Living and dying on a rubbish dump is not a choice as much as it is a necessary reality for resident wastepickers at the Hulene dump in Maputo, Mozambique. It presents itself as a contradiction of being an informal sector worker who - despite contributing to sustainability and a more circular economy - faces neglect, disrespect, and the ongoing threat of physical harm. Maputo, the country’s economic hub is a fast growing city with approximately 1.2 million residents. In 2017, it produced an estimated 1,100 metric tons of waste daily (5). However, Hulene dump was built in colonial times, when the population of the city was but a fraction of what it is now. From 1977 to 1992, the Hulene neighbourhood underwent a population boom during the Mozambican civil war, and people fleeing the war in rural areas further north came to seek refuge in urban centres like Maputo (1). Over time, the increasing cost of living and lack of adequate housing in Maputo has pushed many people to the periphery as part of a prolonged and disordered process of urban sprawl, driving some to set up homes around the dump (4). So many residences have been built around the dump that Hulene has essentially become a garbage island surrounded by houses (3). Population and economic growth (for some) has not been accompanied by proportionate increases in public service provisioning, resulting in serious deficiencies in the treatment of municipal solid waste.
Hulene dump site is uncovered, untreated, and open 24 hours a day. The piles of accumulated waste dumped by bulldozers at the 17 hectare site have grown so mountainous that they exceed 50 meters (1,2). These huge piles also fester, so much so that they reportedly even self-ignite (5). Hulene dump reached capacity long ago, and has been crowded for over ten years (3), adding to the many risks of living and working near an unconventional and hazardous dump. A local environmental activism group, Livaningo, has been campaigning for 15 years for the dump’s closure because of this (1). In 2013, after mounting public pressure, the city government agreed to close the Hulene rubbish dump and relocate it to Matlemele, a neighbouring city of Matola (1). But the relocation never happened due to alleged “budget constraints” (1). In July 2016, there was another attempt to pressure authorities to speed up the dump’s closure when residents of Hulene’s “B” neighborhood met with managers from both municipalities at an event organized by Livaningo (2). This again resulted in little action by any local governments. Finally, on February 19th, 2018, the grim consequences of unsafe and unmanaged waste accumulation in one of the poorest parts of the city were exposed when heavy rains triggered a landslide at Hulene dump, killing seventeen people, injuring 5 others, and destroying several homes (1,4). Twelve of the sixteen casualties were women (5), highlighting the gendered dimension of this precarious informal work.
The official solution put forward by state authorities, and generally supported by public opinion, has been the closure of Hulene dump and the relocation of resident families to other parts of the city (6). Shortly after the deadly landslide in February 2018, Celso Correia, Mozambican minister of land, environment and rural development, estimated the cost of closing the Hulene dump at $110 million. He also claimed that construction was finally underway on the replacement landfill in Matlemele (3,4). Matola’s mayor, Calisto Cossa, said that the new landfill would cost $40 million (3). Regarding Hulene, Correia claimed that its closure would take at least five years and would follow several steps, including relocating the 550 families living near the site and investing technology and labor into making the site safe for new activities (3). But if wastepickers are not integrated into Maputo’s formal waste management system or employed in the operation of Matola’s new landfill, which during the time of Cossa’s claims was slated to open in 2019, what options will they be left with?
In March of 2018, it was reported that land clearing at the site of the new landfill in the Matlemele neighbourhood was about begin (7). Twenty-one families were to be relocated and provided with monetary compensation in order to rent houses for 6 months. The remaining families in the area were to be relocated to other unoccupied areas (7). However, the idea of building the landfill was not popular with Matlemele residents, despite the 1.7 million meticais given to compensate for their 86 farming plot (7). In June, four months after the tragedy, demolition of houses in the area around Hulene led to reports of less cluttered houses, people, and cars crammed in the narrow street next to the garbage heap (8). Local neighborhood chief David Nassone stated that “I cannot say that the problem is solved, but recently we have not had as many problems as before.” With this he was referring to the fact that improved visibility had made the area less prone to assaults and other crimes. However, in order to manage rainwater flowing from the garbage heaps, the Municipal council dug a drainage ditch whose waters stand stagnant, creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes and diseases which have always plagued Hulene’s residents. “There are diseases here, there is malaria and cholera like you can’t imagine,” Nassone remarked. These concerns, along with the possibility of children drowning, lead residents to question why promises made to relocate local families were still not being fulfilled. “What I heard from the councilwoman when they were doing the demolitions was that they were going to build a wall around the dump, but so far nothing has been done. This worries the locals,” Nassone stated. The struggle for survival continues as demolitions forced wastepickers to rent houses nearby, but with the continued dumping of garbage at the site, at least they could have more room to sort and sell their recyclables (8).
The Hulene tragedy has led to even louder calls for the mayor’s resignation, especially since unsafe conditions have been an ongoing concern for all who work and live near the site. On June 30th of 2018, protesters roamed the city streets to Independence Square, holding banners and chanting slogans such as "It's 17 years of pleas and promises that resulted in a tragedy today," and, "No to open dumps, but to landfills" (4). The march, also promoted by Livaningo, was intended to express solidarity with the victims of the tragedy and to demand that the government 1) Practice greater speed and transparency in the process of relocating affected families, and 2) adopt policies that guarantee sustainable solid waste management.
One of the residents of Hulene and a participant in the march, Amelia Carlos, claimed that she still remembered the moments when she lost her friends and acquaintances. "It was very sad. What we are asking the Government to do is take out the trash because there is no living properly among the smell and the flies” (4). Alves Talala, manager of Livaningo's urban environmental governance program, told reporters that, "The government said after the Hulene tragedy it would close the dump, within two months, but so far there is no progress," adding that, "construction of the new landfill in Mathemele has also been stopped". Talala also recalled how no progress had been made to relocate people affected by the tragedy within the promised three months, and stressed that long as the government does not take the issue of landfill construction seriously, there may be more victims (4). "This is a national problem. So we call on the government to solve the problem nationwide," Talala stated. She went on to explain how one of the consequences of improper waste management is environmental pollution, which negatively affects the public health of those who live around hazardous waste (4).
At Hulene, resident wastepickers have dealt with dangerous conditions with little to no protection, leaving them vulnerable to pathogens and biohazards and susceptible to disease. For fifty years they have been living with the consequences: the foul stench, rats, flies, toxic fumes from the constant burning of rubbish, among other issues (8). Children at the site also suffer from illnesses like diarrhea and tuberculosis (2). Residents of Hulene are subjected to these health risks because they desperately need to collect recyclable materials in order to secure their livelihoods. So central among any and all plans to close the site for good should be a comprehensive and inclusive strategy for assuring that the hundreds of families currently living there will be able to continue surviving.
Over 120 families who had lived in the immediate vicinity of Hulene are currently receiving assistance at an accommodation center set up by Maputo Municipal Council in the Ferroviario neighbourhood (6). But many families still remain and, as mentioned earlier, some refuse to move, despite the threat of future garbage pile collapses (6). This is because nearly everything can be collected, reformed, and sold by wastepickers in Hulene: food scraps, canned food from supermarkets, iron, aluminum, brass, tin, copper wire from damaged appliances, glass and plastic bottles, wood, cardboard, paper, stones, cigarette filters, damaged furniture, cotton, rubber, hospital and computer waste (4). Some wastepickers have reported selling their collected materials to Chinese buyers for between five and seven meticais (between eight and 12 US cents) a kilo (6). So while the government’s designation of 60 hectares for resettlement seems like a positive outcome (6), it fails to address how families in the new zone will attain income, at least through relatively more legal means.
In February 2019, a year after the garbage landslide disaster, it was reported that families living near Hulene dump had yet to be resettled. Families whose homes were destroyed continue to live in rented accommodation paid by the municipal authorities (9). Residents complain of how long this process has taken, and while Posulane, in Marracuene district had been chosen as the family resettlement location, there were still no signs of construction. "Living in a rental house is not the same as living in our house," lamented Elias Matias, an affected resident. "In my former house I sowed vegetables, raised animals, and could do a lot of shopping, but they don't fit in this house," he remarked (9). Other former residents of Hulene, such as Simon Matusse, complained of a lack of information regarding their future. "So far they have not said anything. We have no hope since they cancelled the lease money two months ago, and we don’t know what will happen" he claimed. At the point the last lease installment had been paid in December of 2018 (9). Residents expressed concern as to whether the new mayor, Eneas Comiche, would solve this problem. In an effort to reassure affected families, Maputo's former city councilor David Simango promised in a late January interview that he would not leave the matter unresolved, and that paying home rental subsidies, building decent houses, and handing over the keys to those affected would still happen(9). He attributed the delayed house construction in Marracuene to administrative procedures. Apparently, the municipality had launched a home building competition, which was postponed because of competitor complaints. Simango then said that the issue had been overcome and that they were waiting for visas so that the work can begin." At that time, the newly elected members of the Maputo Municipal Council had yet to comment on this issue (9).
On Wednesday, February 27th, 2019, a cooperation agreement on urban solid waste management was signed between Celso Correia and Yoshiaki Harada, Environmental Minister of Japan (10). The agreement focuses on strengthening technical assistance, training, and technology transfer in the area of urban solid waste management as a means of overcoming Mozambique’s current solid waste management challenges. With this came the announcement that Hulene Dump would be used for another 10 to 15 years without harming the environment or public health due to the introduction of a Japanese technology known as the Fukuoka Method (10). This will essentially transform Hulene from an open dump to a semi-aerobic landfill that will undergo fermentation in the inner layers of the site’s waste, have natural air intake through gas ventilation, and liquid waste collection through channels. Correia believes that this solution will bring hope and improved welfare to the people of Maputo, particularly those in the vicinity of Hulene Dump (10). However, only time will tell as to whether wastepickers at Hulene will experience safer and more secure livelihoods from the conversion.
More than half of Mozambique's working population works in the informal sector, and according to Livango, all municipalities in Mozambique deposit solid waste in open-air dumps (4), with the exception of what will soon become of Hulene. In Hulene, wastepickers are tolerated, but beyond the walls, they remain on the fringes of a society that ignorantly views them as failed people. Excluded from national policies and strategies, wastepickers have remained largely invisible in the eyes of the law (4). Wastepickers perform an important environmental service and deserve to have their work be formally recognized. In Maputo, while some victories have been won by women-run wastepicker cooperatives like RECICLA (5), life is still precarious for this sector of the city’s poor.