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Thursday December 6 11:44 AM ET Garbage Boy Illustrates Grim Reality of Peru's Poor

Garbage Boy Illustrates Grim Reality of Peru's Poor

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By Raquel Castillo

LOMAS DE CARABAYLLO, Peru (Reuters) - The morning fog and dust from nearby trash dumps drift between brick and straw buildings in Lima's Lomas de Carabayllo shantytown, where most people scrape by sifting through and selling garbage.

Thirteen-year-old Diego, one Lomas resident, wakes up early to head out to the dumps to work because he has to be at school before noon. The trash he brings home keeps his family afloat, raising cash to help his mother feed him and his two brothers.

The black-haired boy wears two different colored shoes as he walks toward the mountains of trash and his worn shirt barely keeps off the morning chill. In his hand is a metal rod he uses to seize pieces of tin, glass and bone.

``I get 20 centimos (5 cents) for a kilo (2.2 lbs) of glass, 50 centimos (14 cents) for a kilo of bone ... but if I find a kilo of aluminum they give me 2.5 soles (70 cents),'' Diego said, piling up his day's findings.

The smiling boy is one of the 200 children registered by local nongovernmental organization Social Process as a child garbage collector. But those registered are only a fraction of those who actually have to comb the dumps to earn a few coins.

President Alejandro Toledo, who took office in this Andean nation in July, has promised to curb the poverty that grips some 54 percent of a population of 26 million people.

According to the national statistics agency, INEI, in some places rural poverty reaches 73 percent.

A NEW TAKE ON 'POOR'

Official poverty figures have been revised in the past year after the ouster of Alberto Fujimori (news - web sites), president from 1990-2000, who fled to Japan last year in a corruption scandal.

Peru wants to bring him to Lima for trial on human rights and corruption charges, but Japan has so far protected the ex-leader, whom it recognizes as a Japanese citizen.

Though Fujimori has been praised for reforming Peru's economy, boosting infrastructure, and ushering in average growth of some 4 percent during the 1990s, INEI this year said it now believed that the number of people living in poverty in fact grew by 2.1 million in the last four years.

``This job entails setting the numbers straight, revising, and carrying out a technical audit. We already have evidence that poverty has grown,'' INEI chief Gilberto Moncada told Reuters.

Social Development and Women's Minister Doris Sanchez has said the government will invest some $132 million in 2002 into assistance programs as well as a ``big national campaign on nutrition, food safety, plus sexual and reproductive health.''

``Poverty is the biggest factor in the discrimination and marginalization of people,'' Sanchez said.

Freddy Calixto, a sociologist who scales mountains of trash when he is in Lomas working on development projects, says that people relocate here -- to collect and sell trash -- because they believe they will find a chance to earn a better living.

``People do this because there aren't other options,'' Calixto said.

In Peru, unemployment and underemployment together exceed 50 percent and the government has forecast growth in the economy -- worth $54 billion at the end of 2001 -- of only around 0.2 percent this year.

According to officials, Lomas residents are part of the 15 percent of Peruvians living in extreme poverty -- meaning they spend less than $36 on food per family member a month.

STATISTICS FAR FROM REAL LIFE

Liliana Pariona, Diego's mother, meanwhile sits at the door of her brick home. It is on the outskirts of Peru's capital city, but it does not even receive running water.

She scoffs at the government's efforts to quantify standards of living and the number of poor people when she is just making do with what she can.

``I spend 60 soles ($17) to feed my family for a whole month. I buy 5 kilos (11 lbs.) of sugar, five kilos (11 lbs.) of rice and a quarter kilo (0.55 lbs.) of lentils. That gives us enough to each once a day,'' 36-year-old Pariona said.

The mother-of-three says she agonizes over the fact her children are forced to go out and collect trash to help support the family -- but she has not been able to find work.

Diego's father, like the fathers of Pariona's two other children, does not help support the family.

Her younger son, Tono, sits on the ground and raises his soiled face to gaze at his mother. ``He's five years old but looks younger because he isn't fed properly,'' she said.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), 25 percent of children under five in Peru fall under the normal growth quotient for their age.

``If this problem isn't corrected before the child is three years old, the damage is irreversible. It affects not only physical growth but mental growth and future productivity,'' George Baldino, heads of USAID's food programs in Peru.

But beyond professionals' take on Peruvian poverty, Diego has his own ideas about how his family and others like it could make things better. One solution, he said, would be ``work for the parents, because children should study.''

``I like studying. I want to be a teacher,'' says the 13-year-old as he gets himself ready for school after a long morning's work in the trash dumps.

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