Acres of Sewage and Mountains of Trash

By Laura Ann Klein

 “The people in Cancun tried to tell us the mangrove was dead, but we knew better. They just say that because they want it for another big resort. They told us it would be better for the mangrove if they built another one.”   Our driver pointed towards the dense twist of trees edging the gutted road leading to Puerto Morelos when he made this announcement.  It was February, time for our annual respite in Mexico and instead of feeling completely relaxed, I found myself biting back outrage that Mexican officials thought the Puerto Morelos locals were stupid enough to believe that.  And then I was sad, that well enough would not be left alone in the place I consider another home.  Everything felt so familiar, the topographical map of potholes on the road, the people walking along the edge of the mangrove on the roadside. I’m a little afraid of the mangrove and haven’t really ventured out into it. The little crocodiles and long snakes have my unflinching respect. But I like looking into the mangrove from a distance, watching the cranes preening and grooming on the treetops. It has always felt like a secret and special place because ecologically the mangrove is the heart and lungs of the reef protecting my favorite beach.  Outside of my aesthetic desires, the mangrove is a vital place to so many creatures.   So much depended on this swampy forest.  That afternoon, I started the habit of whispering a private prayer for the mangrove every time we pass through it.   

Our driver was tense and passionate as we discussed the future of the reef. He wasn’t a native of this town but it had become his home and now it was his children’s home. He went on to explain how the jobs would be nice but there were jobs in Cancun to the north and Playa del Carmen to the south.  I nodded and agreed with him the trees in the mangrove looked a little healthier than they had the year before. I naively noticed how much more water there was and asserted it was good to see the high water level because I’m from a place prone to drought and we like our bodies of water on the full side.  He sounded grim when he described the practice of pumping “used” water into the mangrove near town. 

I suppose gray water is better than the odiferous stench greeting us a few days later as we cycled the road north of town.  It seemed like the big resorts were using the mangrove as a gigantic septic leech field.   The flimsy chain link fence camouflaged with a green shield around the mangrove forests adjacent to the pleasure palaces did a terrible job of concealing what was scarcely hidden from view.    The stench was bad enough but the idea of raw sewage sitting in my backyard as a public health risk made me angry.  Using a mere chain link fence to mask the blight or as a lackadaisical attempt to protect people from the dangerously polluted mangrove made me believe this arrogant behavior and complete disregard for the local environment and the local people was intentional and based in greed. 

Do the developers realize the very thing people want to experience and enjoy Quintana Roo will be gone because a dead mangrove leads to a dead reef?   I can’t blame the guests at these resorts. It’s not as if they chose relaxing Caribbean vacation thinking: “I’ll have a Pina Colada by the pool and then I’ll do my part to destroy the mezzo-American reef.” It wasn’t premeditated destruction, just the very human failing, short sightedness.

This myopia was also evident along the roadside, in the ditches and in towering profusion near homes across the Cambodian countryside.  I was expected to be more overwhelmed by the poverty I witnessed, instead it was the trash that made my heart sick.  In a fit of heightened aesthetic awareness, I kept my camera carefully trained away from the trash, hoping for pristine scenes of families working fields, water buffalo lolling in the shallow ditches, mountains framed by mist and shadows.  What you can’t see in my pictures are the beautiful Cambodian fields, forests, and mountains disappearing under heaps of plastic bags and plastic bottles.  First world NGOs--just eighteen years out from the dark ages of Pol Pot-- are helping the Khmer with much needed economic development.  But as the Cambodians move away from economic dark ages, they are entering into an environmental dark age riff with the trappings of consumer society. Trash.

The most common cast-off I noticed on our trip through southern Cambodia were plastic water bottles. They were everywhere. On the roadsides, bottles turn up as frequently as mud clods and cow dung.  Where the family’s ceramic water cistern once rested under the stilted houses, now the family casts off their plastic water and drink bottles.  One house had a pile of plastic water bottles as equally tall precariously set on the edge of their property. It was an engineering feat in itself; keeping the bottles in such a pile.  And what happens when the monsoons come and water rises under the houses, just to the edge of the first step?  The bottles are swept out and spread into the rice paddies and no doubt to the rivers.  

It’s bittersweet that as a result of this ground pollution the Khmer are being taught the importance of clean drinking water. But years of war and disregard have left the Cambodian water system in shambles and only now is the government rebuilding pipelines and reconstructing wells.  In the meantime, what about all those plastic bottles?  You stash them under your house, next to your house, in the ditch with the family water buffalo, scatter them across the fields; hopeful some day they will decompose and degrade.  But the decomposing plastic could prove to be more dangerous than drinking non-potable or tainted water as the cancerous byproducts are leeched into water, soil, and ultimately rice and vegetables. It’s a horrific catch twenty-two. 

I loved Cambodia and some day I know I’ll return. Despite the proliferate trash it’s a scenic country with dense jungles, mountains, fields and white sand beaches.  It’s also made even more beautiful by people who want to move past the dark times and into the twenty-first century.  The people we were privileged to meet and come to know want to leave a mark on the world, and raise themselves up away from the legacy of agrarian serfdom.  This leap must be overwhelming and as we traveled through Cambodia, I wondered if they just couldn’t see the trash.  Over the last couple of years, my partner and I frequently ruminate on how magnificent it would be to have the financial resources to start a waste management company; paying the villagers for their plastic and moving it to a plant where the plastic is recycled and in turn sold to all those Vietnamese manufacturing companies just over the border. . .

But does it matter to the Khmer? Do they even notice the plastic waste scattered everywhere?  Was it more pronounced to me because I live in a place where litter is unthinkable and the source of moral outrage?  Do they share my horror? If they don’t is my line of thinking that of an Imperialist who thinks she knows what’s best for strangers ten thousand miles away?   It’s a sticky business. How as a traveler do I move about someone else’s home in a way that is in alignment with my own ideal of sustainability and environmental respect?  

Sustainable and ecologically astute travel is becoming easier and more economical.  The most meaningful thing a traveler can do is support tour companies and resort companies who pay attention to environmental issues and make sincere attempts to limit their footprint on the hosting environments through the use of recycling water and refuse; companies who manage their sewage in an ethical and healthy fashion; and who provide a market for local farmers and ranchers to sell their produce and meat.   As individual travelers it’s easy to adopt more thought ways of moving through someone else’s home:  use water sterilization products rather buy bottle after bottle of water; eat locally grown fruits and vegetables; cycle or use public transportation;  and never mind the plastic bag when you buy your souvenirs and trinkets.  Reusable water pouches and shopping bags fit neatly in the bottom of a backpack.  It might just be one less bottle or bag that inadvertently ends up in the ditch on the road to Sihanoukville.

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