Peru's rubbish-tip children

When the G8 meets tomorrow, there will be the usual talk of the plight of the developing world. But it won't mean much to the Peruvian children who scavenge a living from the country's rubbish tips. As Johann Hari discovered when he witnessed the squalor and suffering at first hand, their best hope lies elsewhere
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The Independent US

I - The Lives of the Rubbish-Children

Thirty-five miles north of Lima, Peru's dusty, lusty capital city, the rubbish of nine million people is dumped in a vast valley. I stand at its entrance watching the trucks arrive and leave, trying not to breathe in the stench of everyday household waste as it gently rots. A constant black writhe of flies covers every moist surface. Skinny dogs wander around with proprietorial confidence, snarling at fat English strangers. (OK, me.) And the children who live in these great glaciers of rubbish are silently picking through it, as they do all day, every day, searching for something to sell.

"Señor, it is not safe to enter the dump," I am advised. This is, notoriously, where Peru's criminals come when they want to get lost, a no man's land beyond the remit of the police. But on the inside it is strangely silent, as children sift and crawl with stern concentration. My guide wants me to meet Adelina, one of the child workers who lives and toils here. We walk through a maze of rubbish - I try not to look at the bloated black rats I have been warned about - until we come to a space fenced off with large rusting metal sheets and other cobbled-together trash. I bang on the metal and wait. Eventually a sheet is pulled back, and the sound of oinking emerges from behind a little girl.

Adelina is eight but from her small frame it's hard to believe it. She has dried scraps of something around her mouth and a soiled dress that I am later told is her best, the one she dressed up in specially to meet the gringo journalist. I step in, on to a crunchy carpet of rubbish. There are old rubber ducks black with dirt, detergent containers, hair curlers, rotting food, broken bottles coating the floor. The pen is filled with little pigs and geese and chickens, with the "house" - another few steel sheets - at the back.

Her mother is out. She is always out. She leaves at six o'clock in the morning to work in the next dump down - it's too busy here - and doesn't get back until after Adelina is asleep. The child explains that her own job is to peel the bottle labels off and put them in a sack. They, too, can be used. As for her father, he left long ago. "I see him sometimes but he doesn't want me to talk to him." There is no running water here. They have to buy it in expensive barrels from a water man who comes once a week. It stands in the corner, open, with a thick film of dirt and dead insects on its surface. There is no sewage system either. They throw their faeces out in the rubbish, where other children slip in it. I ask her how often she eats. "Twice a day," she says, unconvincingly, adding, "I don't like to eat every much anyway." She quickly changes the subject by trying to pick up a filthy-white goose from her Noah's Ark for me to stroke.

Adelina has never left this rubbish dump. Its walls are the walls of her consciousness. Three children have already died here this year by falling into the trash. Even more have been pricked by hypodermic needles - somebody thinks they were chucked out by the hospital - and cut on broken bottles. The children, it seems, are as disposable as the trash they pick through.

Families began to settle here in the mid-1980s, as they ran from the civil war in the highlands of Peru, where a deranged Maoist insurgency had risen up to create a "pure" Communist state in Peru and the government suppressed it with extreme violence. The poverty-sunk refugees, wandering in search of a livelihood, discovered that there was a market for delving into the rubbish and finding something - anything - to sell on to be recycled. Now the business is highly refined, with every part of a Coke bottle - the lid, the label, and the bottle itself - being stripped into separate piles by gangs of children and sold to different trash dealers. A sack of bottle lids can now fetch the glorious sum of 3p. A few years ago there were complaints about the families living here by the national media. They were considered a "national embarrassment" to Peru, so instead of being dumped in one immense pile, the rubbish is now placed into walled perimeters. The river of trash was dammed, but this dissuaded nobody. The families soon burrowed into these compounds, where I watch them now.

These children are being poisoned every time they breathe in. The dump is next to an informal lead factory, which belches out sickly fumes that are the only relief from the smell of rot. Sport Relief, a British charity, paid for blood tests on a random sample of children here, and found them to have four times the safe amount of lead in their blood. The epidemic of headaches, nosebleeds, fevers and drastic weight loss (from an already low starting point) among the kids suddenly became clear. Sebastiano, an 11-year-old boy I find playing marbles, tells me what this means. Every morning when he wakes up, his throat is burning and his chest is tight. "I just have to wait until it goes away," he says. "I feel angry because I can't play with my friend. You can't do anything until it passes." With that, he picks up his marbles and scampers off.

I see some children stuffing rubbish into a sack, but their father tells me not to speak to them. He doesn't mind, he explains politely, but his wife is around, and she's a crack addict and might stab a stranger talking to her kids.

In their little shack nearby, I find Francisca Rodriguez and Rogelio Marquez - a couple both aged 60 - reminiscing about the good old days when the dump was less crowded. "We are founders of this community," Francisca says. "When we came here [in the 1980s], everything was just rubbish." But those halcyon days are gone. So many people have crowded into the dump, she says, that prices for collected items have been driven down. Francisca and Rogelio worry about providing for the two children they have unofficially "adopted", nine-year-old Tajo, whose mother abandoned him, and 11-year-old Felipe, whose parents died. "I hope we live a few more years to provide for them, because we have no family to take them if we die," she says. At 60, they have already beaten the life expectancy for this rubbish-city.

At the back of their "house" there is a great pile of rotting rubbish that they have selected as valuable - plastic bottles, cardboard, paper. The children flick through some of the celebrity magazines that have been thrown from the rich world into theirs. Before I leave, Francisca excitedly shows me the best things they have found over the years. She brings out a murky set of scales, discarded, most likely, by some old grocer's shop. "We would never sell this," she says. "It is an antique."

II The Dreams of the Rubbish-Children

At night, this Trashocracy - where each family has its own special patch to pick from - is ceded to the gangs, who roam where they please. The swarms of teenage boys who take over are known locally as "Piranhas", because they surround their victims and consume them. The locals offer stories of elaborate pitched battles where gangs fight each other - almost in tournaments, it seems - using stones and broken bottles and knives. I want to stick around to meet these kids, but no Peruvian will stay in trash town after dark to translate for me. "It is suicide," they say with a tut.

The closest I can get to peering into the heads of children reared in rubbish - beyond the simplistic conversations with pre-teens where they say again and again that when they grow up they just want to "go somewhere else" - is to head to the young offenders' institutes. The big walled institute in Rimac is only minutes from the gorgeous Spanish colonial Presidential Palace, a reminder of Peru's vertiginous inequalities. Sitting in its clean, clear yard a young, big-armed priest called Father Bosco tells me that once the children arrive here, "they just cry and cry". Many of them are perplexed to discover a bed in their room, because they have never seen one before. "They insist on sleeping on the floor. You see that boy there," - he points to a teenager in a blue tank-top - "he will only sleep on the floor in a huddle with the stray dogs he collects. They say they are his family." Why is he here? "Armed robbery."

After watching an intense, testosterone-soaked football match, I walk over to introduce myself to Rames, an 18-year-old whom Father Bosco tells me has committed "the worst crimes" here. He is sitting, sweating, on a bench. Rames' mother died when he was eight and his father died in a prison two years later. Left to fend for himself, he couldn't make a living selling sweets on the streets - his old job - so he became a gang member, and started smoking crack and committing armed robberies to pay for it. Soon the gang was perpetrating a string of rapes, while most of his contemporaries were getting their first PlayStation. Rames agrees to speak with a moody nod, and suddenly it strikes me that I have to ask him a question. What should I say? Tell me about the gang rapes, then?

He has suspicious eyes and acne scars on his cheeks. I ask him how he came to end up here, and something odd happens. He offers me a completely fictitious life, one in total contradiction to the story the priest told me. His mother is still alive, and didn't like it when he became involved with the gangs. "I liked it though. It's hard to explain... but it was good. But I left it all for the love of a woman. She is called Isabelle Lopez." He says the name with dreamy love. "I met her because I stole her bag. I was captured and sent to the police station, but when she came to collect it she was so charmed by me she decided she wanted to adopt me."

At first I think I must have the wrong person, but then I remember that in Congo, the child soldiers I met invariably invented heroic fantasy accounts of their life, coating the truth in self-protecting lies. They were never captured by a militia and forced to fight. No - they joined the enemy militia to rescue their little sister, who had been kidnapped by them. Rames continues with his dream story, where he was adopted by a rich woman. I try to get him on to something more real. What is a typical day in a gang like? "We would go to a stall or a street corner and smoke. Or we would watch porn in the cinema, or steal bags. They called us the Bad Boys." He drifts back into the fantasy, and the more I push him back to sense-impressions - did you see somebody being killed? - the more wet tears run, unforced, down his face. As the sun falls and he becomes visible only by the city lights, I let him tell me more and more about this fantasy mother who "is coming to get me. She's coming to get me soon."

The rubbish-children are sunk in idle dreams. It is the only way for them to survive.

III The Brick and Stone Children

The dust is so fine that it is like walking on powdered snow. It's hard to see the quarries we are approaching because it hangs in the air like a thick mist, and it's impossible to peer more than 10 feet in front of you. But after trudging along a rubble road, we get there - to the place where children make bricks.

The busy noise you expect on a building site is absent. Almost nothing is done mechanically here. The only sound is of the bleeping of the lone bulldozer - a solitary concession to the 21st century - and of tiny hands turning bricks. In gully after gully, families are working with their children, caked in dust. I stumble down.

Slumped before me there is Pablo, a 12-year-old child so starved that he is the same size as my six-year-old nephew. He is telling me how he starts work before the sun rises every morning and does not stop until dusk. He spends all day, every day, mixing mud and water to make bricks, wrenching his back round and round. He has a strange misshapen stoop. For a change, in the evenings, he piles up the two-and-a-half kilogram bricks one by one, in their thousands. This has been his life for as long as he can remember. He started - like so many people here - when he could only toddle. His hair is falling out in clumps because he is burned by the sun every hour he works, and infected blisters are running across his scalp in angry streaks.

The ageing process does not seem to work properly in Peru. The children look much younger than they should, but the adults look far older, with worn faces and gnarled postures. I keep trying to figure out the tipping point - there must be an intermediate stage where they look the right age - but I never seem to spot it.

Working in one brick field I find Juan and Paulina Sanchez and their four young children as they draw to the end of their 14-hour shift. Juan had to work as a child, too, he says. "I wanted to study but I had no choice." He makes 1,400 bricks a day, and I walk over to the pile and run my hand across them. He makes the mix, his wife shapes them, and the children are best at turning them in the baking sun. Veronica - their six-year-old daughter - shows me what she does. She clambers on top of the long row of bricks, tugging each one over on to its side as she goes. Her hair trawls in the dirt. Eduardo, their tiny three-year-old, does the same, and soon it is a contest to show off for the stranger. I ask when the three-year-old started working like this. "Last year," Maria says. "It's very hard as a mother to watch your child carry water and sand, to know your children are doing something dangerous. But if we don't, they don't eat." The family make a net profit of £3.40 a week - leaving each family member eight pence a day to live on.

This desolate patch of land is called Nieveria, which is a Peruvian word for ice cream. This is oddly appropriate since the whole area looks like an immense ice cream scoop has descended from heaven, taken out a lump of brown rock and left some people in the hole. I wander from hole to hole, where every story is the same. These are not children with imaginations and needs; they are cogs in a brick-making machine. Their childhood is packed into the bricks and shipped away for somebody else to use.

They are not alone. Two million children - starting at three or four - are forced to work in Peru, and my little tour of their world continues half an hour's drive away. The stone quarries look even more blank than the brick-makers' landscape. The rock is universally beige and stretches as far as the horizon. The view over this stone-breaking valley, where children are working with loud, heavy thwacks into their sixth hour now, is varied by only two sights. There are the tiny tin houses, no more than rust built on dust. And there are the large blackened rocks with small trickles of rubbery smoke rising from them.

Esteban, a serious-faced 10-year-old with a hairless burned patch on his scalp, shows me how the rocks become this way. "We cannot break the rocks when they are just normal, like this," he says, pointing to an uncharred specimen. "It is too difficult. So we do this." He has scooped handfuls of earth out from the side of a massive rock - taller than him and me - and slid an old, worn tire into the hole. The tire is then soaked in petrol and set on fire. It burns for an hour, each moment making the rock more brittle. Once the fire has died, Esteban approaches the rock with a six-kilo hammer, and smashes at it in great long heaves. Cracks appear and parts of the rock break off and fall to the floor. He then has to drag these smaller rocklets into a huge pile, where trucks will come from the town to collect them and sell them to be used in construction, out there in the world that builds with concrete rather than cardboard and tin.

I feel sick from breathing in the burning rubber for an hour. Esteban breathes it all day. The other dangers are obvious. Last year a burning splinter of rock thwacked him in the head, and it is now covered with scar tissue. Several children in this area have been crushed when the rocks tipped on to their attackers. I search for emotion on the children's faces - of pain, anger, regret - but I can only see sweat.

IV A Rescue Plan, Part One: The Schools

Working in the rubbish dumps and brick-making fields and stone quarries that circle Lima - with money sent by British people through Sport Relief - there is a determined band of Peruvian heroes showing that it doesn't have to be this way. They are showing how this world of child work can be unmade, forever. They are not offering arid theories. They are offering a rescue plan, and putting it into practice every day of the week. This is not only the story of the child workers of South America. It is the story of how they can be saved.

The difference this rescue plan has made becomes flesh in Liana, a 13-year-old girl with a blue ribbon in her hair who strides confidently up to me and shakes my hand. She is a child of the brick fields, and if nobody had intervened, if people across Britain had not had sponsored runs and a thousand charity-a-thons, she would be out lifting bricks in the sun now. "I started making bricks when I was six years old," she says. "It was my job to carry the sand from the hills to the working area, and to turn the bricks over in the sun. I would go to school from 8am to noon, and then work in the fields from 1 to 7pm." She had it even tougher than the boy workers, because "when I got home I had to do the cooking and cleaning, too".

There was a little girl living next door to Liana, the same age as her, who didn't have to work. "While I was in the fields she would play football and volleyball and it made me sad... I would always look forward to Saturday night because then I knew I had a day of rest. Lots of the time I had a pain in my back and I always had headaches because the sun was really strong. I would get terrible aches in my legs and in my arms, too, so I couldn't run because it really hurt. I would be late for school because I couldn't walk properly."

But today Liana has a different look to the children I have seen out in the fields. Her eyes are alive, she has not dulled her mind and her senses to trudge through life. What happened? Simple. Sport Relief - with money raised in the UK - arrived to support the struggling Peruvian charities Adevi and Proceso Social, determined to save children from poverty. The money it raised pays towards the school she goes to, where we are standing now, and for it to be staffed with terrific teachers and stocked with computers and books and the best equipment. "I like computer and maths and languages," she says, swatting away a fly. In a society soaked in machismo, Liana is called a Machona - a tomboy. "I am just as good as any boy. I like to play marbles and spin the trompo [a popular Peruvian boys' toy, identical to the Jewish dreidl] and play football. I beat them, too." She is the first Peruvian child I meet with an ambition. She wants to be a lawyer. "I want to speak out for my mother and father and the people who live here. I want to work for justice, to study the cases and make the right decisions."

Of course, Liana still faces monstrous obstacles. Last night, she mentions almost in passing, most of her house fell down. Like all the shanty homes here, it was on a hill, housing eight people in two pokey rooms, and it had no running water or electricity. "There was a big crashing sound," she says, "and at first we thought it was an earthquake and the whole house would fall down." In the night, the rocks and sand that form the rudimentary foundations had shifted. Her brothers were thrown out of their bed, and the sugar-cane roof fell in, but nobody was hurt. Were you scared? "No." She pauses. I smile sceptically. "Maybe just a little bit," she concedes. "It was very noisy." Her parents are spending today rebuilding the house as best they can. Many people believe this is only a small taster of this area's future. Peru's last big earthquake was in the 1970s. When the next one comes, whole shanty cities like this will be swept away, just like they were in Venezuela a few years ago, where more than 30,000 people died.

But Liana will not be fazed, not today. "My life has changed so much now I don't have to work so hard," she says, her legs swinging below the table in a rare sign of girlishness. If I am ever on trial, I tell her, I want her to be my lawyer. She laughs, and then gives me a serious look that seems to say, "If you can afford my fee."

I go from school to school to see the rubbish-children and the stone children learning for the first time. As they run about, or cut little smiley fish out with big scissors, or chant the names of the local fruits and carefully spell them out, you see years of stress and pressure falling away. You see them ceasing to be objects and starting to be human. In one classroom, the teacher has put on local music, and some of the children bop around. The teacher draws one straggler to the front, and twirls and twists with him. The class collapses in laughter; the little boy blushes and giggles ecstatically.

Among the hundreds of children learning here, I meet Jose, an 11-year-old with the withered legs of someone who has had polio, explaining how this school saved him from having to crawl through the rubbish on his hands to work. I meet children reminiscing about the recent trip to the beach, the first time they ever saw the sea. I see Adelina - the girl who lives in the trash with pigs - in a class. And I meet children born into brick fields who are now merrily googling the names of the planets and the stars. "Look," one of them says. "This is Saturn. Did you know it is the sixth planet from the sun?"

V A Rescue Plan, Part Two: How the IMF Strangles Peru's Schools

As we watch these scenes of joyous learning, Alfredo Robles, the director of Sport Relief's main Peruvian partner Adevi, explains how the outside world makes it harder for Peru to build schools like this. "The International Monetary Fund [IMF] forces our government to put debt repayment to international creditors before building schools like this. They discourage us from investing in schools and get us to pay terrible interest rates instead. This country spends 3 per cent of its budget on education and 20 per cent on debt repayment, because that is what the IMF demands."

The IMF brags about Peru's spurting economic growth, and on paper five per cent year-on-year looks good. But like all neo-liberal growth, it has gone to those already rich. It has not "trickled down" to communities like this, who are - if anything - getting poorer. It has built up in a great reservoir at the top of Peruvian society.

This warning was the drum-beat of the Peruvian presidential election last month. In the left corner, Ollanta Humala talked of Chavez-style redistribution of wealth, hoping to spread the democratic revolution of Hugo and Evo to Peru. This stirred the great shanty cities into the polling booths. But in the right corner, Alan Garcia had a more pro-US message, tied to the implicit warning that people who stand up to the IMF get crucified by it. He had more cash, the support of the press, and, in the end, scored a narrow victory.

Robles is a wise, lined man, who has worked a lifetime against the imposition of neo-liberalism on his country. He is too polite to point out that the IMF - and the right-wing ideology it forces down the throat of the world's poor - is supported by my own Government. The British people, through Sport Relief, are trying to put right the damage caused by our own global financial institutions. It is a rescue plan from ourselves.

VI A Rescue Plan, Part Three: Microcredits

"Of course, it is not enough just to provide schooling," Mila Castillo says from her neat, efficient office in the centre of one of the brick-field schools. "We aim to trap child labour in a pincer movement. To one side we provide quality education for the children and the chance to reintergrate into the schools system. To the other side, we give their parents new economic opportunities to make up for the money they have lost when they send their kids from the field to the classroom." She speaks in cool, clear paragraphs. "That way the children stay at school, instead of being called back a few months later, and they don't go hungry because they've withdrawn their labour."

Mila knows what she is talking about. She grew up in these brick fields decades ago. She started "helping" - nobody calls it work, even when it lasts 12 hours a day, every day - when she was eight, and she confirms that the low drudgery of it is "even worse when you are a girl". She was a pack-horse in the fields, and a maid in the home, never getting off the misery-go-round of ceaseless toil. But today, Mila runs her community's microcredit programme. Every day, it is lifting women from this drudgery, and making sure they never have to go back.

The idea of microcredits was born in Bangladesh in the barren soil of the 1970s famine. The economist Mohammed Yunus wondered what would happen if tiny loans - at tiny rates of interest - were offered to the very poorest people to start their own businesses. They could, of course, never approach a conventional bank. They had no credit history, no collateral, and no official employment history. But once he started, he unleashed the economic potential of the poorest women. They quickly began providing for themselves, spotting gaps in the local market, meeting them, and paying back their loans eagerly.

Mila takes me on a tour of her community, showing me the women who have been lifted out of grinding poverty. We arrive at a shop - in a sturdy concrete home - started with a microcredit loan of just $300, long since repaid in full. Agripina Taype, a cheery 34-year-old woman with a pudgy baby strapped to her back, is manning the till. Around her are bread and sweets and basic pharmaceuticals. "We used to work in the fields making bricks. It's horrible making your children work. I feel so great now that we don't live that life any more. I actually enjoy work! I never thought I'd say that. My kids go to school properly, they play, and I get to play with them myself." Mila provided support on budgeting and spreadsheets and finances. Agripina laughs. "I didn't know anything about maths before. Now I'm an expert!"

As we walk up towards the pig farms established with microcredits, Mila explains that more than 90 per cent of the loans here go to women. "They are more reliable and better at spotting economic opportunities," she says. Feminism here isn't just a moral necessity - it's an economic one, too.

Mercedes Garcia, a slender 29-year-old, is tending to her pigs. An immense sow is lying exhausted on her side, as nine tiny piglets clamber over her and compete to suckle. "She gave birth last night," Mercedes says with a sympathetic smile in her direction. "Yes," she says, "I know lots of women treated badly by their men. Lots of slaps. They are too poor to do anything about it, and the police don't want to know." This is another burden on the rubbish-children, but, Mila says, microcredits are slowly unpicking that culture. Mercedes smiles again as she talks about her children going to school now - a condition of being given the loan. As she talks, the pig-mother opens her eyes, looks round to her piglets, and lets out a contented belch.

VI Goodbye to the Chilli Children

From the top of the stone quarry, on a high hill, you can see trails of black smoke - another Esteban chipping away at a rock, and another, and another - everywhere. But I am not here to see this. I am here to meet the chilli children. From a distance, it looks like a sweet scene. A family of six is sitting around, a mother with her boys, and a baby is crawling at their feet - a Latino Walton family. But as you get closer you see the red mulchy pile in the middle, and the swift, repetitive cut of their hands. They are skinning chillis to sell at the local market. Fernando, the oldest, is 14, and his voice is in the process of breaking. Without pausing from his lift, slice, drop, lift, slice, drop motion, he tells me that he preferred the stone quarrying. "With chillis, your hands become burned," he says, and I look at them, broken and scabby like he has psoriasis. "If you touch your eyes, they burn too. It's agony. At night none of us sleep because of the pain in our hands and in our eyes. I wake up crying."

Opposing child labour might seem like the sweetest slice of motherhood and apple pie, a cliché nobody would dissent from. But most mainstream economists - including renowned liberal lefties like Paul Krugman - believe it is a necessary phase of economic development. They jeer at the opponents of child labour, saying they will only make poor societies poorer. The Sport Relief project in Peru exposes this as a hollow lie, but I put their arguments to Luis Fernando Algalia, a headmaster rescuing children from work. "Child labour damages a whole generation's health," he says patiently. "They get malformed backs from carrying such heavy weights. They drink contaminated water in the fields. It malforms and misshapes the child for life. It stunts their physical development, so how can it develop our society?"

Before I leave Peru, I look carefully at Lucio and his brothers working and working, children beyond the reach of Sport Relief's help because you and me have not given more cash. I have come to think of the children here as inverse Peter Pans, always adults, never kids, and asked them very serious grown-up questions. I decide to change tack. I sit down next to Lucio and ask him excitedly what he wants to do when he is grown up. He doesn't stop chopping the chillis as he says, "Go away. Go far away."

Some names have been changed for child protection reasons. Sport Relief has awarded £805,000 to organisations rescuing Peruvian child labourers. To help save children like those in this article from hard labour, you can make a donation to Sport Relief by going to www.sportrelief.com or calling 08457 910 910 (local call charges apply). Sport Relief 2006 is on BBC 1 tomorrow at 7pm

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