I’m in Guatemala City today, beginning a 10 day trip in which I’m observing, asking questions, and just listening. I’m here scouting for creation care opportunities, or, what you might call “environmental missions”. Poverty and the decay of creation often go hand in hand, but that doesn’t mean wealthier peoples or cultures are excluded from poverty that takes on other forms, nor from the decay of creation. In fact, wealthier nations often cause much of the decay of creation that the poorer ones suffer from, or at least exacerbate it. But I digress...back to today.
Guatemala City is a very unique place—having suffered civil war for more than 30 years, as well as an earthquake in 1976, the city has not had the chance to do much “city planning”, so that shanty towns and other communities of squatters developed wherever they could build a shelter after the earthquake, and have remained there since. As a result, all of the garbage that the city produces, goes to the city dump. This is located right in the middle of the city. On a windy day, the scent can be smelled quite a ways away. A putrid, rotting smell. It is such a humanitarian disaster it is hard to describe. The National cemetery is at the edge of the dump, and as the rains erode the hillside, graves fall down to the trash, with bones and bodies decomposing along with the trash. It is a hygienic nightmare. What is more, there is an entire economic system developed around the dump, which includes politics (as usual), money, real estate, NGO’s, and so much more. Every year politicians say they will change things, they will close off the dump, they will move it to another location. But it just doesn’t happen.
The people that live in the area surrounding the dump, work in the dump. They are scavengers, the poorest of the poor. Socioeconomically at the bottom of the caste system. Throughout the day, the trucks that bring garbage to the dump first pass through the surrounding neighborhoods, where street after street, different people sort through the trash to find “valuables”. This may be clothing items which they collect to fix up, or to sell. It may be mattresses and box springs in which every piece of material or fabric is removed, since it can be used for something else, until only the wood and metal frames or springs are left. Those may be sold for scrap. All around the dump, the streets are littered with trash, and more specifically, the large bags found on the trucks taking the trash to the dump which are piled up on sidewalks, in the streets... Why? Because each and every item removed from the trash trucks has a certain value, can be used to make a living.
Finally, the trash makes it to the dump. Once dumped out onto the other rotting garbage, there are people picking through what’s left of it for food or items that will help them make it through another day. Google “Guatemala City Dump” and you’ll see things you can’t imagine.
But here’s the thing: we see the poverty, and altruistically, we want to do something about it. We think we can fix the problem...so we send short-term missionary teams down, we pay for clean water, we provide all that we think the people need, we start NGO’s to do “good work” (and it IS good work). But there are so many things wrong with how we do this. If you lived here, you’d see how it really is an intricately developed economic system. It’s nothing like what we think of as an “economy” in our North American perspetive.
Example #1: There is trash everywhere, so we think we should introduce recycling as a solution to the problem. We fund the project, get it going, and hire a few people to run the business. "Wonderful", we think.
Example #2: The communities around the dump either have little to no water, or have no clean, safe drinking water. They have to buy water that has been filtered from a local person who has paid for a filtration system himself in order to sell clean water to his neighbors. Like a “mom and pop shop”. What do the well-meaning people from churches from North America do? Pay for a water filtration system for one of the clinics so that they can give water out freely. Problem solved. Right?
What just happened in each of these two cases?
Example #1: Though it may not look like it, there is a massive recycling program that goes on throughout Guatemala. Before trash is taken to the landfill, items are picked through by people in the streets as the trucks make stops for all their friends who have a friend, who want to sort through the "stuff". Everyone takes what will help them make a living--it's their own way of recycling. If we go into this situation thinking we could solve the problem by creating a few jobs for a few people with a "north american recycling program", we'll do more harm than good. We'll take the resources away from those who depended on them to make a living.
Example #2: If we create a water filtration system and give pure water away for free, we're subsidizing the clinic's free water, whereas the poor mom and pop shop next door can't make a living anymore because they can't give water away for free. We help some, but we hurt others in the process.
This is why it's so important to understand the culture and context in a country before we come up with solutions to the problems. We think OUR way is the best way. That's very ethnocentric of us, and unfortunately, it's an all too common problem of our churches in the West. What we need to do it take the time to ask the questions to the locals, to trustworthy people who know the situation, and ask how we can truly help, how we can truly serve the needy, instead of offering a "quick fix" solution that "feels good", and "looks good" on instagram as we advertise our "good works". God is more interested in the long-term walk of deeper relationships than the short-term buzz we often seek through a mission trip.