In the framework of some research and development work of the Federal German State of Thuringia and the Bauhaus-University Weimar, I worked on the implementation of a pilot composting plant in the capital of Cambodia. My activities, in the sector of waste management in Phnom Penh (November 2000 to Mai 2001) left within me very intense impressions, which have had a lasting effect to the present day. To a large extent the people on the municipal landfill in Stung Mean Chey are responsible, for they touched me deeply with their humble and friendly being.

After a long and traumatic civil war Cambodia is struggling hard with a broad variety of problems, which demand an urgent solution. Though the modest growth of economy nourishes hope for an improvement, only a very small portion of the society profits from this development. For a larger portion of Cambodia’s society, no possibility appears to open up to escape the vicious circle of poverty, lack of education and lack of income generation.

The capital and biggest city in the country, Phnom Penh is not prepared to face the pressure on its inefficient and inappropriate infrastructure, which is caused by the constant influx of the rural population. One major problem is the rapidly increasing waste production, which cannot always be mastered by the inefficient waste management system. Waste accumulates on street corners and on open spaces or is quickly disposed of in the municipal sewage canals. For some people, who complain about high waste fees in Europe, these seem to be heavenly circumstances. In reality this carelessly disposed waste is nourishment for vermin and promotes the distribution of infectious diseases and is responsible for a broad spectrum of additional burdens for the population and for the environment.

For one group among the poorest part of the urban population this problematic waste serves as basis for their daily survival. They are called scavengers or wastepickers (1).

The wastepickers search through disposed waste for recyclable valuable material and usable items in order to sell them to depots around the city. These humans trudge each day in the muggy tropical heat in very difficult circumstances. The humid smell of rotting garbage on the landfill and the millions of flies are overwhelming to any visitor who walks over the dumpsite for the first time. The working conditions on the dump are not only not fit for human beings, but are extremely unhealthy and dangerous. Billows of toxic smoke roll over the garbage pile. The dump is burning openly in many spots and the intensive fumes get caught in clothes and make the eyes fill with tears. It is not a nice place for work and even less to live, but that is exactly what it is for the wastepickers: their place for living and working, the place where their kids are born, old people die, where suffering and extreme poverty is reality and routine. But it is also a place, where people are laughing, kids are playing and boys and girls fight with each other and fall in love with each other but it takes a while until one can recognize the simple human reality in this unbeautiful scenery. In my case it took quite a while until I could grasp that.

Quite frankly, the first time I entered the garbage dump of Phnom Penh I was deeply shocked. The poverty of the people was repulsive to me. I was afraid that I might soil myself or be sick. I therefore avoided any physical contact with the people there. Fortunately I was forced professionally and humanly to become engaged with the wastepickers and so it came to be that I eventually had wonderful encounters, especially with the kids on the site, which I would now regret to miss.

I hope that I can repay them a small part, as a “Thank You” for what they taught me, even if it is only in the telling of their stories.

(1) The word "scavenger" derives from "to scavenge" and is usually used in connection with animals eating carrion. For this reason I refuse to use the word "scavenger" in a semantic connection with humans. Nevertheless this notation is (unfortunately) frequently used in scientific publications for "wastepickers" or "garbage collectors". Subsequently I will only talk about "wastepickers", because this notation describes the activities of these humans in the most felicitious way without limiting the general understanding of the topic.