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Cambodia

Stung Meanchey

updated January 2002

Stung Meanchey is an industrial neighborhood on the southwestern outskirts of Phnom Penh. Many tourists pass through it on their way to visit the Killing Fields Memorial at Choeung Ek unaware of the day-in day-out events taking place but a single kilometer off the main road. Every day at the Stung Meanchey garbage dump several hundred people scavenge through Phnom Penh's daily refuse. Most are looking for recyclable materials which they turn in at small local recycling businesses earning themselves an average daily income of about 2000 Cambodian riels (US 50 cents). Most of the people working at Stung Meanchey are teenagers, though I have met children as young as 7 and adults well into their 40s.

As each truck arrives, several dozen people crowd near the back, inches from the wheels and truck bed, ignoring the warning of the ever-sounding truck horn. The trucks drop their loads slowly providing opportunity for some of the braver scavengers to jump in the back to get a head start on the garbage that hasn't yet had a chance to hit the ground. Others stand at the edge chopping at the garbage with their picks. Once the garbage does hit the ground, the crowd quickly lays siege to the fresh pile, attacking it with their picks, shovels, hands, whatever. Speed wins and, surprisingly, aggressiveness does not. It's survival of the quickest here. Though itís clearly every person for themselves, this does not include pummeling your neighbor.

Photo left: a woman is walking over rotting garbage as she carries breakfast foods to sell to the workers in the early morning hours.

 

Hazards

Scattered among the plastic, metal, paper, rotting food, and miscellany is medical waste. Hypodermic needles are a common sight here, some are still in their plastic cases but many larger needles are not. This is because the plastic cases are picked up by the children. The kids, using their bare hands, will remove the needles from the cases, tossing the needles on the ground while dropping the plastic cases into their bags. Each one is worth about a penny. A girl I once interviewed had several of these in her basket. I asked if she knew of the danger of needles. She said that she did, as did several others I asked the question to later, but none seemed too concerned about it. Not as long as the plastic cases are worth something.

Many kids do not have proper footwear. For many it's only flip-flops; while worse, some go barefoot. Foot injuries are very common here as needles, glass, and metal all create hazards. For some of the youngest kids, the dump also serves as a playground.

But perhaps the biggest danger at Stung Meanchey is the smoke. In March 2000 the Phnom Penh Post published an article on the release of hard figures detailing the dangerous levels of dioxin found in hair and breast-milk samples taken from residents in the area of the garbage dump. Not that this came as a surprise to anyone, if you have burning garbage that includes a lot of plastic, youíre going to get dioxin, but at least now they had some hard data. Unfortunately, the workers and residents of Stung Meanchey don't read the Phnom Penh Post and from my interviews I found that nobody is telling them anything about it, despite the fact that several NGOs provide assistance in the form of free basic medical care.

In January 2001, the Phnom Penh Post reported further studies conducted by Dr. Shinsuke Tanabe of Japan's Ehime University's Center for Marine Environmental Studies on soil and human tissue confirm the existence of dangerous levels of dioxin in the soil and heavy metals in the metabolisms of garbage dump scavengers.

The following month, again reported in the Phnom Penh Post, the Cambodian Ministry of Environment challenged Dr. Tanabe's study, claiming his methodology to be flawed as it produced results that contradicted the Ministry's own studies. See "SOURCES" below for further information.

Photos:
Left: A teenage girl hacks away at a mound of garbage in front of a dense cloud of smoke.
Right:
Two girls take a break from their scavenging while a dense cloud of toxic smoke drifts behind them.

Bad coughs are common and many of the workers do complain of frequent headaches and dizziness. Surprisingly, not all of the people necessarily attributed this to the smoke. While some are certainly aware that it poses some kind of danger, there were many who had no idea why I would ask them questions about their health. While you might think common sense and discomfort would keep someone from walking through a thick cloud of smoke, my observations have indicated otherwise.

[Left: Workers sift through piles of garment factory refuse. Some of the fabric has been dipped in toxic chemicals.]

Garment factory refuse is another hazard. As reported in the Phnom Penh Post, much of the discarded cloth has been dipped in hazardous chemicals. Of another concern are trucks dumping loads of unknown toxic substances. If there are any regulations in Cambodia in respect to the dumping of hazardous materials they certainly won't be enforced in Stung Meanchey. One worker reported to me that a truck once dumped a load of chemicals and while nobody knew what they were, they knew enough to stay away from them. Given that a majority of scavengers are utterly fearless about their work environment, the fact that they all avoided a particular load of garbage says plenty about what it must have contained.

A Profile

I've spoken with many teenage workers at the Stung Meanchey garbage dump. Though the details differ from person to person, the general stories of their lives do not. They are desperately poor, illiteracy is high, education is low, and many families are no longer intact, death being the most frequent cause. Ambition is non-existent. Though many teenagers express an interest to go to school, none has offered any ideas as to what they would study or what they would do with an education.

Therefore, given the commonalities of the many teenagers at Stung Meanchey, I've chosen a single individual to profile; if for no other reason that I know her better than any of the other teenagers, and well, I really like this kid.

Em Phoeun (age 14)

Phoeun is illiterate and has never attended school. A tiny girl that stands about 4'9" and might weigh 75 pounds [December 2001: she's grown a few inches since], she has worked at the Stung Meanchey garbage dump for five years. She lives near the dump with her mother, a younger brother, an older sister, and as of July 2000, a newborn nephew. Her family once included a father and two other older sisters but they have all since died. For the time being, Phoeun's family largely depends on her and her older sister to provide money. In late 1999, Phoeun's mother, who used to haul 50-kilogram bags of cement on her back, had a mishap with one of those sacks and hasn't worked since. Having no money, she has never seen a doctor for whatever injury it is she received. Occasionally, Phoeun can scrape up enough extra money to buy a little medicine for her mother but most of her earnings have to buy food. Her younger brother, age 9, can occasionally be bothered to help at the dump and her older sister works in a nearby cement factory. On a good day Phoeun makes 2,000 riels (52 cents), but often settles for earning only a thousand.

Phoeun's health seems no better or worse than anybody else's. She does cough a lot and gets headaches every couple of days, which she does attribute to the smoke. However, she is sensible enough to clothe herself properly and keep her feet protected.

I first met Phoeun in October 1999, finding a shy but somewhat curious, smiling kid who willingly answered my questions. Sometimes she'll ignore my presence at Stung Meanchey, other times she'll spend part of her morning following me around, joking and teasing with me - often with a friend. On one of those days when she was spending more time watching me than working I asked her, as a truck passed by with a fresh load of garbage, why she wasnít working. "That garbage is no good," she told me, "it comes from the market," recognizing good garbage from bad garbage by the truck that brings it in.

I asked her once what was the strangest thing sheíd ever seen at Stung Meanchey. She couldnít think of anything. "Nothing strange?" I pressed, having my interpreter repeat the question. Phoeun thought for a moment, snickered, and pointed at me. "You," she said.

Most other responses to the above question were far less humorous, with 'dead people' being the majority answer. One woman reported seeing a body that was nearly a skeleton except for the hands and feet. She was sure it was the result of some kind of ritualistic cannibalism.

The Phnom Penh Post reported that several kids are killed at Stung Meanchey every year, usually as a result of a truck backing over them. I asked Phoeun about this. She has indeed seen several kids killed by trucks, seeing it happen about once a year. In 2000? By May 2000 her quota had already been filled.

On a visit to Stung Meanchey at the end of July 2000, Phoeun took me to see her home and meet her mother. She lives in a shack of about five or six square meters - a wooden platform with roughly three improvised walls and a makeshift roof. It sits with about twenty other similar homes. Walking into this small shantytown, I was met with tremendous warmth and hospitality from the neighbors and from Phoeun's mother who gladly talked to me, telling me her family's story.

The area where they live is private property, owned by a woman who allows the residents to live in the squalid shacks for five dollars a month rent. While the area in front of the homes is kept clean, the same can't be said for what sits behind the houses.

Phoeun's mother's name is Tes Searng and she is 48 years old. She lost her husband about nine years ago while she was pregnant with her only son. Her husband had gone to Kompong Cham to conduct some kind of business. She was vague on the details, but it seemed to have something to do with boats and bamboo. By her description, he had come into some money when several local Muslims conducted some kind of black magic to kill him. I interpreted this as meaning he was probably murdered in either a robbery or over a bad business deal. A year or two later, two of Searng's daughters, then age nine and twelve, both became ill and died. Phoeun would have been about seven at the time.

I found Ms. Searng to be a very warm, kind woman who expressed great thanks for the photo of her daughter I had given to Phoeun last March. She implored me to come visit again and be sure to bring more photos.

I returned in October and found a healthier Ms. Searng. Phoeun on the other hand, though healthy, was in an absolute foul mood, snapping at several children and glaring at everyone, including me. She had no interest in looking at any photos or doing anything else for that matter and only with reluctance allowed herself to be photographed. Her mother offered that Phoeun might be moody as she hadn't really eaten much in the past two days because the family had no money for food at the moment and were two months behind on their rent. Yours truly solved both problems.

Phoeun is often been a little touchy, and I can hardly blame her - fourteen years old, working in a polluted garbage dump for 25 to 50 cents a day and not having eaten in two days - sure, I could forgive this. I promised the family I would pay a visit when I returned to Phnom Penh, but it probably wouldn't be until March 2001.

Update: March 26, 2001

As promised, I returned on the afternoon of the 17th of March. I first looked for Phoeun at the dump but I didn't see her so I went to her home and found her there. The family had moved to a different shack across the courtyard, house #18. Phoeun was in a good mood and seemed genuinely happy to see me, as did her mother. I immediately noticed why Phoeun wasn't working - she had a very nasty injury on her left hand.

She said she was holding on to the side of a truck while it was dumping garbage and her hand got pinched, ripping out a piece of the side of her hand (about an inch and a half long, half an inch wide, and about half an inch deep). An NGO doctor (she thinks the doctor was from Pour un Sourire d'Enfant) did clean the wound, gave her a tetanus shot, and bandaged it up for her.

The accident had happened just one week prior to my visit.  When I arrived she had no bandage on her hand and the wound was already infected. She described 'a white liquid' coming out of the wound and that she was in a lot of pain which was 'shooting' up to her elbow. 

To her credit, she wasn't working, but the family couldn't afford to keep her idle much longer - they had no food and no money. Though they understood the idea of cleanliness and keeping the injury clean, it was fairly obvious that the family really didn't understand how to do it properly or understand the potential seriousness of the injury if the infection was allowed to spread. I asked the family if they'd like me to take Phoeun to a doctor and have the wound reexamined. They agreed, so I promised to return at 10:00 a.m. the following morning. I didn't tell them that the wound would have to be reopened and thoroughly cleaned, a very painful but necessary procedure.

The next day I took a visibly nervous Phoeun to Calmette Hospital. She had never been to a hospital before. Sure enough, they opened the wound, cleaned it thoroughly and shot her full of antibiotics. The procedure cost me all of $5. We stopped next at a pharmacy to fill the doctor's prescription of more antibiotics and also to purchase some bandages and antibiotic soap.

Allow me a brief digression. Much is said about the world becoming smaller. With advanced forms of travel, of communication, the easy access to and exchange of information, our big planet seems to grow smaller with every advancement in technology. However, it can just as easily be said that these advancements in fact make small worlds larger. I always figured Phoeun's world was pretty small, but I never knew until this day just how small it was or how little effort it would take for that world to grow a bit.

After the pharmacy I took Phoeun to lunch in the restaurant at my hotel, the Dara Reang Sey. She had never been in a restaurant before. Nervously, she fidgeted in her chair, eyes darting around taking in her strange surroundings. She was very shy and quiet. As she was unable to read the menu, Lucky - my friend and interpreter, ordered some rice and chicken for her which she attacked with a vengeance, helping herself to an extra helping of rice.

After lunch I asked Phoeun if she knew what a computer was or if she had ever heard of the Internet. She had heard the word computer before but had never seen one. Internet meant nothing to her. I told her it was sort of like magazines on computers that anybody in the world can look at. I then told her that I had a story about her and about Stung Meanchey and many other things about Cambodia as well. I asked if she'd like to see it. Her big smile meant 'yes'.

We went to one of the many Internet cafes on Sisowath Quay along the riverfront. I sat at the computer terminal, Phoeun next to me, and Lucky on the outside to interpret for me. I went through these very pages describing to her what I was writing about. I showed her the Hazards section. Did she know about the dangers of the needles? Yes, she knew. The dangers of going barefoot? Yes. The dangers of the smoke? Yes. About the chemicals in the dirt? No, she didn't know anything about that. Did she know about the dangers of the discarded cloth from the garment factories? No, she didn't know about that either. She knows now. Next, I showed her this section. She sat wide-eyed but quiet, as photos of herself, her mother, her home filled the computer screen. Phoeun pointed to things she recognized. Then I showed her the section on the NGOs. She told me she goes there for free breakfast about two times a week.

I then showed her the section on the kids who live on the streets of Phnom Penh. Phoeun found this very interesting. "What do their parents think of them being on the streets sniffing glue?" she wanted to know. I told her most of these kids don't have parents. I asked Phoeun if anyone at the dump sniffed glue. She shook her head no. I then told her about S'kun, how her mother would beat her up, that she was happier on the streets than at home, etc. I think Phoeun actually felt a little bit lucky about her own life after hearing about S'kun's. And I learned something, too, that Phoeun has a good feeling towards her own family with mutual respect and love for her mother and despite their abject poverty the family unit hasn't broken down.

Next up, I showed her Ratanakiri. Phoeun had never heard of Ratanakiri. I tried to explain where it was but Phoeun had no way to reference locations in Cambodia as she had no idea about the shape or appearance of her country. She had never seen a map. I explained then, that this was a place that was two to three days journey from Phnom Penh, that it involved a long trip up the Mekong River. But the explanation was pointless. She had never heard of the Mekong River.

She thought Ratanakiri a strange place. The villages, the young people smoking rolled tobacco leaves, their simple dress. I asked her if she wanted to live in a place like Ratanakiri. She firmly shook her head 'no'.

We looked at a few more photos before heading out. Once outside, Phoeun pointed in the direction of the Tonle Sap River and asked what was over there. "One of the big rivers that cuts through Phnom Penh," I told her. She didn't know there were any big rivers in Phnom Penh. She had never seen a big river.

We walked over to have a look. She sat down on a bench and stared at the river and at the children swimming below. I called Lucky over to interpret and I told her that in the rainy season the river comes almost all the way up to where we were sitting. She found this difficult to believe. I then pointed south and told her that just over there the other big river, the Mekong, joined with this river. Phoeun continued to stare out at the Tonle Sap River. "You like?" I asked. She looked at me and smiled, "Jaa," (yes) she said.

I was a little bit surprised that she didn't know about the rivers in Phnom Penh so I asked her if she had ever been to this part of the city before. No, she hadn't.  I asked if she had ever been out of Stung Meanchey district. "Once or twice, but not very far," she replied. "So you've never really seen Phnom Penh?" I asked. No, she had never seen Phnom Penh. She only knew the industrial suburban wasteland properly known as Stung Meanchey district.

"You want to see Phnom Penh?" I asked. "Sure," with a big smile she answered. We got back on the motorbike and headed south along Sisowath Quay, Phoeun's head darting about, seeing the sights of the big city for the first time. We passed the Royal Palace. I told her this was the place where the King of Cambodia lived. But she didn't know what a king was, let alone that Cambodia had one.

We went down to Hun Sen Park where in the evenings it turns into one big amusement park. I asked if she'd ever been on an amusement park ride, but I already knew the answer. The answer was, of course, "no". We went by the Independence Monument. Phoeun said she saw a picture of it once before. Then we went along Sihanouk Blvd and up Monivong Blvd, Phoeun forever looking around at the stores, the hotels, the people, silently absorbing all these strange sights and sounds.

We went to Wat Phnom. Had she ever heard of Wat Phnom? She had no idea about Wat Phnom but she enjoyed looking at it and the landscaped gardens around it. The elephant was out front. I asked if she wanted to ride the elephant. She laughed and shook her head, "klaich," (afraid) she said. But she liked seeing it, too. We then took a ride over the Japanese bridge and back.

By now it was almost 2 p.m., I had Phoeun out for four hours and I figured her mother might be getting a little nervous so it was time to return Phoeun to the reality of Stung Meanchey.

We arrived back at her home, a much relieved Searng awaited us. I then had a very serious talk with Searng and Phoeun about the proper care of the hand wound and the importance of sanitation. I said I had to leave Phnom Penh tomorrow but my friend Lucky would come three times. The first two times to take Phoeun back to Calmette for further cleaning and wound dressings, and a third time just to make sure the hand is healing properly.

I emphasized that Phoeun is not to go near the dump until the wound is 100% healed, even if it takes three weeks. Phoeun's response was a very grave, "If I don't work, we have no money to buy rice." I responded that if you go back to work before that hand heals you may end up with no hand to work with.

We had a problem. If she works, the family eats, but they risk serious injury to the hand or worse. If she stays at home, the hand heals, but the family doesn't eat. "How much money do you have now?" I asked Searng. "None. And we are two months behind on the rent," was her answer. I called the landlady over and paid her the ten dollars to cover the past two months. I had now paid their rent for four of the past seven months.

The next matter was food. I told Searng I will give you money for food under one condition. The condition is that Phoeun does not set foot in the dump until I come back, look at the hand, and see that it has healed - and that this will be in about three weeks. She agreed. How much money does Phoeun make in three weeks? Searng told me she might make between five and ten dollars in three weeks time. I gave the family $22, firmly stating again, that in return for my charity I expect the family to do what I say in respect to the care of Phoeun's hand. The family (Searng, Phoeun, and older sister) said they would. I'm giving it about 50-50 that they do. I hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

Update: April 11, 2001

Good news! The hand recovered fully, only an ugly hunk of scar tissue is left behind to remind Phoeun to be more careful next time. Since my visit on March 18, the older sister and baby returned to live with the baby's father (exact relationship to the sister is unknown). Brother is doing nothing but lie around the house with his mother, while Phoeun returns to the Stung Meanchey garbage dump to scrounge for metal and plastic - now the sole provider for a family of three.

Update: December 4, 2001

It had been awhile since I last spoke with Phoeun and her family. In late July I was poking around the garbage dump taking a few photos and only spoke briefly with her - it was your basic "Hi how are you I'm fine thank you very much everything is okay good to see you again okay until next time bye bye."

A kind reader recently donated $75 to be used for whatever Phoeun's family might need. Armed with this piece of good news, I went down to Stung Meanchey to the family house. Bad news. Really bad news. About two and a half months ago Tes Searng, Phoeun's mother, died. The neighbors weren't really sure from what - some kind of heart problem they said. Realistically, it could have been anything. They described her as having wasted away for several months prior to her death. So whatever it was, it wasn't sudden (cancer perhaps?). Phoeun, now about 15 years old, her older sister, her younger brother, are now orphans. They still live in the same house, the sister has returned to live there and is now the senior family member. I think she's all of 18. Her baby was conspicuous in his absence.

But out of bad news comes good news. Both Phoeun and her sister are now attending school full time at the Pour un Sourire d'Enfant school (see below - Providing Assistance). I went to the school where I located her and her sister. She could only chat for a few minutes during a short break. I told them the news of the money. They were stunned speechless - literally. What did they need, I asked? Mother's passing had left the two sisters with a pile of debts and they were twelve days away from being evicted from their house for non-payment of the rent. They were okay with food, the older sister also works at the school on the weekends and gets $20 a month plus a sack of rice. They needed to get out of debt more than anything else. And a further complication was that at the end of the month it would be one hundred days since Searng's passing, which requires another ceremony. Knowing how quickly money can disappear with these impoverished Khmers I didn't want to just hand over $75, so I gave the girls $35 today and said they would get the other $40 at the end of the month. They were quite happy with this arrangement. For the time being, their rent is paid and some of their debts will be cleared.

Even though Phoeun is now about fifteen, she's studying at what is about the second grade level - and is learning to read and write. Her and her sister are at the school Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. On weekends Phoeun stays at home. She no longer works at the garbage dump and apparently that is a condition for being given an education at the NGO school.

Update: December 31, 2001

I returned to their squalid shack on Saturday morning, the 29th of December, forty dollars in small bills stuffed into a brown envelope. The two sisters aren't doing too well. They haven't performed the 100-day ceremony for their mother because of a lack of money and they have mounting debt problems.

I also asked about the missing baby boy. The older sister, who is the mother, said that six months ago when she was very sick and unable to take care of the baby she gave him to somebody down in Prey Veng province (about two hours east of Phnom Penh) to take care of him for a little while. Now the people won't give the baby back unless she gives them $200. Most Cambodians don't even make that much money in six months let alone require that to care for a baby.

She pleaded with me to help her get her boy back. Refusing to make judgment as to her suitability emotionally or financially, mostly the latter, to be a mother or on the conditions of their little shack and its proximity to a toxic garbage dump, I gave her a tentative maybe.

I spoke with a police officer I know who's handled domestic situations before and he agreed to look into the situation. We returned to Stung Meanchey the evening of the 30th and he spoke with the girl for awhile. He agreed to take her to Prey Veng the next day and get her baby back. His opinion was that the $200 the caretakers were asking was totally unreasonable but still, some reimbursement for six months of baby care would be fair. If they could negotiate a reasonable settlement, then he'd get the money from an aid organization and she'd get her baby back. If they would not negotiate than he would hit them with the law and take the baby then and there and they would get nothing.

By the way, the older sister does have a name - I just haven't figured out how to spell it. It's almost identical to her younger sister Phoeun. Phueun maybe?

To be continued...

-----

"Ian" (age 11 or 12?)

A friend of Phoeun's, this particular girl would not talk to me. But with Phoeun, she once spent much of one morning following me around, seeming to enjoy the diversion from her usual routine. When I asked her her name she wouldn't give me an answer and any other question was met with a firm shake of the head. Phoeun referred to her as "ian", which in Khmer language means shy. So I took to calling this young girl "Ian" which, judging by her giggling, seemed to suit her just fine. Curiously, while she wouldn't talk to me, she had no problems with the camera.

-----

The recyclables that the scavengers collect can be turned in either of two ways. Along the access road to the dump are numerous recycling businesses, which the kids can turn their scraps in to directly. However, as often the garbage is dumped far away and the time it takes to turn it in interferes with their digging, many choose to turn their scraps into a middleman (or woman).

Chisok is one such middleman. A 45-ish-year-old man he collects all kinds of scrap metal and also takes in spare parts to Honda motorbikes. He collects about 20 kilograms of metal a day. Weighing each personís offerings on a portable scale, heíll pay about 3,000 riels (80 cents) a kilogram and gets back a dollar per kilogram when he turns it in at the end of the day. Heís been doing this since 1993, making about five to six dollars a day. He has earned the nickname "Mr. 200" as when he started his business he paid 200 riels for everything, he told me with a laugh.

Providing Assistance

What's being done? There are at least two NGOs working at Stung Meanchey.

One NGO is VCAO (Vulnerable Children Assistance Organization). Their main activities are children's rights awareness, providing assistance to child scavengers at Stung Meanchey - which includes first aid and literacy education, and protection of child domestic workers. Although I haven't as yet observed them in action, they are there.

The other NGO I know of is a French organization, Pour un Sourire d'Enfant (For a Child's Smile). Their most visible activity is feeding breakfast every day at 6:30 in the morning to about 250 kids, over 300 on the weekends. Along with the morning breakfast a pair of doctors comes to tend to a steady procession of cuts and scrapes, bruises, punctures, skin lesions, and whatever else the kids might complain of. In the absence of medicine, I observed one doctor prescribe hugs, which she gave out in liberal doses.

I spoke with Meas Chan, Director of Teaching for Pour un Sourire d'Enfant, who told me of the NGO's other activities. They operate a nearby school, presently educating about 800 kids in the Stung Meanchey district. The NGO pays for all educational expenses and gives a small sum of money to the families to keep the kids in school and not working. They teach through grade 9 and will pay for vocational training beyond that level. Presently, they have two schools in the Stung Meanchey district built at a cost of $90,000. They hope to have their own vocational school in the future. While some of the kids do go scavenging in the garbage after their breakfast, most attend classes instead.

Doctors come every day, though itís not always the same pair. I asked Meas Chan about the many kids who donít come for their help. He said they send a woman around to talk to the kids about school and they also send a medical assistant to see if anybody needs help. If anyone does need medical help they either bring that person to a clinic or give them money to take care of the problem themselves. Iíve asked kids at the dump about these offers of assistance and nobody could ever recall anybody talking to them about school, but several kids did confirm that medical assistance has been made available to them in a form similar to what Meas Chan described. However, according to the scavengers, offers of money to pay for additional medical treatment are few and far between.

It is clear that the number of kids working at Stung Meanchey has decreased over the past several years. Pour un Sourire d'Enfant's main objective is to get to the kids before they start working in the dump, which would explain why many of the children receiving breakfast and schooling are younger (under 12) than most of the garbage scavengers who are predominantly in the 12-17 range.

Their source of funding is entirely private and comes mostly from France. The NGO was founded when a photographer came to Stung Meanchey, took photos of some kids working in the dump, then returned to France with the pictures and began raising money. That made me think of the 300-plus slides I have of my own, some of which you have seen on these pages.

A Typical Morning

When we arrived at 6:30 in the morning there were already about 200 people, mostly young children and a few teenagers, waiting outside the makeshift building. Some amused themselves by playing games while others just sat waiting patiently. Most brought their own spoons, as those with no spoons had to eat with their fingers.

[Photos: Children wait patiently for their morning breakfast courtesy Pour un Sourire d'Enfant. Food is served to as many as 300 children every morning in the small building in the background of the middle photo.]

Soon, two French doctors arrived on motorbikes along with Meas Chan. The two doctors set up their clinic at one end of the room. At the entrance to the building an assembly line of three women served the food- rice, a piece of meat, and vegetables, while a young man got the kids seated in an orderly fashion. Outside, Meas Chan helped maintain order in the lines. Fresh drinking water was provided.

Pour un Sourire d'Enfant has a website, http://www.paris-pekin.org/pages/sourireenfant.htm, the text is in French. There's further information on this organization at http://perso.wanadoo.fr/js/presPSE.htm, text here is also in French.

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Garbage scavenging is a way of life in nearly all undeveloped nations and in many developing nations as well. Compared to some other world cities, Phnom Penh's Stung Meanchey is small-scale. Just witness the tragedy that recently occurred at Manila's Promised Land dumpsite when a mountain of garbage collapsed on a number of makeshift homes killing nearly 100 people. There are no easy solutions. The western notion of simply outlawing an unhealthy or dangerous practice is totally unrealistic. You take kids like Phoeun and deny them the opportunity to earn a living and what do you get? May I suggest looking here for a possible outcome. Education and opportunity and a little push is what they need. Meanwhile, if you do pay a visit to a place like Stung Meanchey you can do something useful like bringing a barefoot kid an old but usable pair of boots.

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SOURCES:

O'Connell, Stephen and Saroeun, Bou. "Dioxin flag raised." Phnom Penh Post, 3-16 March 2000.

Kyne, Phelim. "While dump dioxin fears confirmed." Phnom Penh Post, 5-18 January 2001.

Kyne, Phelim. "MOE rejects dioxin dump results." Phnom Penh Post, 2-15 February 2001.

The Phnom Penh Post internet site is at http://www.phnompenhpost.com

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LINKS:

Some good photos here: http://www.pbase.com/maciekda/stungmeanchey

The New York Times published a story on Stung Meanchey, August 25, 2003.

Other than numerous articles on the Manila tragedy in 2000, there is scant information on the web about garbage scavenging, but a little bit is listed below. Recently, a few pages specific to Stung Meanchey have appeared. If anybody knows of other websites documenting garbage scavenging in any city in the world, please contact me at gordon@talesofasia.com

Cambodian Masters in the Classroom, a program of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities visited Stung Meanchey in 2001. The page detailing their experience is here. A second page loads a couple of megs of photos and music using Flash that's interesting to see but painfully slow to download.

The Child Labor Photo Project is an effort to document child labor through photography. There is one section on Stung Meanchey photographed by Jon Warren.

Kidsrights has a brief piece on a garbage scavenger at Stung Meanchey.

From Singapore, DPA has a number of stories of children in Cambodia in bad situations (labor, prostitution, homelessness, glue sniffing) that includes Stung Meanchey.

Voice of Cambodia is a Japanese website that includes a section on the Stung Meanchey garbage dump, the text is Japanese but some of the photos are quite good.

A photo essay from P. Pellegrin includes a couple of shots from Stung Meanchey.

Some information on Vulnerable Children Assistance Organization (VCAO).

There is an Asiaweek article on scavenging in a Beijing, PRC dump.

Information on an independent film about scavenging in Brazil is here.

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