SANTIAGO, Chile — Located on the outskirts of Jakarta on Java Island, Bantar Gebang is one of the world’s largest landfills and home to thousands of families who live on picking and selling trash in appalling conditions. Addressing the serious urban poverty in Indonesia, BGBJ, a local grassroots NGO, is trying to provide free education to children living in landfills.
Indonesia’s Successes and Challenges in Poverty Reduction
Currently ranked fourth in the world by population, Indonesia has made impressive progress in poverty reduction, transforming from a low-income to a middle-income country. The country managed to lower the poverty rate by 60% in less than three decades between 1993 and 2019, lifting many people out of poverty.
As of 2022, only 2.5% of the Indonesian population, or 6.9 million people live below the international poverty line of $2.15 per day per capita. The government has practically completed its goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2024.
However, it is worth noting that while a very small portion of the population lives below the poverty line, one-third of Indonesians are economically insecure, implying a high risk of falling back to poverty in the event of shocks and impacts.
A high degree of urbanization also marks the country’s transition. The urban population continues to expand, quickly growing from 36% in 1995 to 55% in 2019. By 2045, 70% of the population could live in urban areas, according to PLoS One. While historically rural poverty was significantly more severe than urban poverty in Indonesia, starting in 2019, the country has more poor people living in the cities than in rural areas.
Overpopulation In Indonesian Cities
The density of the urban population in the coastal areas, together with the high risk of infectious diseases and exposure to natural disasters, translates to many communities living in overcrowded, informally built slums with limited access to hygiene and other basic needs.
Bantar Gebang is a good example. Situated outside of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital with 32 million residents, Bantar Gebang receives around 6,000 tons of trash the city produces daily. Waves of immigrants have arrived in landfills in pursuit of low-skilled, dangerous work as a scavenger for very low wages. The trash pickers constantly face the danger of injuries and infections in hostile environments with filthy plastics, decaying organic left-over and toxic waste.
BGBJ – Education In A Landfill
BGBJ, meaning “The Seeds of Bantar Gebang ” in Indonesian Bahasa, is a hub and hostel built inside the Bantar Gebang landfill area to provide local children with free classes, training, food and a safe space for play and growth. The project started in 2004, when the founder Resa Boenard, born and raised in the same dumpsite, returned to her community after her graduation from high school.
Boenard told The Borgen Project about her difficult journey, “Due to a lack of money, I could not pursue my dream to become a doctor. I came back to Bantar Gebang and I started giving back to this community by teaching at the landfill. In the beginning, we did not have a hostel or even a door. Everything was simple, it was just teaching every Sunday.” Boenard later managed to raise the funding for getting a college degree, but she never quit teaching.
After 10 years of continued efforts, BGBJ started to expand from mere free Sunday classes to a holistic educational center that gains revenues from touristic services and handcrafted products in 2014. This year, an English-Australian researcher studying waste management approached Boenard and expressed his interest in the project. “He told me that he could help me develop new concepts for the organization, and convinced me that our center would attract foreign tourists if we started offering visits, food and promoting our activities,” Boenard recalled.
Little by little, mouth to mouth, Boenard made her landfill tour a well-known must-visit to international travelers in Jakarta and Indonesia. The BGBJ visit included a walking tour around the landfill, an upcycling workshop with wood and rubber, a cooking class, and an overnight stay in a hostel they built.
Meanwhile, Boenard invested the revenue in the construction of BGBJ to upgrade the classes and the teaching workshops for the local children. With the help of the team members and volunteers, BGBJ offered a wide range of lessons, including English, IT, health and nutrition, sports, music and art.
Breaking the Poverty Cycle
In the landfill, child marriage is common. Children and teens between 12 and 13 years old usually drop out of school to contribute to their families’ income by joining the trash-picking labor and building their own families. Boenard believes in the indispensable role that education plays for youths, especially in a lower-income community trapped in urban poverty in Indonesia. “I grew up in the landfill. I know how it is that people always underestimate you and think that you will never go anywhere and the feeling of being bullied, but I have always had a thick skin. This is why I made an effort to get an education. With education, the children can uplift themselves, find employment and start a better life outside the landfill. They can also do better parenting,” Boenard said.
The benefits of human development are not only generational but also empowering for women. Boenard mentions the power of education for women in tackling gender-based violence, “If a man abuses me, or threatens to cut out the financial support, I can work, I can earn my own money because I got an education. I am independent.” In BGBJ, girls and boys sit in the same classroom and have equal access to education.
A Special Motivational Class
Boenard also offers a special motivational class every Sunday. In this session, she repeats to her students the story of her educational and professional journey, to remind them of the possibility outside the landfill and the importance of education. “When I was a kid, I did not have someone like me who would motivate me to pursue my dream or to stay at school. No one was there to be my role model. Now, different from someone who has never experienced the hardship of growing up in a landfill, I can provide living proof of what children can dream to be because I was once just like them. My care for the children in Bantar Gebang is a life commitment.”
A Hopeful Future Against All the Odds
In December 2022, Boenard had one of the most heartbreaking moments in her life: BGBJ’s site in Bantar Gebang was demolished as a part of the landfill reform plan. Most activities at BGBJ are now at a halt due to the tragic event, but Boenard is preparing for a comeback. In the next two months, she will continue her fundraising campaign to purchase new land for the reconstruction. For the new campus, Boenard envisions building not only a hostel for tourists but also a dormitory to accommodate the children whose families oppose the continuation of their education.
She is also starting a program, co-led by Canon, to train the children to become local photographers and journalists. “They will get a certificate. If they want to work, they will already have the skills. Now it is not only teaching them how to read and write, but building a training center that provides the children with practical skills for sustainable professional development with higher economic prospects.”
This year, Boenard initiated her own waste management company, RB Indonesia. Aiming to build a green, circular economy, RB Indonesia will focus on textile waste reuse and environmental education for young children. With her new enterprise, Boenard hopes to help BGBJ gradually become self-sufficient and provide employment opportunities to the children from the landfill, reducing urban poverty in Indonesia.
– Shixin Zhao