Escape from grim life on a waste tip

20th April 2001 at 01:00
BRAZIL. Jose dos Santos lies to his friends at school when he talks about his life outside the classroom. "I usually hang out playing video games," he tells them. But for the 11-year-old going to school is a welcome break from the daily grind of having to rummage though rotting garbage.

His family is among 700 people who supplement their meagre incomes by finding food and recyclable plastic, glass, and paper from the massive litter mountain set amid the mangroves of Sio Gonzalo, a poor suburb of Rio de Janeiro.

He had never gone to school until a few months ago, when he became one of 13,000 children who are being enticed away from this disease-prone, humiliating work.

It is estimated that more than 45,000 children survive on food from rubbish heaps, or rely on income from collecting recyclable material.

The "No More Children inRubbish Dumps" programme is led by the United Nations Children's Fund and involves the federal and local governments, charities and environmental organisations.

It aims to ensure that the children are removed from the dumps altogether, and spend the day in shool. In Latin American countries, where primary enrolment rates are much higher than, for instance, African countries, the priority is to enrol children from the margins of society.

Families get around pound;15 per month if they send their children to school. The campaign is part of a wider plan by the Brazilian government to reduce child labour, which remains embarrassingly common.

Jose is among 70 children who have been offered places at the local school, five miles from the tip. Most are between six and 12. Brazilian state education provides only half-day schooling and most return to the tip in the afternoon.

Jose refuses to be photographed on the tip. He says: "I don't want anyone to know I do this. It's just for now. When I grow up I am going to work on computers."

Although they may still be on the tips, the programme has helped to change the outlook of thousands of children. "While before they would not have seen a future beyond the pit, most now want out. That is a huge step, " says Mario Carvalho, the environmental secretary in Sio Gonzalo, who is overseeing the project.

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