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Bolivia, Plurinational State of

German's story: Swapping sugar cane fields for school in Bolivia

© UNICEF Bolivia/2011/Friedman-Rudovsky
Children in a combined fifth and sixth grade class work in one of the unfinished schoolhouses in the village of San Juan del Carmen, Bolivia. Most of the children come from families where they are the first to be able to attend school.

This year’s World Day Against Child Labour, marked on 12 June, is focusing on hazardous working conditions faced by some 115 million children worldwide, and calls for urgent action to halt the practice. This is one story of the impact child labour has on young lives.

By Noah Friedman Rudovsky

SAN JUAN DEL CARMEN, Bolivia, 10 June 2011 – In the shadow of a sea of sugar cane fields, German Tumpanillo, 13, rattles off what he likes about his new community.

“The school, friends, it’s safe here…we have a place to play ball.”  He has little to say about life on the sugar cane plantation in his previous village, except that there was no school.

Chance of an education

Until the age of nine, German lived with his family on a large sugar cane plantation in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands. He and his five siblings didn’t attend school because there was no transportation to the nearest schoolhouse.

Instead, they spent their days cutting cane and doing chores under the plastic tarp that passed for a home. His life changed drastically in 2007, when his older sister called to say that she and her husband had found an independent community surrounded by sugar cane fields – with a school.

German’s mother Rosa Galindo, 35, sent him immediately. “Because I didn’t get to study as a child, my thinking was, I want one of my children to go to school,” she says. German enrolled directly in third grade as a nine year-old, and soon his entire family came.

© UNICEF Bolivia/2011/Friedman-Rudovsky
David Tumpanillo, 12 (German's brother), carries sugar cane in the fields near his village of San Juan del Carmen, Bolivia. David goes to school in the mornings, but spends a couple hours some afternoons assisting his family in the fields to supplement the family's income.

“Here, we started out giving classes under tarps; they studied in the shade of the trees,” says teacher Estefania Sejas Uriyona. Such was the success of the school, it was quickly overwhelmed with new arrivals.

With funding from UNICEF and the regional government, the community built two schoolhouses and was assigned four permanent teachers.

To an outsider, San Juan del Carmen is still a hardscrabble village with thatched roofed huts and no electricity.  But for families such as German’s, it is a world away from the constant migration of sugar cane labour, living in temporary encampments on the boss’ land.

Here, they have formed a community, a place where they can make a home and just as importantly, one that belongs to them.  Well-trimmed bushes line the soccer field and litter-free paths snake from home to home.

Rediscovering childhood

San Juan del Carmen means even more for the children. It has allowed them to rediscover childhood. “Today, we’re going to go to the fields to watch them cut cane,” says Juan Gabriel cheerfully.  But by mid-afternoon, the kids are still playing marbles in the shade of the schoolhouse, joking around and talking about doing homework.

© UNICEF Bolivia/2011/Friedman-Rudovsky
German Tumpanillo, 13, leaves one of the schoolhouses in San Juan del Carmen, Bolivia. German worked in the sugar cane harvest as a child, but has now enrolled in school.

On other days, many of the children do indeed go to the fields with their parents to work.  “When there is work to do, like planting cane or clearing fields, we go to help out for a couple hours, and then we come back to rest. I earn a little money to buy the things I need,” explains German.

It is a reality faced by most Bolivian youngsters in the countryside – if they want shoes and extra school supplies, they are expected to spend some of their free time supplementing the family’s income. But it is a far cry from the long days of back-breaking work born of pure necessity that German and his siblings experienced before they found this community.

Tens of thousands of children, starting as young as six years-old, have traditionally worked in Bolivia’s two harshest jobs: cutting sugar cane and mining.

Fewer child labourers

In the sugar harvest, the number of child labourers has shrunk from 8,000 to less than 1,000 over the past decade, thanks to initiatives that provide stable schools and basic infrastructure to communities like San Juan del Carmen.

Next year when German turns 15 and finishes eighth grade, he will be at a crossroads that is familiar to many children in Bolivia. “I would like to keep studying,” he says, but he knows it may be too expensive to send him to high school in the city.

For now though, German just relishes the freedom to wander between a soccer game and homework, without the burden of a daily toil in the sugar cane fields.



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