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A Colombian Trash Mountain as a Source of Hope

Writing: Miranda Musson

Illustration: Paola Valentina

In a district of Medellín, Columbia’s vibrant capital, a mountain of garbage now stands as a beacon of hope. The disposal of waste is a worldwide issue, but here, the solution didn’t require a world effort, but instead, a community committed to improving its own space.

With no real disposal system in the city, the 1970s and 1980s saw the rubbish dump in Moravia, known as “El Morro”, become a home in itself. Many of its new inhabitants were displaced from more rural areas by the conflict that ensued under the reign of Pablo Escobar, which forced people to move to the city of Medellín in search of a better life. El Morro’s infrastructure meant that it eventually became the most densely populated community in Colombia. In fact, at one point over 17,000 people lived atop of the dump, in no less than 1,800 dwellings with the average of 4.8 inhabitants per room.

When in 2006, Mayor Sergio Fajardo declared the state of El Morro a “public disaster”, most residents were relocated to safer areas so that the mountain could be decontaminated and converted into public gardens. Yet through a resolution to remain where they called home, some inhabitants stayed; there are still 145 dwellings. On a tour of El Morro, I met a man who proudly showed the banana trees he had been growing next to his house, though we were advised not to eat any, on only a few inches above the rubbish dump. It was a great pleasure to witness his pride in showing us his work and home.

Today, the mountain displays flowers which cover the area around the top, guiding the pathway to the view of a still transforming city. Along the way are sculptures made of waste, serving as an important reminder of what lies beneath; in some areas, layers of rubbish are still visible. The flowers are a result of a community gardening initiative where over 50,000 plants have been planted. On the very top stands a greenhouse employing local single mothers. Good things can grow even from conflict. The district improved its space on flatter ground too. Several urban projects have employed locals, leading to the transformation of the city as a point of pride. The Moravia Cultural Development Centre was also built, offering free programmes on music, art and academia all through generous volunteering. When walking through myself, I saw cheerful children singing karaoke in a newly built auditorium.

The improvement of the Moravia district also reflects the greater improvement of Medellín from a city of violence to a place of innovation. The whole city has been in the process of transforming the worst areas of the region into positive spaces by tapping into communities’ desire to create a better place for their children. For example, the ‘Plaza Cisneros’, or Square of Lights; in this square, an art instillation of 300 lights on poles reaching a maximum height of 24 metres makes this open positive space a scenic one to visit both during the day and in the night. My tour guide relayed how he was scared of this area as a child, and now sees it as a place of beauty.

It is important to know that the citizens of Medellín are not ignoring the conflict that controlled the city for so many years. Never before had I felt so welcomed to a city as a tourist. Locals beamed at the interest from all over the world, as this reflected how their city was becoming both a safer and fascinating attraction. In the case of Moravia and of Medellín too, it is inspiring to see communities determining a resolution to the problem of the rubbish dump through architecture and landscaping and, as a result, making it beautiful.

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