Garbage crisis becoming acute in Panama City

Panama City, Jun 15 (EFE).- Piles of trash are accumulating on almost all street corners in Panama City, a long-term problem that has worsened in recent months due to the scarcity of garbage trucks and a recent strike by the “hormiguitas” (little ants) – that is, those who collect the trash and clean the streets – all of which is aggravating the crisis.

“What impression are tourists going to get from this? Look how dirty it is! What are they going to say, that in Panama we’re all pigs?” Jose Madrid, who lives in the Calidonia neighborhood in the center of Panama City near the country’s Parliament, told EFE.

The strike by trash collectors, which ended on Wednesday after almost a week, was staged for better pay and working conditions, and it highlighted an old and apparently unsolvable problem for Panama City: the creation, collection, management and disposal of garbage.

“We’ve reached some agreements, giving a response to the workers, and it (resulted in) the lifting of the strike on Wednesday to avoid a public health problem, to beautify the city,” Health Minister Luis Francisco Sucre told local television on Wednesday.

For some people and representatives of the strikers, this is an issue that poses challenges for public health, in large part because the trash practically “inundates” the main streets and roadways of the capital and its environs, creating bad odors and drawing flies and other pests.

Madrid told EFE that given the prolonged and growing accumulation of trash around the city, children are getting sick and people must leave the doors of their homes closed due to the clouds of flies which “land on clothing” and food.

“Right here, a few meters away there’s a (bus) stop and you can’t go there because it’s full of flies. We’re going to have an epidemic here. Who do we have to call, the World Health Organization? Because it seems like there are no (Panamanian) authorities here,” Madrid said.

Some days ago, the Health Ministry denied that the growing number of diarrhea cases occurring in the capital are linked to the trash crisis, the health minister saying that they have a viral origin and not a bacterial one.

Another Calidonia resident, Elvis Bonilla, who has lived there for 56 years, blames corruption for Calidonian authorities’ lack of attention to the trash problem, saying that “every one of the (responsible officials) is tossing the ball to someone else and nobody’s doing anything.”

“Governments rise, governments fall and things stay the same for us,” he lamented.

Laura Laso, one of the spokespeople for the “hormiguitas,” said that a big part of the problem is the lack of trash pickup equipment at Panama’s Urban and Home Hygiene Authority (AAUD)

“We have no trucks, we’re also fighting for better pay, uniforms, work guarantees for the ‘hormiguitas,'” as well as gloves, masks and boots, she told EFE, who tried without success to obtain a statement from AAUD director Pedro Castillo.

In an appearance before the legislative Budget Committee in early June, Castillo said that the AAUD doesn’t have the budgetary allocation to be able to provide service, agreed that the city is “flooded with trash” and that this could lead to a “public health crisis,” local media reported.

A study on the achievements of Panama City’s 2015-2035 Zero Trash Program, which is backed by the United Nations Development Program, said that Panama is among the Central American countries “with one of the largest per capita trash creation indices.”

On average, every Panamanian generates between 1 and 1.2 kg (2.2 – 2.64 pounds) of trash, and around 2,500 metric tons of garbage enter the open-air Cerro Patacon dump each day, but about 300 tons remain on the streets and elsewhere without being collected.

The AAUD, meanwhile, points to the deterioration of its trash truck fleet, consisting of just 30 operational collectors and compactors, while the rental contracts for backhoes and dump trucks, which are also used to collect trash, have expired, claiming that all these problems are due to an inadequate budget.

EFE fa-cl/gf/rrt/bp

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