Colombian children make charcoal to put food on the table

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

SOACHA, Colombia -- Jose Luis Lamus Rocha is small for his 14 years but has the hardened features of an adult.

Jose Luis and his 10 brothers and sisters haven't had much of a childhood. When they're not in school, they work from morning until night with their mother, making charcoal to sell to restaurants and bakeries.

"Here we don't have time to play on Sundays," Jose Luis says as he sorts through a pile of smoking charcoal, his face and hands covered in soot.

The work is tedious and dirty, but it earns the family the equivalent of $14 a week, enough to put potatoes, rice and sugar on the table. Meat is a rare luxury.

The youngsters round up discarded wood, burn it slowly, then separate it into chunks of charcoal and shovel it into sacks. Restaurants and bakeries buy the charcoal to fire their ovens.

Ten of the children, from the 4-year-old to the 19-year-old, labor in the heat of the fire, breathing in soot on a hillside south of Bogota where they live. A 21-year-old brother left to join his father, who abandoned the family years ago. The hill is crowded with wooden shacks sitting among garbage that attracts swarms of flies and spreads a stench over the neighborhood.

The money the family earns is less than half Colombia's official minimum wage, but jobs are scarce in this South American country that has been riven by four decades of civil war. The government estimates 1.5 million children are working, most for no pay.

"I learned from my parents how to make charcoal and that's what my kids know how to do," says Flor Maria Rocha, Jose Luis' 44-year-old mother.

Her children dream of a better life and hope to escape the poverty they share with nearly two-thirds of Colombia's 44 million people.

"I just want to do better than my mom, and one day operate a computer," Jose Luis says.

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