King of the Dump

Jared Downing in Roads and Kingdoms:

ThailandToday, Fred Stockwell, a white-haired Englishman, is the only Westerner out on the landfill, patrolling the garbage in a dusty pickup. The squatters, migrants from Myanmar, just across the border, come out of their bamboo and steel shacks and make hand signs for the boots, batteries, and medicine stacked in the truck bed. Stockwell tells me last week a woman gave birth in the truck; the next morning he filled it with kids and drove them to school.

“No smile from you, huh?” Stockwell says to a man in rubber boots who pauses to scowl while rummaging the trash for recyclables. “He doesn’t like me because he didn’t get any rice the other day.” A group of volunteers from Australia had handed it out by the sack-full, but Stockwell got stuck with the blame for the villagers who missed out. He’s been growling about it all morning. “They’ll come in, throw out rice, throw something out, shoot photographs, lots of dirty kids. They want to see misery,” he sighs. “They ruin everything I’ve set up here.”

When he came to Thailand seven years ago, Stockwell’s community-based organization, Eyes to Myanmar, was the only one serving the roughly 400 migrant squatters settled on the mountain of trash. Decades of strife in Myanmar had already made the border city a philanthropic boomtown, but only in the last few years has the city’s landfill caught the attention of the smattering of NGOs, community-based organizations, religious ministries, and volunteer teams who come bearing rice, shoes, toys and, of course, their own cameras.

They all encounter Stockwell—or as they sometimes call him, the King of the Dump. The 70-year-old is a key figure in a philanthropic turf war that began when first newcomers planted their flags in the garbage. The trash heap a notorious graveyard of failed humanitarian projects.

Christina Jordan insists that Piglets for Progress, which supplied young pigs to village families, isn’t the dump’s latest causality, but it’s hard not to think of it that way. When she told her local consultant that the project wouldn’t continue, “He just sort of smiled and said, ‘They never do.’”

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