CIREBON, West Java: The village of Panguragan Kulon in Indonesian port city Cirebon is unique in its own way.
Most villagers earn their living by collecting and reselling trash.
Huge sacks of waste are visible along the roads of Panguragan Kulon, many of them appearing to contain bottles.
However, when CNA visited the village in mid-January, a different type of waste was found at the backyard of a house: Medical waste.
Small needles, used hospital infusion bottles, and syringes with dried blood were just a few of the items scattered on the ground.
Dozens of white gunny bags containing other medical waste such as medicine and little glass vials were also filling up a backyard around 150 sq m.
“I rented this house about fifteen months ago. The garbage has always been there,” Mdm Maeti told CNA.
Mdm Maeti, 38, who goes by one name, lives there with her husband and her children aged 13 and 23.
They rented the house for 3 million rupiah (US$220) per year, knowing that the backyard is filled with medical waste. “Let it be … we need the money,” she said.
When it was pointed out that there may be viruses in the waste, she said her family never went to the backyard anyway.
“I am not concerned … We are never sick,” said Mdm Maeti who only finished the second grade of elementary school.
Her lack of concern was despite an investigation that concluded several years ago showing that the soil has been contaminated with various viruses, including traces of anthrax and HIV.
"THEY DON’T THINK ABOUT LONG TERM CONSEQUENCES"
Her younger sister Mdm Ningsi was more worried.
The 36-year-old, who lives a few miles away, claimed that the waste belongs to a man who worked for the military.
In 2017, the man ordered people to dump the medical waste at the backyard of the house which belongs to a man she only knew as Mr Agus.
It is said that Mr Agus then worked together with another man and ordered women to sort out the waste. Items that were considered recyclable were sold to someone else.
“People here are afraid of others who they think have authority. So they just let things be and didn’t want to intervene.
So even though people knew about it, no one said anything,” Mdm Ningsi recounted.
She also said that the women didn’t mind doing the work due to economic reasons.
On average, the male villagers who sell reusable waste earn around 70,000 rupiah per day. The women earn about 30,000 rupiah per day for sorting out medical waste.
"The women didn’t think that their job was dangerous sorting out needles. They don’t complain. They don’t think about the long term consequences,” said Mdm Ningsi, noting that the medical waste has actually contributed to the local economy.
In December 2017, authorities found out about the illegal practice and arrested the man who worked for the military, Mr Agus and another man.
The three of them were sentenced to prison and the backyard was then sealed by authorities.
But the medical waste remained.
About two months ago, someone took off the seal and women started to come to the yard again, Mdm Ningsi said.
When CNA went to the backyard, there was no one sorting out the medical waste.
A middle-aged woman was doing her laundry at a house next to the illegal dump site. When approached, the woman said she was not afraid of living just next to the medical waste, as there was iron sheeting bordering her home and the dump site.
TRACES OF ANTHRAX AND HIV
The case in 2017 was handled by several government agencies, including the ministry of environment and forestry which visited the dump site for investigations.
Mr Yazid Nurhuda, director of criminal enforcement of the ministry of environment and forestry, told CNA that the medical waste was dumped illegally.
“It is a criminal offense as regulated in the law number 32 of 2009," he noted.
Mr Anton Sardjanto, the deputy director for environmental pollution investigation at the ministry of environment and forestry, said there were three main suspects – a man who was with the military and two civilians.
Mr Sardjanto was on the ground in Panguragan Kulon investigating the case back in 2017.
He recounted how the medical waste was still fresh and had a strong stench. He also said there were in total six illegal medical waste dump sites in Panguragan Kulon and surrounding areas.
The military man was dealt with by the Military Police Detachment, he said, adding that a one-year prison sentence was imposed.
The two civilians, who were dealt with by the environment ministry, had also received prison sentences said Mr Sardjanto. There are also two other suspects, believed to have acted as middlemen, who are now on the run.
He said that while investigating the case, the authorities took samples of the waste.
"Clearly it was toxic and hazardous waste because it was infectious," he said.
READ: 'My house is full of garbage': In West Java, imported waste worsens living conditions of villagers
The ministry also took samples of the soil nearby to check for signs of environmental contamination. “It turned out there was a lot of bacteria which we as common people would not know," said Mr Sardjanto.
An expert from the University of Indonesia was called during the trial as a witness expert.
“The expert said during the trial there was anthrax. He himself was a bit afraid to investigate the waste,” Mr Sardjanto said.
“So it was very worrying because bacteria or viruses are dormant ... If the environment is supportive of them, they could develop. And this is something we cannot predict.”
“There were many viruses, bacteria and others, including HIV,” he stated.
The ministry is not aware that the seal for the dump site has since been removed.
ENVIRONMENTAL CRIME TIED TO MONEY
Due to limited budget, the ministry was not able to dispose of all the medical waste. Instead, it prioritised waste found near rivers and main roads.
“We are still trying to find a solution and because it is medical waste, it cannot be treated carelessly,” Mr Sardjanto said.
It is not clear how the perpetrators had gotten hold of the medical waste.
Typically, medical waste in Indonesia is burned at an incinerator. This process is usually carried out by major hospitals or companies specialising in medical waste management.
They need to have a permit from the ministry of environment and forestry.
There are also medical waste transport companies involved in the process. Some of them have permits to manage the waste.
“Some private companies ... can be transporters but then dump the waste for reselling because if they burn it, they will get nothing," said Mr Sardjanto.
"But it’s illegal and then it is hard for us to monitor."
Mr Sardjanto concluded: "All environmental crime is tied to money. Everything. Like even lying and giving false information to officers … Because our awareness of the environment is limited.”
Mr Nurhuda of the environment ministry said that work is ongoing to prevent the recurrence of such cases.
"We are cooperating with the local regional government, with our toxic and hazardous waste processing partners and with the directorate general of toxic and hazardous waste processing to conduct joint surveillance.
Hopefully, cases like this do not happen again," he said.