Smokey Mountain, Steung Mean Chey, is Phnom Penh’s municipal rubbish dump. Thousands work there, some 600 minors and 2000 adults, recycling the city’s rubbish - 700 tons of waste dumped there by 400 garbage trucks every day. It is notorious for its safety and health risks, and children are often run over by reversing vehicles. People eat and sleep in the rubbish and fumes, under plastic tarpaulins or in the open air.
They work 24 hours a day, like miners, with headlamps at night, collecting plastic, metals, wood, cloth & paper, which they sort and clean, weigh and sell, to be carried away for recycling. A day’s work typically brings one and a half to two dollars per family. The overpowering, acrid odour of grey smokey fumes, from which the place gets its name, hangs over the dump. It can be smelt miles away.
It is a grueling, dangerous, repetitive and unhealthy job. The dump is rife with disease, with many a festering carcass and moldy vegetables, but more seriously, unchecked chemical refuse, hospital debris, including medicines, blood samples and discarded syringes lying about on the ground. The shantytowns and squats, the recycling workers’ homes butt onto the dump or are actually inside it. There is no running water, sanitation and many people are ill. Children often work with friends or relatives. Religious institutions and ngos help some children, but this is often resisted by families who need the extra income they generate.
The city closed Smokey Mountain in 2009. The land was sold for development, so many workers have lost their livelihood, or need to travel 50km back and forth everyday to the new dumpsite.
Nigel Dickinson, a British born documentary photographer & photojournalist, is based in Paris.