The Guatemala City garbage dump, situated in a ravine, occupies 40 acres of land in the nation’s capital. Guatemala is the most populated nation in Central America, with more than 13 million residents. This landfill, one of the largest and most toxic in Central America, houses over a third of the country’s waste, including trash, recyclables, and discarded food items. There are few, if any, health and safety restrictions limiting the items that can be disposed of in the dump. Medical supplies, including used syringes, toxins emitted from discarded gas tanks, as well as other biohazardous materials contribute to the dangers of the landfill. Human and animal corpses deteriorate amid the waste, exacerbating already poor sanitation conditions.
The margins of the landfill are so heavily populated that they are considered a municipality of the city. Reportedly, 30,000 squatters reside along the perimeter of the garbage dump. It is permissible to erect temporary houses or structures bordering the landfill because the ravine and surrounding properties are public land open to all. Approximately 4,000 men, women, and children live within the squatting communities, scavenging in the dump for personal items, including that which can be used for housing and served up as food, as well as sought after for re-sale on the open market. Those who are unable to find space in the margins of the landfill are considered lucky if they can find a few square feet within its borders and among the fetid trash.
However, after methane gas emitted from the compost ignited a fire in 2005, the city decided to erect a wall encircling the ravine and imposed restrictions on entry into the dump. Other dangers threaten the safety of the workers in the dump, including landslides, which are prevalent during Guatemala’s annual rainy season. 8 adults and 2 children were killed in June 2008, after scavenging in a “high-risk” zone notorious for its landslides. Accidents from collisions with garbage trucks and injuries resulting from broken glass and other hazardous items have also often proved fatal. Following these tragic events, authorities distributed identification cards to those who were authorized to work in the landfill, imposed opening and closing times for the entrance gates, and prohibited any child from entering. While both necessary and beneficial, the restrictions displaced families residing in the garbage dump and left them with few choices as to where else one might live.
The Effects of a Violent Civil War
According to the International Development Exchange, the population of Guatemala City, the largest city in Central America and the capital of the country, is reportedly over 3 million people. Staggeringly, over 40 percent of Guatemala City’s residents live in slums, similar to those bordering the landfill. The severe poverty and harsh economic disparity afflicting Guatemala City resulted from the civil war, lasting 36 years from 1960 until 1996. For most of this period, the conflict was fought between the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), a guerrilla group representing the interests of many native Mayans, who opposed the state’s repossession of land occupied by indigenous communities. The conflict had devastating effects of approximately 200,000 casualties. The signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, both mediated and implemented by the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), ended the conflict.
The civil war, primarily fought in rural regions of Guatemala, forced the migration of many families from the highlands of Guatemala to urban centers, including the neighborhoods adjacent to the landfill. There are reportedly 250,000 internally displaced Guatemalans as a result of the civil war. The Guatemalan government has failed to return property formerly owned by refugees and to provide support for their resettlement following the signing of the Peace Accords. If they had done so, large-scale migration and the creation of large squatting communities could have been less dramatic in scope.
Many of the men, women, and children subsisting on profits from the landfill were disconnected from all known living family members due to the deaths, disappearances and refugee crises resulting from the domestic conflict. Currently, 40 percent of the families living in the squatting community surrounding the dump are single parent households, headed by women. Children often work instead of attending school in order to contribute to their family’s income. Some orphaned children lost virtually all family members as a result of the extensive casualties of the bitter conflict. These impoverished orphans must provide for themselves, and in many cases, younger siblings as well, which poses a significant barrier toward obtaining an education.
Road Blocks to Education
As agricultural jobs account for half of the labor force, those living in developed urban areas, such as Guatemala City, are disadvantaged in finding employment. The employment opportunities in Guatemala City are primarily offered in the service and manufacturing sectors, such as food processing, pharmaceuticals, rubber, paper, and textiles. The inhabitants of these “shanty-towns” ?often internally displaced persons? do not have access to the education and training required in order to occupy such jobs, or obtain better ones.
The lack of a shared language between the residents of Guatemala City and the inhabitants of the squatting community further obstructs employment opportunities for the men and women currently working in the landfill. 60 percent of the Guatemalan population is of Mayan descent, often speaking indigenous Mayan dialects, while the remaining 40 percent speak Spanish. Those that migrated from the highlands to the lowlands during and after the civil war generally speak dialects of the Mayan languages. These regional linguistic variations often make them unable to communicate with those living and working in Guatemala City where instruction and knowledge of Spanish is necessary for employment, as Spanish is spoken exclusively. Illiteracy also impedes employment for many Guatemalans as only 69.1 percent of the population is literate, making it the most illiterate nation in Central America.
Floundering Education System
According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), formal education is the most reliable and effective means “to reduce poverty and advance socioeconomic development.” USAID reports that, on average, Guatemalan children attend only 4 years of schooling and only 3 out of 10 students graduate from sixth grade. The Guatemalan educational system reportedly provides for only 20 percent of the country’s children, and most public school systems cap class sizes at 50 students, excluding many children from entering such public institutions. These graphic figures demonstrate the extensive lack of education in Guatemala and the importance of providing schooling in order to prepare children for future employment.
The educational system in Guatemala is poorly structured and largely unsupported by the national government. Little funding is generated for educational purposes as few citizens pay income taxes and property taxes are poorly enforced and ill collected. The government does impose a sales tax, but it is not applied to goods sold in the informal economy, including open air markets. Guatemala has the largest informal sector in Central America, employing 75 percent of the “economically active population” according to the National Economic Research Center (CIEN). The magnitude of the loss of revenue from taxes not imposed on the informal sector is unmistakable and accounts for the lack of funding that the government is able to designate for educational services.
The Ministry of Education is reputedly one of Guatemala’s most corrupt government agencies, as its employees successfully embezzle funds otherwise allocated for educational purposes. The government agency also distributes funds irresponsibly, some of which is directed for purchasing computers, expanding classrooms, and increasing teacher services without hiring additional teachers.
As public schools are sparsely equipped due to limited government funding and corrupt management, private schools have been established to provide educational services in their place for those who can afford the fee. However, the children living in the squatting communities encircling the dump cannot possibly afford the tuition imposed by private institutions. The fees include basic tuition, and additional expenses such as books and transportation costs, without which a private education is unattainable. A Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala reported that “most private elementary schools (grades 1-6) cost 150-200 quetzals [Q] per month, or roughly $20-26. Middle school, none of which are public, cost roughly 300Q (US$40) per month. High school, [from] which less than 20 [percent] of all Guatemalans graduate, costs roughly 450Q ($60) per month.” The UN Habitat reports that “70 percent of the population lives on less than US $2 per day, and of these, almost 30 percent of the population of the country, and 8 percent of the urban population live on less than US $1 per day.” While the fee mandated by private schools exceeds those of public institutions, public schools are certainly not provided free of charge, “these children couldn’t afford the books, school supplies and enrollment fee required by the public school.” Most families living near the Guatemala City landfill struggle to secure daily meals and sufficient shelter. They are unable to afford non-necessities, including an education, which has come to be considered a luxury.
The poor level of education available to most Guatemalan children has implications far beyond the continuation of squatting communities surrounding the Guatemala City garbage dump. The lack of skilled workers in Guatemala, due to the insufficiency of the educational system, ultimately threatens investor confidence in the nation. Foreign direct investment could decrease, despite the possible success of multilateral trade initiatives such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which initially increased foreign investment. All of Guatemala, including the wealthy, stand to lose from the country’s essentially defunct education system and the resulting lack of output of skilled labor.
Hope for Change
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have intervened in Guatemala and worked to provide educational services to Guatemalan citizens. One in particular, Safe Passage, is a non-profit organization that offers free schooling to the children of men and women working in the Guatemala City garbage dump. Safe Passage has expanded to include a secondary school, pre-school, vocational school, and boarding school. The nutritional and medical services provided by the organization provide other necessary services that are lacking in such an impoverished community. While Safe Passage and other NGOs continue to provide outstanding assistance to those living throughout the garbage dump, the Guatemalan government must still improve the condition of the country’s entire educational system.
Providing education to the residents of Guatemala City in order to help them gain access to greater employment opportunities is becoming increasingly important as the garbage dump, which serves as the primary source of livelihood for many residents of the squatting community, could potentially be closed in the coming years due to the site’s limited capacity for additional trash. The dump generally receives 500 tons of garbage each day according to Tierramérica. Once the landfill can no longer accommodate additional trash, the men and women working in its environs will be rendered unemployed, with less access to food and materials for shelter.
The Guatemalan educational system must be improved if the men and women residing in the squatting community are to have any prospect of escaping from the severe poverty and hopelessness of the Guatemala City garbage dump. While USAID and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations, such as Safe Passage, have contributed resources to increasing school attendance and graduation rates, more must be done by Guatemalan authorities to prioritize the educational system on their political agendas. Increased oversight of the Ministry of Education and its distribution of funds would help to ensure that educational services can be efficiently provided. Government incentives encouraging children to attend school, including food stuffs and monthly stipends, as the Brazilians have done, would increase education rates by compensating for the loss of income resulting from their attending school. Providing alternative educational opportunities, such as trade schools and vocational training, would allow students to pursue a variety of useful careers without which the children of the poor will be almost without hope.
GRETCHEN KROTH is a Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.