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Palu, Indonesia "Think big, start small and move fast" a special report for #CloseDumpsites

Jessica Magnusson is currently the CEO at Borås Waste Recovery in Sweden. In a guest posts for #closedumpsites, Jessica describes her experiences in Palu on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. The people who live and work on Palu’s waste dump are also being given an opportunity for a better life through Borås's collaboration.

12 Feb 2018 -

The first time I arrived in Palu, in 2009, we were met by the media and a red carpet as we left the plane. My first thought was, "Oh dear, and here I am casually dressed, wearing sandals!" I realised straightaway that they were expecting a lot from our visit.


And the transformations brought on by the project turned out to be huge – but in unexpected ways.


It started as a collaboration between local authorities, but quickly developed into a technical environmental project focussing on the city's landfill site.

During this trip, we visited the Kawatuna landfill site for the first time. Meeting the scavengers – and in particular the children – really touched my heart. Growing up on a landfill site is tough for a child. From the age of two or three, the children have to help collecting waste at the landfill for the family to survive. They only have one meal a day and they have no access to toilets or clean water.
During this first visit, a dream emerged about creating a better existence for these people, and to get the children into school.


With the help of Swedish funding, we initiated a partnership project. The first step was to carry out an analysis of the overall current situation and find out what needed to be done. Students at Tadulako University assisted with this task.

Organic waste was deposited at the landfill site and fires were commonplace. In order to transform the methane gas (with is formed naturally from the organic waste) into electricity, we contacted Biogas System Nordic AB, a Swedish supplier of landfill gas systems. This was the starting point for our journey towards a better understanding of the importance of a holistic approach.


Many scavengers were living at the landfill, in homes constructed from waste material. These huts had to be pulled down, so that the technical plant could be built. Together with the then Deputy Mayor Tony Tombulutoto, we set up an action plan for the construction of new houses for the scavengers, and schooling for the children.

The analysis of the current situation had given us a better understanding of the scavengers' circumstances. Randy Nunung, our local project manager, was already known to and trusted by the people living at the landfill site, as he had started to teach the children English on Saturdays. His work helped getting the scavengers to accept that their homes had to be pulled down, and replaced by new houses, equipped with electricity so that they no longer needed to use kerosene.


At this point in time, the children had also started attending the Kawatuna School. They lacked school uniforms and books, so the CEO of Biogas System Nordic AB, Tony Zetterfeldt, and myself donated private money and set up a fund for the children.

This gesture opened the eyes of the local politicians, and triggered a chain of events, which lead to the local authorities financing the school, and the school later becoming a model for environmental and sustainable development as well as education in partnership with Navet Science Center in Borås, Sweden.

A Zero Poverty programme was initiated in the city. This programme was targeted at the poorest people in Palu and had both a social and an environmental impact – unemployed people were given the task to sort waste in the city three hours a day, for which they were paid a minimum wage and given health care insurance. This programme involved as many as 30 000 persons at its peak.


For the children, attending school is of enormous importance. Not only does it give them the opportunity to improve their chances in life through education, it also gives them a chance to be children.


11-year-old Abbid says, "The best thing about school is that we get to play."

The children are now very keen to learn English, so that they can talk to us. Their confidence is growing, they are happy to talk to strangers, they express their opinions and they have hopes and dreams for the future.
Through the project, we have also been able to give a large number of women a platform, with opportunities to contribute to the development of their society, and a chance to make use of and showcase their own talents.

Diah Agustiningsih Entoh is responsible for education in Palu: "When I saw your passion for the children, I realised that in order to educate the children, we need to give them love and hope. Before you noticed the children and the school, I didn't know that it existed. Now I'm here four times a week to give the teachers hope and motivation."

Fiqih Aprilya Douw started volunteering by teaching poor children English, at a school she had set up in Palu together with the volunteer group Sahabat Pulau Palu. They let the children pay with the only "currency" they had – waste material. When we heard her story, and saw her enormous passion and her talent for educating children, we realised that she could play an important part in our project. Today, Fiqih is one of the teachers at the Kawatuna school.


What started on a landfill site in Palu, resonated throughout Indonesia: at the inauguration of the biogas plant at Kawatuna in 2014, the Indonesian Deputy Minister of Environment highlighted Palu as a model for Indonesia's environmental work.


The project has continued to develop into a movement, which has an impact on the whole society of Palu. The project has shown that in addition to waste management, we also need to work with sustainable leadership and organisation, social and health issues, equality, environmental issues, exchange of technology and knowledge, business development, education and economically sustainable solutions. We have learnt that the biggest challenge in reaching sustainable results, is for politicians to take responsibility, and for future politicians to continue the work. The project led to Deputy Mayor Tombulutoto coining the phrase "Think big, start small and move fast."


To close down a landfill site is a complex process, and many different approaches and partners are needed. Among the factors leading to success are long term relations, a holistic perspective, and a wide-ranging collaboration between different agencies and businesses (Triple Helix). When the United Nation's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were announced in 2015, we found that we had achieved results relating to all 17 SDGs with our approach.


The project has also confirmed my understanding of how important it is to work in a results-driven way in order to achieve long term effects, also when part-financed by aid funds. A new business model and a new approach for how to do sustainable business have also emerged out of the experience gained from this and similar projects on emerging markets. I hope this knowledge can be useful for other projects, on other landfill sites around the world.


On a personal level, the project has given me lifelong connections and many new friends. Palu will always have an important place in my heart and I will bring my family on my next visit.

Further Reading:

Film 1: Making waste valuable https://vimeo.com/82678015

Film 2: Putting Palu on the map Palu https://vimeo.com/158244872

Film 3: Palu + Borås = true! https://vimeo.com/204433403


Picture Credits:

© Carl Myren myren.se:

  • Kawatuna Landfil 2013
  • Schoolgirls with new confidence

© Ed Wray:

  • Girl at Kawatuna landfill playing with found things

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