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Global Recession Squeezes Honduran Scavengers

New America Media, News Feature//Photos//Video, Words: Josue Rojas and Ryan Furtado//Video: Josue Rojas//Photos: Ryan Furtado Posted: Nov 07, 2008

Editors Note: As commodity prices fall organized crime, the force controlling business in Honduran garbage dumps, is taxing scavengers who are finding it more difficult to make a living. The conditions they face are driving migration from the country. For New America Media content producer and YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia editor Josue Rojas, a visit to the dump gives him new insights on the immigration issue in America. Ryan Furtado is a photographer based in San Francisco. Video commentary by Ivan Campusano who asked that his name be changed and face not be shown.

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras Im here because of necessity. These are the words of a Salvadoran woman who had recently been swept up in an ICE raid along with an entire Honduran family on September 11, 2008 in San Francisco's Visitacion Valley. I was on the scene as a reporter documenting one of the first raids in San Francisco since the city's sanctuary status toward migrants came under fire.

One month later, I cant get her voice out of my head as I walk through the second largest landfill in Honduras. I've always heard people say they left their country of origin because they needed to -- never did it make more sense than when I visited this place.

The thick black smoke of burned rubber fills the air with noxious fumes. A young man kneels patiently as the rubber insulation slowly melts away from a small mound of copper wire.

For him, today is payday. After spending three days sifting through literally tons of trash, dismantling discarded household appliances and refrigerators, he has scavenged enough discarded copper wiring to make around 80 Lempiras ($4).

This is a "good day" at the municipal city dump in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which receives over 500 tons of refuse daily. Men, women and children pick through the dump daily for food, clothing and income. Materials such as plastic, glass, cardboard, copper and other metals are collected and sold for recycling on site, and the profit is used for subsistence.

"This is a place for poor people. I don't like it here... but I don't want to steal," says Charles "Smiley" Stevenson, a 48-year-old whose thick Caribbean accent reveals his Garifuna (descendants of Carib, Arawak and African people) identity. A former marine merchant, he has been working in the dump for 17 years. "Everyone knows me around here," Stevenson says, cracking the smile which has earned him his nickname.

VIDEO: Meet Charles "Smiley" Stevenson.//Voice over: Ivan Campusano

Everyday, approximately 200 hundred families come to work in the dumps on a daily basis. Wives chat with their husbands. Mothers sort through trash with infants on their backs. The children compare toys they pull from the trash. It becomes evident that this is more than a place to collect a few hard-earned lempiras, it is a place where the impoverished have formed a community.

Organized crime and corruption permeate many facets of the Hounduran economy, and the Ocotillo dump is no exception. "The problem here is corruption, from the smallest to the greatest," states Ivan Campusano, a community activist who works at the dump. Campusano requested his name by changed for fear of mafia reprisal.

According to Campusano, approximately $2000 dollars exchange hands on a daily basis, nothing escapes the scrutiny of organized crime.

"Mafia dictates the price of recycled goods and the people can only sell to them. He explains that on dump grounds the mafia by way of the intermediarieshave a stranglehold on the money made from scavenging.

"Materials like copper, that can sell for 55 Lempiras per pound on the open market, sell at the dump for 39 Lempiras," Campusano says.

The children of the dump do not have it easy. They compete with adults for materials, birds of prey for food. Aside from this, they suffer from exposure to respiratory diseases, skin diseases and a slew of abuse ranging from child labor to sexual abuse.

"As adults are here, so are children," says Campusano. "There are children here as young as 2 or 3 years old. Some 5-year-olds already gather garbage. There are no state-sponsored social service programs for these young people, underscoring Honduras' impunity towards this situation.

According to the community-based organization National Forum of Honduran Immigration (FONAMIH), the migration of children from Honduras to the United States is on the rise.

VIDEO: Meet the Children of San Pedro Sula.//Voice over: Ivan Campusano

The Ocotillo dump is located in the state of Corts. According to the FONAMIH, this region produces more than 20 percent of the Honduran immigrantsby far, the leader within all of Honduras' sectors. Of the immigrants that leave Honduras, 85 percent do so in search of better labor opportunities.

The Honduran exodus is unique to the region in that -- unlike El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua whose migratory waves were historically caused by civil wars and unrest -- immigrants from Honduras are driven solely by the conditions of the country. Hondurans are catapulted into migration, not by war or politics, but by misery. More and more individuals are willing to make the dangerous trek through Central America and the length of Mexico towards a better life or death.

According to FONAMIH, 100,000 migrants leave Honduras every year 8,333 a month, 1,923 a week, 277 a day, 12 an hour. Of those 12, three are from the area of Cortes. It's no wonder why it's called the field of immigrants. FONAMIH's report for September 2008, stated, "The lack of resolution to social problems produce three phenomena that are very familiar to our reality: exclusion, marginalization and migration."

Jayne Fleming sees many Honduran clients as an Oakland-based human rights lawyer.

"If I was living in a neighborhood where my children were threatened every time they went out the front door, if I was living in a country were I couldn't feed my son or daughter; if I was in a circumstance where I felt I couldn't fulfill myself or live up to my highest potential, I would want change." As the national director of the pro-bono arm of the law firm Reed Smith, Fleming works defending the rights of Hondurans seeking asylum in the United States, many of whom are under the age of 10.

Growing up in the dump or in a place with dire conditions, I'm not sure I'd stay, no matter the cost. In light of this, it's no wonder why people leave this area in droves. I think of Smiley Stevenson, living in the dump for 17 years, sustaining six kids with the earnings of his findings in the dump, competing with vultures and dogs for food and taxed by mafia.

"You see me, I don't like to be here but I have no choice, he says. I would like to work. Anything, I would like to work."

More from Josue Rojas:

Alex and the Beast

Don't Open the Door: A First Person Account of ICE Arrests

Murals v.s. Memories of Massacre

Deporting the American Dream

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