Scavengers scour streets in dire straits

Sunday, September 29, 2002

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Unemployed and hungry, Guillermo Guerrero yanks up his shirt sleeves and plunges his grimy hands into a trash bag bulging with old newspapers, bottles and rotting vegetables.

Blocks away, Marisa Demitri and her 11-year-old son, Adrian, sift through trash piled up on a street corner, picking at discarded food and searching for anything to recycle, sell or eat.

As night falls, thousands of people like Demitri and Guerrero take over the streets. Many emerge from abandoned buildings or rusted rail cars; others come from the depressed neighborhoods that ring this city. The pavement clatters from shopping carts, wagons on metal wheels, even the occasional horse-drawn carriage with whole families aboard.

Not long ago, Buenos Aires was one of the most prosperous cities in Latin America. But a four-year-old economic slide has sent Argentina's jobless rate above 20 percent and slashed the peso's value by more than 70 percent against the dollar. Nearly half the country's 36 million people now live in poverty. Homelessness is on the rise.

Guerrero, 22, took to the streets to feed his family of 10 after his father died in May. The butcher shop where he had worked closed as cash-short Argentines cut back on buying meat.

"I'd be on the streets begging if it wasn't for this," Guerrero says of his trash scavenging. "I grab whatever I can, it's the only way I can survive."

Government aid is sparse for former low-wage workers -- construction workers, cleaning ladies, security guards -- who are now out of work.

Demitri, a laid-off seamstress, holds her son's hand while poking in trash outside office buildings downtown as men and women in business suits walk by.

"This is better than stealing," she says, turning away from the stares. "I'm a mother with children -- I want to hide my head in shame, but what can I do?"

Sociologist Artemio Lopez at the Equis consulting group estimates 30,000 to 40,000 people are eking out a bare existence by scavenging through trash.

"This is obviously a worrisome phenomenon," he says, but he adds that the scavengers are benefiting from a sharp rise in the price for cardboard in recent weeks -- from under two-tenths of a cent for a pound to 18 cents a pound.

"The hike in prices has turned recycling into a very important business in the informal economy," Lopez says.

Paper, bottles and plastic all head to old warehouses like that run by Jose Cordoba, who says he separates the loads, pays the scavengers and then resells at a profit.

He says competition is fierce among the scavengers, known as "cartoneros" to their fellow citizens.

"Nowadays there so many people without work that they are out on the streets scavenging," he says. "Before men used to go out alone. Now it's entire families, women and children."

Marcos Benitez, a former university student, says he has little choice but to salvage trash.

Six months ago, he was working at a health clinic while he studied toward a degree in pharmacy. Then came the currency devaluation, which forced the owners to close.

"That career has been put on hold," Benitez says. "Now I've got to worry about putting food on the table for mom and dad -- they've lost their jobs, too."

Leaning on a handcart stacked high with paper and bags of food scraps, Guerrero hopes for better times.

"I'd even take a part-time job -- anything that takes me off these streets."

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