A longstanding scavenger community at the Khon Kaen landfill struggles to make ends meet since an incinerator began taking away the trash to produce energy in 2016. Meet two of the last remaining scavengers.

Guest contribution by Zenya Ledermann

Since the Khon Kaen landfill opened in 1965, the people of Khambon village have made a living scavenging at the dumpsite. The landfill saw 450 to 600 tons of trash deposited there each day. But an incinerator built in 2016 is stripping them of their livelihood and villagers now struggle to get by. 

At first, the company that owns the incinerator, Absolute Clean Energy Group (ACE), agreed to dump the trash in the landfill, allowing villagers to scavenge before taking the remaining garbage to be incinerated. But according to the villagers, the trucks now head directly to the incinerator, leaving the scavengers with nothing to sort through.

The incinerator factory has been burning the trash to generate electricity for more than two years, producing a maximum of 1.5 megawatts per day for the factory, and another 4.5 MW sold to the government. Running continuously for the year, the 6 MW bring the company about 400,000 baht ($12,763) per day. The company sells the electricity produced by the factory in exchange for the piddling amount of trash that could be scavenged by the community–enough to sustain the livelihoods of scavengers.

Ten years ago, 60 to 70 people scavenged daily. With the precipitous loss of income, now there are only 20 or so hanging on.

The factory employs only a handful of villagers from Khambom, all of whom work as security guards. The Bangkok-based owner staffs the factor mostly with workers from the capital.

Many villagers have stopped scavenging because there just isn’t enough trash and it is not worth the effort. A couple, Kamsorn Koddong (right) and Serng Koddong (left), are two of last scavengers in the area. They used to be day laborers until they began sorting trash over 15 years ago. Serng was born in the community but his wife Kamsorn moved there in 1969 from a nearby province. Both in their late sixties, they are too old to get a job elsewhere. “There is nothing else for us to do. No one wants someone like me to work for them. We have no other option,” says Kamsorn.

The Koddongs had three children. Their oldest son passed away from a blood disease a few years ago. So now they have only two daughters, one of which who moved to Bangkok to find work, leaving her two sons behind for her parents to take care of since the father died when the boys were young. They have been out of touch with her and she does not support her parents financially.

The second daughter works for a recycling factory outside of Khon Kaen. On days when her children are not in school, her elderly parents take care of them as well. She lives close by so they see her often but she also cannot help them out with money as she makes only 200 baht a day and has to support her own family.

Scavenging mostly old plastic bags and bottles, the Koddongs work everyday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., harvesting three large bags weighing 7 kilos each. They’ll sell it for 42 baht ($1.27). Before the incinerator arrived, they used to make at most 215 baht ($6.50) per day. Now, they sort through what they call “old trash” that has been in the landfill for years and holds no surprises. In the “new trash” the couple used to find a few extra baht, jewelry, larger items, and other valuables which they could count towards their income. Once they found a gold ring, which they didn’t sell but exchanged for a gold necklace at a gold shop in the city.

Not only is scavenging under a beating sun difficult enough, but transporting the collection is an equal struggle. Bags often topple off of the cart or rip, spilling all the recently collected contents. The two bring their collection to a makeshift shelter where they empty and sort through the materials. They must organize, compile, and store the trash for when scrap merchants stop by to purchase it, which is unreliably scheduled.

The incinerator has brought other problems in its wake. The burning of trash pollutes the air, villagers living at the landfill say, and many have developed rashes, headaches, and vision problems.

Earlier this year, the remaining scavengers and other villagers organized a protest, blocking the trucks from driving straight to the incinerator. But the police forced them to stop. “We used to live a better life, but now we struggle. I wish it was back like before,” Serng says.

“I feel sad, I am very unsatisfied. They lied and I’m angry, but there’s nothing we can do. If we don’t listen to them, we will get arrested,” Kamsorn (left) says. “They first told us they would let us scavenge. Then they told us they would give compensation, but they didn’t. They don’t care about us at all.”

To help make ends meet, their youngest grandson (middle) delivers water after school, earning around 100 baht a day. The little free time they have is spent relaxing together in their home.

They are the two of the last remaining scavengers of Khambon. What once was a (relatively) thriving livelihood has been decimated by the incinerator. Remaining scavengers like these two have turned to despair. Unsure of the future, Kamsorn and Serng continue with their work; and once they are gone, the community of Khambon may disappear with them.

Zenya Lederman studies Environmental Science and Anthropology at Eckerd College. This semester she has been studying issues of human rights rights and development in Khon Kaen.