation. It is rare that those apprehended even know who they're working for," explains Gambarro, the congresswoman.   

Judge Pastor is less optimistic. In an interview with an Argentinean newspaper this February, he wondered where his country is going. "Are we going to wait until we find a car in Jujuy with five dead people inside, like in Ciudad Juarez, or until we find hanging corpses or they kill a judge to start battling this scourge?"