Latin America and the Caribbean

22 April 1998

by Luis Galdamez

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - Ever since she was six, Maria Aguilar has survived on garbage.

"I grew up in the dump,'' the 18-year-old Aguilar told Reuters, recalling that her mother brought her there one day in 1986. She picks through fetid waste to make a living in the dump, where many of those who work around her dine on buzzard soup when they can catch one of the scavengers.

"The hospitals used to dump feet or legs or pieces of human flesh,'' she said. "Once there was a skinned dog. People just went around calling it a ham.''

Through it all Aguilar has discovered that some trash can be recycled, as can her hopes. The mother of three is one of a few specially chosen street youths being aided by charitable organizations that pay them for recyclable materials, offering a steady market.

Her salvation has been the nonprofit Olof Palme Foundation and an association of charities called Procomes, which have launched a project to aid the estimated 300,000 street children in this tiny Central American nation. The foundation is funded by Intermom of Spain and Christian Aid of the United States.

The project started in January by providing homeless youth with a combination of work and education. So far, it has taken on only eight people, ages 11 to 18, including Aguilar.


Participants are paid about $150 per month to took for recyclables throughout the city, which are collected at a center called "Hope'' and sold to businesses. They also get instruction on their civil rights, health, labor laws and gender roles, said Delmy Iglesias, coordinator of the Palme Foundation, a Salvadoran group that aids street children.

"The work in some aspects is positive,'' the social worker said. ``It helps the children strengthen their personalities, learning responsibility and dignity.''

Dignity is not in great supply where Aguilar lives in the Nejapa dump about 10 miles (16 km) north of the capital San Salvador, a city of 1.5 million people. She is one of about 300 ``sifters'' who work in the dump, where half of San Salvador's 1,200 tonnes of garbage is deposited each day.

Sixty-five percent of the sifters are between 5 and 18 years old, according to a 1997 study by the University of El Salvador. They are driven by poverty in this tiny nation, where per capita income is a mere $736.50 a year and the infant mortality rate is 56 in every 1,000 births.


The sifters compete with each other and with the buzzards for recyclable salvage such as paper, glass or metal. At times they come across the most putrid garbage imaginable, such as human or animal remains left to rot in the tropical sun.

When the buzzards get in the way, some sifters exact revenge by turning them into soup or selling them in markets, where good ones can fetch up to $5.70 each.

"They say it's good although I've never tried it,'' Aguilar said of the soup. "They say it's good for the heart and good for hangovers. When someone sells one, it makes their day.''

Another prize for the sifters is spoiled food tossed out by supermarkets and restaurants, a ready meal for the hungry. The leftovers are in such demand that many companies have hired armed guards or off-duty police to accompany their trips to the dump to ward off the flocks of sifters.

At another dump near the Pacific Coast, a woman and her four children died recently after they ate poisoned biscuits.

Aguilar says the recycling project has helped her recover some of her dignity, especially after breaking a dependency on tranquilizers and glue-sniffing. She also succeeded in getting the father of her children to kick his glue habit.

Jose Ceron, 20, now works alongside Aguilar at the Nejapa dump. "He still drinks and smokes, though,'' she said. "He was lost, but thank God he's better.''

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