New Trash Taints Old Way of Life

Western Influence, Culture Adds Up To Sanitation Problem In Chuuk

by Jayne Flores

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News): May 14, 2002 - In Chuuk, the main road often traverses the island of Moen close to the shore, providing a spectacular view of the lagoon and the smaller islands that dot its multifaceted blue waters. From a distance, little in nature seems more idyllic, more pristine.

A glance at the water's edge quickly shatters that tropical illusion. A long flotilla of soft drink cans, food product wrappers and empty Spam cans gently ebb onto shore and flow back into the water with the tide.

Up close, things are not as idyllic as one might imagine in this sleepy little island state.

Chuuk has a garbage problem.

The government offers regular trash pickup once a week, but only in the downtown area of Weno, the capital. If you live anywhere else on the main island, you have to haul your trash to the dump yourself.

"A lot of families don't have cars," explained Joseph Konno, executive director of the Chuuk Environmental Protection Agency. So, he said, just as in some places on Guam, people tend to dump their trash in the boonies.

Konno's agency is trying to address the trash issue by pushing to have the state government formalize a solid waste management division.

"Instead of pushing the public, we try to get the state government to be more responsive," Konno said.

On the smaller islands, the problem exists even though people don't have stores from which to buy the Western products that generate their trash.

They bring canned meat and other items from Weno. When it's time to eat, they simply throw the can out back, or in the jungle somewhere.

Fifty years ago, when the Chuukese ate only fish, locally grown fruits and vegetables, and drank coconut water, back yards and jungles were fine. But empty cans, unlike empty coconuts, are not biodegradable. Sharp edges cut little feet that run around shoeless off the island's beaten paths.

Pata Mayor Esta Ichita is concerned that efforts to help with sanitation and clean water never seem to reach the smaller islands. Plans are in the works, he noted, to build a new separate health clinic building, instead of having the clinic, or dispensary, run out of a resident's home. Whether the plans will actually result in a new clinic building remains unknown.

What's not a mystery is that wherever you live, a good sanitation system is essential to a healthy environment.

Dr. Joilo Barbosa, an emergency room physician visiting Chuuk with the Guam-based Ayuda Foundation, explained to Ichita that if islanders put their trash in a place separate from where they walk, a lot of their health problems would be alleviated.

"It is a little embarrassing to see how dirty the island is," Ichita said, "but it is hard to change the habits of the people."