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 like Recuperar 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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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