Mozambican photographer, Mário Macilau, has been documenting the lives of people who live off the Hulene garbage dump in Maputo for many years. Due to heavy rains a week ago, the massive heap collapsed burying neighbouring homes and killing at least 17 people. The Daily Maverick describes the dump as an area the size of 17 football fields with layer upon layer of rubbish piled as high as a three-storey building. The acrid fumes, swarms of flies, flawed management of the site, have led to protests demanding its closure. Mário has focussed his work on environmental issues and the living and working conditions of the most vulnerable people for most of his life. Here he shares some of the images he has taken at the dump over many years and describes the dump, his work and his childhood influences.

Describe the Hulene dump in Maputo?

The Maputo Municipal open waste dump or Hulene dump is located seven kilometers from downtown Maputo, the capital of Mozambique and its largest city. There is no treatment of garbage and the dump is the only destination for all the garbage that the city produces. Waste burning has been going on continuously in the dump site for over 20 years, representing a serious public health hazard, in particular to those who are living nearby. The Hulene dump has become the source of a livelihood for people without any other means. There are those who lost their homes during the war or in the floods of 2000 and minors who have lost their parents. There is a group of more than 700 people who make a living out of the dump, either by separating and selling recyclables, or by living off whatever they find to be edible or useable.

Is the city management being held accountable for the deaths?

As it is a publicly-owned site for the disposal of rubbish or waste materials by burial by the city, people who are operating there using traditional methods of recycling and organizers are doing so at their own risk. There is no control so the victims cannot be identified after such accidents. I consider these people as normal workers who deserve normal labour protection according to labour law. What really surprises me is our ignorance. After the accident I saw so many posts on Facebook about the subject but over the past ten years, since I’ve been working there, I have seen so many people disappearing and dying. The only difference now this time it is a huge number of victims.

What drew you to telling humanising stories with a camera?

I don’t believe in photography as an aesthetic pursuit but as powerful tool for positive influences. It would be a lie to say that it was a conscious decision that led me to photography and to photographing people at Hulene dump. As a child I just enjoyed playing with a camera, the film and then the development process in small dark room improvised at my mother’s house. I had fun discovering the magic of the chemical process. During that time, I used to leave my friends behind as our interests were not the same. They used to improvise hand made toys, and while  I was made happy by the click and the sound of a camera. I can’t explain how photography came to my life but with it I have learned many things. It has helped me to take important decisions of my life without any explanation.

Mario is represented by Ed Cross Fine Art