GUATEMALA CITY - "When I thought of my future, I saw my whole life picking through this rubbish dump," says 20-year-old Julia Castillo. "I never thought I'd get away."Like thousands of other children, Julia grew up picking garbage for sale on the rubbish dump in Guatemala City. In 2005 the dump, the biggest in Latin America, was officially, though not always effectively, closed to minors.
Keeping children out was part of an agreement between the development cooperation office of the Italian foreign affairs ministry and the city municipality. About a third of 3,600 garbage pickers at the time, the 'guajeros', were children. Picking nylon, plastic, glass and other saleable rubbish, they could earn up to 20 dollars a day.
"I started working in the 'relleno' (the dump area) when I was five," Julia told IPS. "I came with my mother and seven sisters and brothers. Mum couldn't leave us around alone, and we needed money to survive. She had no choice."
It turned out to be a dangerous place to work, or to just be. "I have seen many children run over by trucks that carry rubbish in the dump," Julia said. Many were "infants left in cartons amidst the rubbish while their mothers worked."
The dump is now officially accessible only to adults with written authorisation from the municipality. That means the thousand and more children who worked freely there earlier needed an alternative.
"It could sound like a paradox, but this rubbish dump is really an economic driving force," Emanuela Benini, director of the regional office of the official aid body Italian Development Cooperation told IPS. "This work, though dreadful from a human and sanitation point of view, assures children and their families a regular and certain income."
Under the Italian project, a school has been built nearby with scholarship for children's families to match past income from garbage picking. "Of course, this is not the best option, but it is the only one possible now, considering the total absence of social rules," Stefania Di Campli, who has been working in Guatemala City many years as project coordinator for the Madrid-based non-governmental organisation Mediterranean Association of International Schools (Mais), told IPS.
Now, mothers can leave their children at the school when they go to work in the dump. Children learn to read and write in the morning, and work in the municipality garden centre in the afternoon. This helps many recover finger mobility they had lost working in the dump.
But most of all "here they discover self-confidence, something the rubbish had completely wiped away," Di Campli said. And this definitely motivates many parents to send their children to school.
"When I found this project, I left the rubbish dump and started to go to the school," Julia Castillo said. "Otherwise, I would still be living here now."
The campaigners out to protect children from life on the dump warned her the work was damaging for her health, she said. "They made me think that, yes, I could wish for something different. After leaving the dump, I really became more aware of my capabilities, and more self-confident."
The best students are trained as 'promoters'. They go door to door to inform families in the slum about the project - and save them from the dump.
Julia has made it a mission now to keep children away from the dump "since I know that they still enter the dump illegally." The police guard the entrance, but children are known to jump on to trucks carrying rubbish into the dump.
But still, many children seek out the school, sometimes on their own. "Many of the children who arrive here come by themselves, in search of some warmth that could relieve them not only from poverty, but from loneliness and despair," says Doña Rosario, who has dedicated her life to care of street orphans (niños de la calle).
The high rate of violence and drug consumption among the youth in the area arises from lack of hope, she says. "What we try to do here is to look after their existential melancholia caused by the total absence of a belief in a future."
© 2007 Inter Press Service