La Chureca

Story by Andrew Russell

MANAGUA —The mounds of trash in Central America's largest open-air landfill appear to be alive. 

     Men, women and children sift through the garbage with hooked poles, searching for food, clothing — anything salvageable, including copper, aluminum or plastic. 

Every day, an army of trucks hauls 12,000 tons of garbage into La Chureca, this sprawling dump on the edge of the capital. And every day, the 2,200 Managuans who live here — their faces wrapped in T-shirts or bandanas to guard against the stench — stab at the ever-shifting piles as they pour out onto the compacted ground. 

Trash burns constantly. Thick plumes of smoke cast the landfill in a yellow hue. Feral dogs, horses and cattle graze among the slop and debris. Vultures circle above, periodically dropping from the sky to tear open plastic bags and root for food. 

     "All my life, I heard about La Chureca," said Edgar Largaespada, a Managua native and operations manager for innerCHANGE Associates International, a humanitarian group that specializes in training, consulting and project management. "You can easily picture piles of garbage and know that people work there and live there. But until you breathe that air, you can't know how horrible those living conditions are."

     "It's indescribable. It's like smelling death. Everything is rotten."

The makeshift village in La Chureca looks like a refugee camp. In many ways, it is. 

In 1972, a 6.2-magnitude earthquake struck Managua, killing 5,000 people and leaving 25,000 homeless. Many of the displaced gathered in La Chureca to scavenge through rubble left from the earthquake. 

When it became clear people were not leaving, humanitarian agencies established a health clinic inside La Chureca and built a school and day care center in the barrio just outside the landfill.