Judy spraying the ashes from the fire.  Flames continued appearing for over an hour.

Judy spraying the ashes from the fire. Flames continued appearing for over an hour.

Rather than going to Church to have a cross drawn on my forhead in ash, I was reminded that all will return to dust in a more dramatic manner.  As I was leaving on my bicycle to go to the University after lunch, Judy came into the house looking worried and motioned to the edge of the yard, where there were flames six feet tall.  This is the dry season, and it hasn’t rained since December, which means that except in the garden where we water all day long, the forest that surrounds the house is extremely dry.  We connected all the hoses we could find and started sprinkling the flames with the tiniest trickle of water, which is all we have in the middle of the day here.  Jose Ernesto started hauling dirt down from the garden to throw on the edges and stop the flames from spreading.  It was effective, luckily, and frankly I have no idea why, with the strong wind we have here, the fire didn’t spread down the whole gorge along the property.  We were left with a gigantic pile of smoking ashes, and when I returned at 9 at night there were embers (and a branch of a tree!) still glowing.

The fire was either started by kids as a prank, or more likely by someone burning trash.  Burning trash is an everyday affair here.  It is absolutely normal to come across small fires along the streets, in front of peoples houses, and along the sidewalks in public parks.  Mostly what they are burning are plastic bags and paper trash.  There is municipal trash removal, but the service is limited, costly, and the city just carts it to a hill south of the city and burns it there. If there were an effective system of recycling, maybe that even involved returns like on cans and bottles, maybe there would be fewer trash fires that spread out of control and threaten peoples property and lives.

Below is a photo of the mountain of smoking trash that is the city dump.  I took the photo out of the window of a truck as we passed the dump on the way to visit a SosteNica client.  The air covering the whole village, called Conmarke de Almendro, was faintly foggy, and you could smell the burning trash.  This is what the family lives with every day, breathing this smoky air.  Can you practice sustainable farming with a constant sediment of burnt plastic particles settling out of the air?

Luis, who works in the extension office, told me that in the U.S. trash may be a business but here it is just a nuisance.  There are no recyling facilities, with the exception of metals, and so there is no incentive to collect plastic bottles or paper.  The city streets and any public property lining highways (or the Rio Chiquito that runs through the city, for example) are completely covered in trash.  The city doesn’t have the tax money to remove it, and no one seems to care.  Possibly, there is room here for a profitable plastic recycling business (calling all entrepeneurs!).  But the larger question is, does a better system of trash removal and treatment exist?  Something clearly should be implemented here, but in the states as well we struggle with the volume of trash created and where to dump it all (and in who’s backyard that ends up being…).  Implementing and financing a better system might be among the priorities of the government here, but for now I can just look forward to the coming rainy season, when apparently people burn even more waste in the streets to ward off the mosquitos.

The entrance to the city dump.  The haze covering the mountain is from burning.

The entrance to the city dump. The haze covering the mountain is from burning.