How a trash heap in Thailand became the scene of a philanthropic turf war.

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MAE SOT, Thailand—

Today, Fred Stockwell, a white-haired Englishman, is the only Westerner out on the landfill, patrolling the garbage in a dusty pickup. The squatters, migrants from Myanmar, just across the border, come out of their bamboo and steel shacks and make hand signs for the boots, batteries, and medicine stacked in the truck bed. Stockwell tells me last week a woman gave birth in the truck; the next morning he filled it with kids and drove them to school.

“No smile from you, huh?” Stockwell says to a man in rubber boots who pauses to scowl while rummaging the trash for recyclables. “He doesn’t like me because he didn’t get any rice the other day.” A group of volunteers from Australia had handed it out by the sack-full, but Stockwell got stuck with the blame for the villagers who missed out. He’s been growling about it all morning. “They’ll come in, throw out rice, throw something out, shoot photographs, lots of dirty kids. They want to see misery,” he sighs. “They ruin everything I’ve set up here.”

When he came to Thailand seven years ago, Stockwell’s community-based organization, Eyes to Myanmar, was the only one serving the roughly 400 migrant squatters settled on the mountain of trash. Decades of strife in Myanmar had already made the border city a philanthropic boomtown, but only in the last few years has the city’s landfill caught the attention of the smattering of NGOs, community-based organizations, religious ministries, and volunteer teams who come bearing rice, shoes, toys and, of course, their own cameras.

Stockwell treats a cut while out on his supply rounds. All photos by Jared Downing

They all encounter Stockwell—or as they sometimes call him, the King of the Dump. The 70-year-old is a key figure in a philanthropic turf war that began when first newcomers planted their flags in the garbage. The trash heap is a notorious graveyard of failed humanitarian projects.

Christina Jordan insists that Piglets for Progress, which supplied young pigs to village families, isn’t the dump’s latest casualty, but it’s hard not to think of it that way. When she told her local consultant that the project wouldn’t continue, “He just sort of smiled and said, ‘They never do.’ ”

Jordan says intergroup conflict isn’t the only reason she’s leaving, but it’s a big one, and Stockwell is a main combatant. She claims he took it as treason when she tried to work with other groups and then he menaced her Burmese consultant and pressured villagers to boycott her efforts. “With the unpredictability of Fred’s volatile anger, honestly there’s just no way to imagine making a significant investment when several of us think he would make an effort to destroy us.”

Her image of Stockwell isn’t of a benevolent man delivering batteries and medicine, but of a would-be chieftain warding off invaders.

Stockwell forgets about the rice incident when he picks up his students from school in the afternoon. The handful of tweens, dressed in clean blue and white uniforms, babbling in English and Burmese, aren’t the desperate waifs that show up on a Google search of the garbage dump. One has apparently spent her day thinking up several dozen reasons why Stockwell should buy them a new soccer ball.

“That one is P.C. She’s my star English speaker,” he says. “She’s damn clever. They’re all so smart. People don’t realize that.”

Teaching the kids English from scratch was one of Stockwell’s first projects. He had already traveled the world as a consultant for new parasailing businesses, and after a divorce decided to drop everything and strike out for Southeast Asia. When he found the dump, he had no training to speak of and didn’t speak the local languages. “Really I spent that first year just trying to not screw anything up,” he tells me.

One organization purchased a large area of farmland and offered plots to the squatters for free; only a few moved away, and they were soon back on the trash.

The village needed clean water, so he built a filtration system. He learned what supplies they used and sold it at cost. He traveled to the U.S. each year to develop the core group of supporters who keep the organization running, but on site, Eyes to Myanmar is still more or less composed of Stockwell, a few buildings, and a truck.

Stockwell suspects this is part of what made him easy to dismiss when the first newcomer, a faith-based organization called Compasio, began operations in the dump five years ago. In Stockwell’s version, Compasio snubbed him when he tried to reach out and then dismissed him as an old loner when other organizations arrived. “They came in with all the wrong ideas 100 miles an hour,” he says. “And I tried to talk to them, I tried to work with them, [but they] weren’t interested in working with me. They saw me as a competitor.”

Stockwell says the newcomers squabbled for influence and won the villagers over with handouts. His foes range from oblivious volunteers to old-fashioned con artists: One man just gave away cash from the window of his truck, and he says another tried to raise money for a shell school that was a front for a speakeasy.

About a year ago, a ministry took several dozen children from their families and placed them in an offsite boarding school. “There’s no oversight, no regulation. It’s like the Wild West, man. You walk in, set yourself up as an organization, and take off with the kids,” Stockwell says.

In the nearby Mae La camp, refugees live in political limbo after fleeing a decades-old conflict between the Karen ethnic minority and the Burmese military across the border. Many of the squatters at the dump are also Karen, but they don’t have any political status at all—most of them simply wandered across the shallow Moei River looking for something better than a farm or sweatshop.

“There’s no protection for the people at the garbage dump, except for me,” says Stockwell.

Jordan, a development professional of 25 years with experience in East Africa, doesn’t buy Stockwell’s guardian narrative. “His thing was, ‘Anything that you want to do, you do it through me. I will answer all of your questions.’ But he couldn’t answer my questions.”

When she held meetings with the community itself: “The second time he drove by and glared, about 20 people got up and left. And when we asked what was going on, those that remained said, ‘They’re afraid Fred will be angry at them for being here.’

A Karen family in the grass near the road.

“The last conversation I had was him shouting expletives down the phone at me and saying, ‘You’re cutting me out.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not cutting you out, I’m just including more people.’”

She at least agrees with Stockwell that harmony among the organizations is dismal. She also heard about the boarding school incident; the details (and ethics) differ depending on whom you talk to, but she says it set the ministry in charge of the school at odds even with Compasio. “These two organizations, even though they’re both faith-based, are following very, very different approaches. They did not get along or collaborate or cooperate at all.”

The result has been, at best, redundancy and inefficiency. Rather than moving forward, the villagers treat the endless parade of startup projects, mission teams, and well-meaning teenagers as a kind of consumable resource that allows them to remain on the trash.

“The place isn’t livable without external help,” Jordan says. “But they have found there are people who give them water and food for free, and sometimes a pig, you never know, and they can earn money, and they don’t have any bills, and there’s free medical care because Fred will take them to the clinic.”

Daw Thaw has been living on the garbage for 17 years

But Stockwell doesn’t care if some people are choosing the garbage. For him, the garbage itself isn’t the enemy. It has rich and poor, old and young, elites and outcasts. “There are those that slip through the net. And it comes to the kids and the elderly every time,” he says. “That’s society in general, anywhere in the world.”

Daw Thaw has been living on the garbage for 17 years, and she says her biggest complaint about dump life is that it’s getting too popular. She is eating a lunch provided by a local Burmese church while her kids attend Bible classes in the dump’s concrete schoolhouse. Daw Thaw is Karen, but the war didn’t drive her to the dump. She, like the other settlers, found a lucrative niche in the trash. Now news is traveling across the river that foreigners are bringing in food, medicine, and clean water, and every year Daw Thaw has to jockey a little harder for the bottles and cans in each fresh truckload.

Although the migrants have a reputation for toiling at all hours, the dump is quiet in the afternoon.

The Internet tells a different story. The first hit in a Google search of the Mae Sot dump, a portfolio by a photojournalist, features a black-and-white image of a tattered boy gazing at the wasteland. The accompanying article reads: “No future can be seen and international aid is urgently needed.”

The dump just looks bad, especially on a computer screen, which might help explain the lack of communication among those claiming to help. Allen Ray, whose Haven Ministry sets up sustainable-living projects in the dump, says organizations from across Thailand use the dump to impress volunteers, and even those with established landfill operations often pigeonhole it into fundraising duty for less glamorous projects.

“If you put a picture of a kid who looks sad and looks dirty, people are going to be interested,” Ray explains. “It’s that way with everything. Click-bait on the Internet. … You try to get everyone to look at it so the few people who are going to donate will.”

Newsletters and videos often depict the squatters as being on the brink of starvation, lucky if they can catch a rat to eat, and Ray mentions a documentary whose cover photo featured two girls in the rubbish who turned out to be the adopted Mexican daughters of an American couple. One video presents the dump as a flesh farm for child traffickers. “In the nearby factories they give them methamphetamine taps to make them work harder and longer,” the narrator says as the camera zooms in on a plastic syringe in the garbage (with the tip obscured so it looks more like a needle).

Still, Ray says the exaggerations have some truth; they do eat rats—sure, why not, Daw Thaw says—and the landfill is no refuge from the human trafficking across Southeast Asia. Ray believes the Westerners on the dump usually aren’t intentionally deceptive, but simply allow themselves to believe their own narratives.

Stockwell hands out candy after driving kids home from school.

Stockwell is less forgiving. For him, the dump’s mystique is the root of the entire conflict. Kids in garbage can be anything for any group: Some use them to impress volunteers, others as potential converts, most to simply justify their own existences. “If they’re not competing for fundraising, they’re the fundamentalists competing for your soul,” he says. “I’m the only humanitarian organization out here.”

Stockwell argues that most organizations won’t work with him or anyone else because actually serving the community’s needs in a lasting way is a rare goal; usually it’s much easier, they simply curry loyalty against their rivals with handouts and favors, carving the community into factions based on who gives what.

Yet Stockwell himself is accused of favoritism perhaps more often than anyone. Daw Thaw and the other parents at the schoolhouse say he picks whom to help based on who shows loyalty and who shuns his opponents. Stockwell denies this outright, and even Jordan has heard of him working with the village leaders to make distributions more equitable. But he understands the reputation. Yes, Eyes to Myanmar is selective: “We help those most in need.”

Still, Eyes to Myanmar’s criteria for need depend entirely on Stockwell and, he claims, his own unrivaled community insight. “We wait for people to come to us, find out what their problems are, then try to solve them. Like when the house falls down, that’s obviously a need. Right now, today, I’ve got an old lady living on concrete building steps. Who’s going to solve that problem? Me.”

Thang Hine Bai, who leads the Bible classes at the schoolhouse, doesn’t buy it. She thinks no foreign aid organization can presume to understand the dump community without allowing a local to take the lead. She only comes to the landfill once a week, but the villagers call her sayama—teacher—and seek her out for advice and comfort.

“Fred helps them a lot, but they trust us more than him,” she says. They’ll only ever come to him for batteries and aspirin.

They know when to look sad for pictures

Indeed, the migrants themselves may be sowing the most strife. Justine Chambers, who worked with Stockwell during another development job in Mae Sot, describes the migrants not as helpless pawns, but more like children of divorcées playing their parents against one another for better presents. “They would constantly gossip to Fred about the other NGOs, but then they would probably go do that to Compasio about Fred.”

Chambers is writing a Ph.D. dissertation on the Karen, inspired by the long-oppressed (and long-aided) minority’s “identity of helplessness, of needing to be saved.” She says nobody understands the war for the dump better than the people living there. The more disconnected the outsiders are, the more they rely on the villagers for information, which they manipulate to get more stuff. They know when to look sad for pictures and when to sing a hymn for free food; when to snub Compasio and when to bad-mouth Stockwell.

The illegal migrants build houses from whatever they can find.

“They’re not stupid,” she says. “They know exactly why people want to spend so much time with them. I think they sort of feed these narratives so that all of them can stay.”

Jordan agrees. In fact, it’s exactly why she’s quitting.

She describes one of her early development endeavors, a community self-help center in war-torn Uganda. She was awarded an Ashoka Fellowship for the project, but says while her team promoted empowerment and self-reliance among the refugees, “You could go to the next three doors, tick the right category of poor and pitiful, and you’ll get money and resources for free.

“That’s what the development-aid system offers,” she continues. “The way that people have access to the resources they have is not by being the best they can be, but by being the right category of poor and pitiful, and we just perpetuated that.”

I don’t think that Fred has evil in his heart

Jordan believes the dump squatters, just like the African refugees, have learned to cash in on their own victimhood, which organizations sell to people back home. The cycle runs on the good intentions of the voluntourism culture, but “it disturbs and distorts economies all over the world.”

Despite his years, Stockwell is no exception. “I don’t think that Fred has evil in his heart, not at all. I just think he’s a bit misguided,” Jordan says. “I feel like he’s latched on to this community to give himself a sense of self-worth. And sometimes having a sense of worth gets in the way of making the best decisions for the community that he’s trying to help.”

Chambers doesn’t cast Stockwell as an angry chieftain, but as a man who found something he could call family, which he genuinely loves and desires to protect. She does wonder how much of his hostility comes from fear of losing his relevance, but she wonders the same thing about everyone else at the dump.

With peace in Myanmar, Mae Sot city’s biggest organizations are moving across the river, and funding is drying up for the groups left behind. Many of these, like Eyes to Myanmar, are grassroots-funded by people who never quite fit in back home but found love and respect in Thailand. They, too, are afraid of losing their place in the world, and might be turning to the dump for the very same reasons Stockwell is so protective of it.

“A place like the dump, you don’t really need conflict for that. It’s just a place where people live in poverty,” Chambers says.

Jordan wouldn’t call that sustainable. Stockwell doesn’t really care.

“All I’m interested in personally is making sure that when it’s the rainy season you’re not lying in a soaking-wet bed. Which is what it was,” he says.

As long as there’s a landfill, there will be people who depend on Stockwell, and he’ll keep defending his kingdom.