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In Medellín, A Scavenger's Dump Turned Community Garden

The main open dump in the Colombian city evolved over decades from an informal home to scavengers to becoming a focus of communal resurgence.

The Moravia neighborhood in Medellin, Colombia
The Moravia neighborhood in Medellin, Colombia
Paulina Tejada

MEDELLÍN — In this sprawling Colombian city, a mountain of trash has evolved into a home and source of income for some 50,000 families. It is called Moravia, and has literally become a garden growing on what a city has thrown away.

One local resident is Francisco Javier Ramírez. As a child, he would play with buzzards and rats in the Medellín dump. He was seven years old when the words home, work and garbage merged in his mind. "Find something worthwhile while you're scouring for trinkets," grown-ups would tell him, promising to "pay by the day." Thus, before he could count, Ramírez learned to earn a living from the municipal trash pile that was.

It stank, but it was home "and you always adapt to home," he says. When he was not classifying trash, he would take stones from the gully to help build a makeshift sewerage for the dump's growing population. This was in the 1970s and drug trafficking was on the rise in Medellín, the capital of Antioquia, Colombia's north-central region. With guerrilla warfare also intensifying in various parts of the country, hundreds of people would come here, seeing the mound of trash as a more reasonable place to live.

The mound rose at the pace of all the huts being built with plastic, cans, wood, fibers or cardboard. Like Ramírez's family, many others — perhaps 50,000 — made this their dwelling place and source of income. Everything they needed arrived: frozen chicken that was past its expiration date and unsellable, but remained edible, pineapples and tomatoes with bruised tips that could always be cut, clothes with a couple of holes. There were recyclable paper and cardboard, and curious items or parts that were easily sold on to others.

Moravia has evolved into a real home for many in Medellín — Photo: Iván Erre Jota

What was worthless to many, says Ramírez, "gave us life." He laughs every time he recalls the days when rummaging through trash, he would find wads of cash hidden in old mattresses. "I always thought the money belonged to some grandma with her children changing her bed without telling her. Poor thing, she lost her savings," he says. But he adds, you could you also find "bad things there. Fetuses, live and dead babies, limbs, blood."

In 1984, a decree ended use of the place as an open dump. By then, the dump was 40 meters high and still an informal place of residence. William Gómez, today a local community leader, came here in those years after fleeing guerrillas in the Magdalena Medio region in central Colombia. He says there were recurring fights over a piece of cardboard or a jar, and the diverse origins of these colonists were a prelude to all kinds of disputes. This, he says, "was not considered a neighborhood, but a dark spot in the city. A source of pollution, a nest of flies, fights, rats and thieves."

Meanwhile, various studies pointed out the public health dangers of leaching from the dump, and of toxic threats to homes. Locals ignored the warnings and despite adverse conditions, and began planting vegetable patches over the trash, and to build a church, says Gómez, a school and soccer field. Such endeavors, he says, happened with help from the revolutionary priest Vicente Mejía, a contemporary of Camilo Torres, the country's best known Marxist priest, and later from the infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

The city was forced then to recognize the terrain as a metropolitan settlement in 1993. That meant the arrival of public services, a city budget, social investments and new opportunities for residents, through cooperative initiatives likeRecuperar and Recicladores (Recover, Recyclers). These allowed the habitual separation and classification activities to become formal, and associated with city businesses.

The neighborhood, in northeastern Medellín, was named Moravia, which its residents proudly state is a play on the words morar sobre la vía, or Living on the Road. Yet faced with overcrowding, dubious sanitary conditions and risks of chemical poisoning for locals, the city government decided in 2005 to implement a relocation plan. More than 4,000 families left the dump to occupy an allotment in Pajarito in the San Cristóbal suburb of Medellín.

Trash is in their memory.

The decision was taken in people's interest but faced criticisms for the way it was implemented, mainly because many of the families lived entirely off recycling trash. The anthropologist and former cultural manager for this part of the city, Duván Londoño, says "it is impossible to pursue your work being far from the city center. People aren't going to load and carry big packs of trash on the metro every day."

Some are still refusing to leave their home on the dumpster. "Trash is in their memory," says Londoño, and "physically beneath their floor, but it is also in their work and productive projects. In losing these things, they lose themselves, which is why many have even sold their homes in Pajarito to return to the neighborhood."

Community leader William Gómez says that though relocating people is necessary, he feels it should have been a more participatory process.He still points out the success of most joint initiatives carried out here, like the Cultural Development Center, which became a "home to everyone" living and working in Moravia as a place of art, memory and a venue for community meetings. Gómez himself is tasked with creating compost from local organic waste, while others contribute in their ways to the upkeep of a garden that now covers what was once a heap of trash. In 2017, the Moravia Mound (Morro de Moravia) project received an international prize for environmental innovation.

There is still trash under the flowers and vegetables, but residents insist there is no problem with eating the mangos, bananas or passion fruit grown here, nor will it prevent Moravia becoming "Medellín's prettiest neighborhood," as local guide and longtime resident Orley Mazo says. "Each and every one of us take part in the transformation of this place, and not just its ground, but its people. We all build this community. I am not moving from here," Mazo says.

Francisco Javier Ramírez, walking on the mound that retaught him what home, work and life mean, he still talks to the plants and picks up any bit of misplaced trash. "For me, this neighborhood has been my source of enterprise, growth and development," he says. "Today I am proud to have made a garden from a mountain of trash. I have never left my home, I'm just decorating it as I please, with colors and love."

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​photograph of a smartphone on a selfie stick

Smartphone on a selfie stick

Steve Gale/Unsplash
David Craig and Stuart Cunningham

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