The Trash Tragedy

What about Waste Land?

The background: For 34 years, a seaside mountain of waste and filth marred the image of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, causing environmentalists to chastise the country for its “environmental sins.” The landfill—called Jardim Gramacho—accepted 9,000 tons of trash per day, spanning 321 acres of land and growing to heights of 50 meters. Each morning, over 1,700 men and women traveled to the landfill to gather recyclable materials, collecting bottles and containers to be sorted, sold and traded. These individuals—known as the Association of Collectors of the Metropolitan Landfill of Jardim Gramacho—had stories to tell. In 2010, Brazilian-born visual artist Vik Muniz made their stories public, releasing the influential documentary “Waste Land” to a worldwide audience.

Although Waste Land first hit the market in late 2010, it took me until recently to watch the film through. And let me tell you–I’m glad I did. As the beginnings of the film unfolded, with Muniz sharing his passions for modern art and for his birth country of Brazil, I found myself expecting another “rich American saves the poor locals” story. I found something entirely different.

Through the lens of art, Muniz supports a community in search of a sustainable life. They have needs and ambitions just like everyone else, though they resort to trash picking to support their number one priority – their families. And so, through practical charity, Muniz sets out to humbly empower “the pickers,” teaching unity through art. This is where “Waste Land” separates itself–by articulating the need to provide sustainable aid, not just momentary relief.

As agents of change, this is our greatest asset. Not in traveling overseas with free shoes, building materials or personal agendas, but with an ambition to generate lasting change. Muniz is a teacher; he instills hope and community within the people of Jardim Gramacho, qualities that will last–and have lasted–long beyond Muniz’s journey back to southern Brazil.

Have you seen Waste Land? What message did the film leave you with?

Belizean Reflections

“What do you grow in your yard?”

I honestly believe, as humans, that teachable moments have a way of finding us; when we least expect to have our world turned upside down, we find ourselves staring at the ground. This (wholly true) story works to prove my case.

While living with a local family in San Jose Succotz, Belize, a small village just minutes from the Guatemalan border, I developed a meaningful relationship with my home stay brother. To this day, I could not tell you his age; he liked to argue with his mom, who provided a different age than those who knew him well. For the purposes of my story, he was 13.

Succotz Soccer Field

At the center of Succotz lies the village chapel: a communal soccer field

During our first afternoon together, my brother, American friend and I walked around the village to prepare dinner. We made brief stops in several homes, purchasing each villager’s “specialty.” One woman owned a commercial refrigerator for ice, another passionately grew bananas, and another sold fully-dressed chickens. Each family seemed to feel empowered by their product–they made a contribution to the village and the village made a contribution to the family. This process, I learned, represents as the essence of local eating.

That evening, after hours of soccer and a meal made from the ingredients we gathered, I sat down beside my brother and engaged in small talk. He wanted none of it. “What do you grow in your yard?” he asked. I paused, taken back by the authenticity of the moment. Just hours before, his family walked me through their yard, which, at first judgement, seemed dirty and unkempt. Fruits, vegetables and herbs filled every inch of open land, displaying an ungroomed, overgrown plot in need of refinement. I didn’t understand.

“You know, we don’t grow anything,” I sheepishly replied. “Well, where do you get your food?” my brother continued. I stopped again, with thoughts of the American food system stalling my response. “Well, we…we drive to the grocery store, and buy everything we need.” I wanted to include that “our” foods originate nowhere near our homes, where they conveniently find their way to our grocery stores at extremely low prices.

“So, what the heck do you use your yard for?” he boldly asked, with more confusion than ever before. Entirely defeated, I responded, “Well, in America, its important that our yards…look nice.”

There I sat, staring at the ground.

I knew, in this moment, that I learned my lesson. Through the eyes of a 13ish-year old boy, I discovered one of the many foils of the American food system. We see Belizeans and other “developing nations” as resource-less and in need of relief. But does this family really need my support? Or does my family need theirs?

As I think about this sacred moment in my Belizean journey, I cannot help but consider the land’s providence. Suddenly, a Dole banana from Giant seems so unsacred. Have we completely lost sight of a responsible food system? Could we truly live off the land?

“Shipping is a terrible thing to do to vegetables. They probably get jet-lagged, just like people.” (Elizabeth Berry)