For some children in Venezuela, rubbish is the main source of their livelihood.
This has been the case for several generations of garbage collectors in Venezuela, among them Ronaikel Brito, 16, who, like his mother when she was a child, and before her, her grandmother, looks for something of value every day in a landfill on an arid plain about five hours drive west of the capital, Caracas.
But their work has never been so challenging: The nation’s acute economic crisis coupled with stay-at-home orders prompted by the coronavirus pandemic have reduced rubbish output, making valuable finds rare.
“The reality today is that you don’t get as many things as before,” Ronaikel told The Associated Press at the landfill in Pavia, outside the city of Barquisimeto.
“I go searching to see what I get, but I get almost nothing,” he added, noting that in recent months the children and adults who sift through garbage are spending more time trying to find objects they can sell or food in good enough condition to eat or feed horses, goats or pigs.
Waste has been drastically reduced during the pandemic, particularly food from homes, restaurants and wholesale markets. That rubbish was coveted by garbage pickers in Barquisimeto, once a thriving agro-industrial city where food waste was notable.
Annually, about 14 percent of the world’s food ends up in the garbage, even before it reaches the market, according to figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
In Venezuela, in addition to the large amounts of food, tonnes of aluminium containers and clothing were thrown away. Furniture, stoves and refrigerators ended up in the rubbish, too, because it was cheaper to buy new things than to repair them.
Now, extremely high costs push people to reconsider what they throw away.
Venezuela is mired in a deep political, social and economic crisis that has left the once-rich oil country bankrupt. The country is also in its sixth year of recession, and its residents are dealing with soaring food prices set in dollars, low wages and four-digit inflation, condemning millions to live in poverty.
The crisis has forced almost five million people to leave Venezuela in recent years in search of better living conditions. But for many who stayed – adults and children alike – rummaging through garbage in search of food scraps or valuable items has become an increasingly common activity.
Due to the pandemic and “the situation in the country, people are not throwing away almost anything right now because they don’t get to throw away as before,” said Marbelis Brito, the mother of Ronaikel and seven other children who have lived almost all their lives near the Pavia landfill. Ronaikel began to help his mother sift through garbage when he was five years old.
In Pavia, few follow pandemic-related guidelines. People rarely wear masks and virtually no one is aware of maintaining a physical distance.
The government has reported fewer than 150,000 cases and almost 1,400 deaths fom COVID-19.
Brito would like her children to participate in other activities.
“I did not want the same as me to happen,” she said. But “the work as garbage collectors falls on them as a natural activity in order to help support the family”.