by Helma Maas, Communication Officer, UNICEF Recife (Brazil)
Angélica is a 10-year-old girl whose unemployed parents left the countryside five years ago to go to the city of Olinda in the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco.
Circumstances forced the family to the garbage dump of Olinda, where they constructed a home from pieces of cardboard and plastic. It is there amongst the food and trash unwanted by others that Angélica and her two younger sisters have lived, played and worked. Thanks to a local effort which is part of a year-old national campaign called "Children in the Garbage Dumps: Never Again," Angelica is going to school and her little sisters are attending a creche.
For most people in developed economies, the image of 45,000 children living and working in garbage dumps is almost impossible to visualize. In most rich countries, there is a healthy and sustainable treatment of solid waste and child labour does not exist. In Brazil, healthy and sustainable treatment of solid waste is a relatively new and very complicated issue. Part of the issue is the dependence by many poor families on the collection and sale of recyclable trash for their survival.
Thousands of young children and adolescents were found four years ago to be working in garbage areas in 1,956 of the country's 5,507 municipalities. They do this to contribute to their families' meager income. Solutions to this problem must thus include finding viable alternatives for these children and their families, and changing the attitudes of people in the communities in which they live and work
The dump in Olinda consists of several mountains of garbage. In 1997, there were 350 children and teenagers who worked with their parents at the dumpsite. When a municipal garbage truck arrives to dump its waste, the children, adolescents and adults who live and work there rush to the new heap of trash to pick out what can be used or sold. There is a lot of competition, and you have to be fit and fast to get to there first. The work is dangerous and some children have lost limbs due to accidents with the trucks and other heavy equipment. Whenever something edible is found, it is eaten.
The high incidence of children living and working in the garbage dumps called for intervention. UNICEF's work in waste disposal dates back to 1991 when an environmental education project was introduced in Rio Branco in the Amazon area of Brazil. The work quickly expanded to other areas. In Olinda, where Angélica lives, UNICEF began in 1992 a collaboration with the city government and several non-governmental organizations to discuss health and education rights, environment care and income generation.
Taking children out of a garbage dump is easier said than done. The children were contributing, however little, to their parent's income. Older children sometimes made 15 reals (US$ 1.05) per day, which is as much as most adults, while the little ones sometimes didn't contribute more than one real per day. (One real is worth about 70 US cents.) In Brazil, where many people don't even earn the minimum wage (which is currently 151 reals per month), every real is invaluable. To stimulate parents to send their children to school and also attend after-school activities, the family needs to be compensated for the loss of the children's income.
With financial and technical support from UNICEF, the non-governmental organization CEAS Urbano has worked in several ways. It has helped the adult informal garbage workers - called catadores do lixo - to form an association. This cuts out the middlemen so that they can sell directly to the paper, glass and plastic industry. The average income per family increased, with some families now earning more than two times the monthly minimum wage. The children of the catadores were provided a safe place to play and learn. In 1998, the adolescents helped renovate a building now used as a youth centre and a pre- and after-school centre for young children. Lessons in dance, music, puppetry, and producing art from recyclable goods - such as papier-mache baskets - are provided. Nearly all the children between 7 and 14 years old are now enrolled in school. At the youth centre, they receive extra help with their homework. In addition, the government provides the families with a "school scholarship" of 25 reals (US$ 1.75) each month for every each child enrolled in school.
An interesting and complex aspect of this issue is how these children integrate with other children not living in or near the garbage dumps. Children living in garbage dump sites have not been brought up in the same environment as middle and upper class children. This is reflected in their lack of confidence and self-esteem. Sometimes, the children between 14 and 17 have an especially difficult time, because they have never gone to school and can't get used to sitting next to a 7-year-old who may know more than they do.
In Olinda, a special group has been formed for these adolescents, to discuss various issues of special interest to them, and which includes AIDS education. On the other side, middle-class students - and often the teachers themselves - may not welcome these children and adolescents into the classrooms. They are encouraged to understand the background of these children and to integrate them fully into the classroom setting.
The youngest children of the catadores are going to a crèche. One creche, Sal da Terra (Salt of the Earth, supported by a Swiss NGO) is located in one of the slums next to the garbage dump and provides nutritious food and care to 60 babies and toddlers. Another crèche, run by a church, also caters to children of catadores.
The experience in Olinda is one of many throughout the country. Much has been learned in the past decade. Simply removing children and their families from garbage dumps is ineffective. Either they will return or others will come to replace them. Successful resolution to the problem of solid waste must include the participation of the communities and families themselves and of course the government at federal, state and local levels; NGOs; private companies; the schools; workers' unions; and so forth. In June 1999, a national forum on waste and citizenship was held. Exactly one year later, the national campaign, Children in Garbage Dumps: Never Again, was launched amidst great publicity and high hopes.
Today, in July 2000, an initial assessment indicates that the issue of waste disposal is more widely discussed and better understood than before. In addition to ten specific waste-site projects, UNICEF plays a major role in stimulating discussion and partnerships and in training government and NGO and other partners.
Back in Olinda, Angélica's little sisters go to a crèche where they are properly fed. Angélica for the first time in her life is going to school, along with other children whose parents are working in the garbage business. The families are now living in houses built by the government and the catadores have organized themselves into an association.
Much more remains to be done. Though about 1,500 children of Brazil's catadores have been enrolled in school in the past year, too many more - at least 43,000 - still play, eat, work and sleep in the waste of others.