Children are scavenging Peru's dumps

Associated Press Writer

A sickening stench hangs over the barren desert as a truck dumps a heap of bottles, trash, glass shards and medical waste behind Enriqueta Ramos' ramshackle home.

Her daughters, Katy, 11, and Carol, 8, begin picking through the refuse in search of bits of wire, glass, metal, plastic -- anything recyclable that can be scavenged and sold to buy food.

"I have stuck myself lots of times," Carol says with a smile while her filthy hands reach down and gingerly pick up two plastic syringes, their needles luckily removed.

"One time I cut myself and the veins spurted," she adds matter-of-factly, recalling a gash to her foot from broken glass.

Peru's Health Ministry estimates 35,000 families live with no running water in Lomas de Carabayllo, a sloping moonscape near Lima, the capital.

Most eke out livings by recycling garbage. Tens of thousands of Peruvians scrape by in similar impoverished communities around the country, development organizations say.

In Lomas de Carabayllo, many pay dump truck drivers to unload the trash of Lima's 8 million residents next to their homes, while others hop aboard moving trucks headed to the nearby Zapallal landfill and fill sacks with recyclables.

Using bare hands, rakes and fire, the scavengers -- many of them children -- sort and sift the fetid mounds in a daily struggle to feed their families.

Informal recycling is the norm for uncounted thousands of poor across Latin America and the Caribbean, where more than 45% of solid waste is dumped at unofficial open-air landfills or into rivers and the ocean, says the Pan American Center for Sanitary Engineering and Environmental Sciences.

The Pacific coast city of Lima is no exception. It lacks an integrated plan to handle the 7,500 tons of solid waste its people produce daily, Peru's National Environment Council says.

Recycling falls to people like Ramos, 35, who says her decision to put her children to work was a question of survival after her husband was imprisoned eight years ago for selling drugs.

Carol has been helping her mother sift through garbage for as long as she can remember.

The environment is toxic, with nearby smelters releasing smoke laden with lead and other heavy metals. After picking garbage piles clean, scavengers set fire to the rest to reveal hidden bits of glass or metal.

"This morning I burned myself on some wire," says Ramos' son William, 7.

Like most here, Ramos' family operates below the radar of Peruvian labor laws that prohibit children under 14 from working -- especially in hazardous jobs like recycling.

On average, children here start scavenging between ages 7 and 10, according to Center for Social Studies and Publications, a nonprofit child labor watchdog group. The center's study found that children as young as 4 work in the garbage heaps and that skin infections, diarrhea, body pains, headaches and intestinal parasites are chronic problems.

"Recycling is tiring. Sickening, for one thing -- headaches, cuts, infections. We're used to it," Ramos says.

Ramos' oldest son, Jorge, 15, started helping his mother when he was about 9. He works 12-hour shifts on Saturdays at a recycling center near one of Lima's five authorized garbage dumps.

Ramos says her family sometimes cannot earn the daily minimum of $6 she needs to feed her six children.

There is no police presence in crime-infested Lomas de Carabayllo, and outsiders are not welcome.

Eusebio Robles, an official with Peru's environmental health agency, Digesa, said his team entered the zone in March to take photos. "The residents noticed and didn't like it. When we tried to go back in, they put broken bottles on the roadway to keep our car from passing," he said. A local resident Robles hired as a guide had to calm a suspicious, angry crowd.

Toribia Campos is the community leader with whom the Associated Press had to negotiate to gain entry into the zone. She denies the children here work in recycling, insisting repeatedly, "The children go to school."

Campos says a local TV station caused a stir several years ago with a report on children scavenging for garbage. Since then, officials at the nearby Zapallal municipal landfill have prohibited area families from entering to search for recyclables.

With a ton of garbage yielding about $100 worth of recyclables, she says, "Now they're burying a [fortune] there."

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