“The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” — Mahatma Gandhi
On the Indonesian island of Java, twenty kilometres from the fast-growing capital city Jakarta, is a malodorous, contaminated world with towering hills of half-decomposed waste, that stretches as far as the eye can see. This monstrosity is Bantar Gebang, the largest uncovered landfill site in Southeast Asia. It is also home to over 3,000 families, many with young children, who make a living amongst the garbage, scavenging what they can.
Jakarta, home to over 10 million people, produces more than 7,000 square metres of garbage per day — a figure that is still growing — and every year hundreds of thousands of tons of trash are indiscriminately dumped here, in the nearby district of Bekasi, at the massive Bantar Gebang landfill.
For the few outsiders who come to experience this place first-hand, it is a shocking wake-up call for the consequences of our over-consumption of the planet’s resources and the desperate need for better waste management. In a society enamoured with all things disposable, we are constantly having to find somewhere to put our rubbish. As general rule, far out of our sight.
On the road towards Bantar Gebang, what hits you first is the smell. Even before you arrive at the site, an overpowering stench of decomposing organic matter steadily invades the atmosphere. Next, the buzzing clouds of flies appear, and finally, the first mountains of waste come distantly into view. Many workers who move here say that when they first arrive they cannot eat, and that the smell makes them vomit constantly for the first few weeks.
Yet, Bantar Gebang has become the poorest people’s El Dorado, a lucrative and chaotic place of individual enterprise where hundreds of families come to salvage what can be resold or eaten. Alongside the stray cats, goats, and cockroaches, they wade knee-deep through decomposing vegetables, soiled clothes, broken furniture, and festering waste of every kind, loading their baskets with glass bottles, tins, and plastics. Business here is booming, and the scavengers, some of them children as young as five, make around 30,000 rupiah (£2.20) a day. For many, this is as good a wage as they will find.
Every day new trucks arrive with more than 8,000 tones of rubbish from Jakarta, depositing their load anywhere they can find space, while bulldozers giant mechanical arms shift and mould the ever-growing mountains of waste.
Many families are accompanied by their young children, who live in the most insanitary conditions imaginable, in this breeding ground for germs and disease. You often see them padding about, barefoot in the rubbish, looking for something which could be used as a toy. Some children slip and injure themselves, and when wounds become infected, there is no medical service available on-site to help them. Many also suffer from suffer skin infections, bronchial problems, and intestinal worms from working on the landfill.
Some of these children were born here, brought into the world amongst the towering mounds of rotting waste that dominate the horizon. Every day, while parents are retrieving what they can resell or eat, these young children wait patiently for the next meal they will share as a family. This meal is often consumed directly off the ground, amidst the flies, foul odours, and trash.
The Bantar Gebang landfill was built on rice paddy fields in the district of Bekasi in 1989, and for some here, this is all they have ever known. Many are unskilled workers who have been scavenging in streets and rubbish bins their whole lives. Others, who once made their living digging the earth, are the former rice farmers whose land has been swallowed up by the relentless tide of garbage. Today, they all make a living by digging the ever-expanding “mountains” of Bantar Gebang, searching for their own personal treasure.
In this filthy and chaotic universe, I begin to understand how one man’s trash becomes another man’s means of survival.
Here, everything old finds a new purpose. Abandoned sofas and tables are often huddled together in impromptu ‘cafes’ where workers will pause to share a cigarette or have a cold drink, while ... You will also hear the call of Bantar Gebang’s resident imams wafting out over the landscapes of trash, but despite a strong sense of community at the landfill, many workers say that they are stigmatised and avoided if they ever cross its boundaries.
Today, the landfill is home to an estimated 3,000 families, and as Jakarta’s waste keeps growing, so does its population. Almost all residents live in makeshift shelters built from tarpaulins and scraps of metal as protection against the sun and rain. Those who have been there longer have fashioned huts from pieces of scrap wood, cardboard, old rugs, plastic advertisements, and nails rummaged from the landfill. During the rainy season, flood water rises and seeps into these dwellings. The water that is used to fulfill their daily needs is drawn from groundwater infected by leakages and sewage.
During the days I spend documenting life at Bantar Gebang, I do my best to show humanity, to take an interest in those living here, to simply be myself, and to convey that I consider those living and working here my equals.
Yet the foul smell is inescapable, the heat suffocating, and whenever I move I sweat, though I make no effort. When you find yourself in conditions like these, in an environment rife with the evidence of inequality, the only thing you feel is an overwhelming sense of gratefulness to have been able to satisfy your basic needs and a burning desire to do something to help. With my foreigner’s gaze, I cannot help but compare my everyday life to that of the men, women and children whose photographs I take. Some of them simply have no point of comparison, and live in acceptance of their condition.
Following the day-to-day existence of the people who call Bantar Gebang their home was also a lesson in the incredible strength and resilience of the human spirit. In the midst of these challenging conditions, people of all ages proved to me that love and joy will always exist even in the worst of places.
On this occasion, I had travelled to Bantar Gebang to learn how I could assist the remarkable Resa Boenard. Brought to the area by her parents when she was just ten months old, Resa grew up one of Bantar Gebang’s children, surrounded by these vast, decaying mountains. At first her parent’s home was among rice fields, today, fifty metres of trash tower outside her windows.
Unlike so many others who live and work here, Resa had the chance to attend secondary school and to complete her studies, experiencing life outside this place, despite frequent bullying by her classmates for living on a landfill. Later, unable to afford the fees to attend university or to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, Resa felt compelled to move back to Bantar Gebang, deciding that she would dedicate her time to helping the people here.
“Just because we are born among rubbish, doesn’t mean we are rubbish. My commitment to the people and young people here, it is still big in my heart. I have to do it.” — Resa, founder of BGBJ
Determined to give other children living on the landfill the same opportunity she had, Resa has re-named the landfill ‘The Kingdom of Bantar Gebang’ and started an organisation called BGBJ, which stands for ‘the seeds of Bantar Gebang’, along with her British friend and co-founder John Devlin. Resa believes that the children at the landfill are like seeds, and when nurtured and supported, they will be able to gain an education and to see that they can become something else. At first, with no funding or other support, Resa simply opened her home to the children living on the dumpsite, and began.
Today, with both a hostel and community hub on the landfill, BGBJ aims to develop a healthy and sustainable way out of poverty for the children and families who live and work here, through education and employment. Since 2014, volunteers and travellers have been helping Resa to expand her work and to turn her neighbourhood into what she calls, “the best dump ever”.
Here you can watch a short video interview I made with Resa during my time there. The positive spirit in Reza’s home and at BGBJ is simply amazing.
Last year, waste management in Jakarta underwent a major shake-up, with multiple blockades and protests preventing trucks from entering the landfill, after disputes erupted between the Jakarta administration and their Bekasi counterparts. Angry at the stench of the never-ending stream of passing garbage trucks hauling waste to the landfill, which were now violating working hours and using a prohibited road, the protesters nearly paralysed Jakarta’s waste management during early November. The disputes were finally resolved when the city’s acting governor visited Bantar Gebang and promised to double the compensation provided for households located near the landfill to Rp 600,000 (around USD $45) every three months.
Though officials have admitted that Jakarta may need at least ten years to start fully addressing its significant waste management issues, some things look set to change. Recent initiatives to trap methane produced by the landfill and build on-site recycling facilities have eased Bantar Gebang’s pollution, and in 2016 a landmark agreement was made with Finnish energy company Fortum to develop an intermediate treatment facility (ITF) in the capital.
Despite expert concerns that the incinerator at this new ITF may emit hazardous substances if plastic waste is not properly removed, it is expected to process 2,000 to 2,200 tonnes of waste per day, and is intended to help reduce the city’s long-term dependency on the Bantar Gebang landfill. Three more bids are currently being conducted for further ITFs in the city.
For now, however, life remains the same for the families and children of the Kingdom of Bantar Gebang, where Resa is affectionately called the ‘queen’.
Taking things one day, and one project, at a time, BGBJ is not waiting for the government to take action and has ambitious plans for improving the lives of the children and families living at Bantar Gebang, such as a new school, a workshop, a tool shed, improved sanitation, and a computer lab. For the past year, they have also been hosting backpackers and travellers, who come to offer English lessons and to go on jalan-jalan or walkabout around the dumpsite. Providing an amazing opportunity for eco-tourism and cultural exchange these events have been a wonderful success with the kids.
So far, BGBJ has been completely independent, funding improvements with their own personal savings, with money generated from the day trips and overnight stays, and with donations from individuals and groups.
Today, they are raising USD $5,000 in seed funds for a workshop that will enable BGBJ to establish a sustainable social enterprise, called ‘BGBJ Style’. With the goal of producing a range of merchandise and upcycled products from the landfill, they have already begun by developing and producing their own natural insect repellant, balms, and candles. Offering alternative employment to some of the parents of BGBJ kids, this enterprise will generate an income so that BGBJ can continue to pay for and improve its services.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” and it is up to all of us to do our bit. For my part, I have been inspired to do everything I can to help support Resa’s work. I hope you will join me.
Please help me support this amazing local organisation through their current GoFundMe campaign, where you will find more stories and details. More information can also be found about their work through the BGBJ website.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.
Alexandre Sattler is a photographer, traveler, and producer of audio documentaries on our planet's diverse cultures, our shared humanity, and the environment.