Where old clothes go: Pedernales
The seamy side of donated clothing
Last updated June 18, 2007
A few weeks ago, Sebastian Velez spotted smoke from rising from the mountainside in Pedernales, a small border town in the Dominican Republic. Pedernales is the end of the road in the Dominican Republic between Santo Domingo and Haiti — a sleepy town set up to protect the capital from "invasions of Haitians." Although this time Velez knew immediately what it signalled, that wasn't the case the first time he encountered the smoke two years ago.
People scavenge through used clothing dumped at Pedernales, a small border town in the Dominican Republic. (Sebastián Vélez/Permission of author)
Velez, a Harvard University entomologist, happened upon the fires when he was studying bark beetles in the area's untouched forests. He also visits Pedernales to visit a local school that he and his colleagues are raising money to help build.
The flames come from blazing bales of Tommy Hilfiger jeans, cotton T-shirts and miscellaneous winter coats. The reds, greens and plaids are spilled out of a flatbed truck's cargo container at a dumpsite near the port town and set on fire.
Pedernales is home to one cement factory, an aluminum mining operation and a facility whose sole purpose is to sort and burn used clothing from North America.
End of the line
In the past an armed guard accompanied the delivery truck taking unwanted clothing from the Pedernales facility to a dump. Scavengers at the site would collect the garments to sell in shops or to local merchants.
That custom has changed, largely due to the frenzy over potentially valuable clothing in the piles.
Velez said sometimes there's a great find among the clothing heaps, which explains the occasional media image of poor Caribbeans dressed in designer shirts and hats.
It's the quest for those high-quality garments that led to tragedy and even one death among the scavengers.
"There are packs that hold jeans and very valuable stuff ... so people start jumping on the truck as it is moving," recounted Velez.
"One guy got entangled with the tire, and it ran over him and killed him. They have had many accidents like broken legs when the [clothing] packs fall on people."
After the fatal accident, the truckers began routinely setting the clothes on fire to discourage people from attacking the vehicle to scavenge the contents.
In what Velez calls a symbiotic relationship, now the driver and guard will allow the scavengers 10 minutes of sifting, in exchange for manually unloading the sacks of clothes that get stuck in the cargo bay when the truck dumps its load.
Once that time is up, the driver and guard, who work for the clothes sorting facility, set the piles ablaze.
Guard prepares to light clothing on fire. (Sebastián Vélez/Permission of author)
A sorted affair
Like most factories in the Caribbean, there aren't any signs on the exterior of the sorting shop, but Velez knows that people working there make about $180 US a month. Drivers take in around $100 US, the Dominican Republic's minimum salary.
"Most of it is coming from the U.S. because the boxes are from department stores saying Kmart or Wal-Mart. But they don't necessarily come from there. I think they're mostly coming from charities, because they're used clothes," said Velez. "They look exactly like what you would find in the Salvation Army and Goodwill."
That's not a problem for the local scavengers or people from surrounding regions who come to grab clothes to sell in retail stores or merchants picking up sacks from the sorters.
There's still a living — even a good living by local standards — to be made by selling used clothes that have made it all the way to the end of the line in Pedernales.
As Velez explained, "I talked to a couple who bought their house selling the clothes they collected there, but a house in Pedernales costs only $3,000."
- RELATED: Used clothing in Canada
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