A life pieced from scraps

Venezuela – The first scavengers one sees in Cambalache, a sprawling trash dump
on this city’s edge, are the vultures. Hundreds drift through the veil of smoke
that rises from the refuse each day at dawn.

The carrion birds vie
with children and their parents for scraps of meat discarded by Ciudad
Guayana’s more fortunate residents. Those toiling under the vultures’ wake
mutter to one another in Warao, an indigenous language spoken in the nearby
delta where the Orinoco, one of the world’s mightiest rivers, meets the

“I’m hungry, and my
children are hungry,” said Raisa Beria, 25, a Warao who came here to scavenge
for clothes and food.

In one outing this
month, Beria found some rotting chicken still in the packaging from Arturo’s, a
Venezuelan fast-food chain. Her daughter, Eugenia, 4, grasped a chicken wing.
Flies circled around her small hand. “This is how we live,” her mother, Beria,
said in accented Spanish.

Such harrowing scenes
of misery are supposed to be receding into Venezuela’s history. The country
claims in figures it gives the United Nations that it vies with historically
egalitarian Uruguay for Latin America’s most equitable income distribution, as
a result of oil-financed social welfare programs.

Moreover, President
Hugo Chavez has made empowerment of indigenous groups a pillar of his 12-year
rule. He has financed indigenous health care projects, an indigenous university
and a new ministry for indigenous peoples, who are estimated to number about
half a million in Venezuela.

Officials said this
year that Venezuela’s tribes had reasons to celebrate the “end of exclusion”
because “equality, rights and peace now reign.” Still, if Cambalache’s squalor
is any indication, some indigenous people still face a more vexing reality than
his government’s words suggest.

Venezuela’s political complexity, most of the Warao interviewed here expressed
loyalty to Chavez, even as they ate out of Ciudad Guayana’s garbage. The people
interviewed cited their access to some social programs, including literacy
projects, as reasons for their allegiance, while others professed more visceral
sentiments including pride that Chavez had affirmed that his own grandmother
was a Pume Indian.

Politics aside, about
300 Warao now live in shacks and tents on Cambalache’s edge, near the banks of
the Orinoco. Most migrated from Delta Amacuro, an impoverished state of
labyrinthine swamp forests that is home to thousands of Warao.

Scholars who study
the Warao people say they put down stakes here around the early 1990s, when a
cholera epidemic killed about 500 people in the delta. Many Warao there live in
homes built on stilts and eat a diet based on a tuber called ure.

In the delta, oil
drilling and demand for heart of palm, the vegetable harvested from the inner
core of palm trees, put more pressure on Warao areas. Ciudad Guayana, a
Brasilia-like industrial city designed by planners from Harvard and MIT in the
1960s, absorbed various Warao communities fleeing poverty.

Some Warao wander the
broad avenues here, begging for food. Others sell wares like bracelets at intersections.
Others subsist at Cambalache, located minutes from boutiques selling luxury
goods and the headquarters of government factories adorned with huge photos of

At Cambalache, the
Warao scavenge for food, aluminum, copper wiring and clothing. The daily
struggle they describe is a Hobbesian nightmare.

They say thieves prey
on those who sell scrap metal to dealers. Some Warao women, they say, sell
their bodies to outsiders, contributing to reports of HIV infections in the
community. Some perish under the trash-compacting trucks, including a
14-year-old boy who was crushed to death in July.

Faced with these
conditions, the Warao here adapt. Adults carry knives tucked into their belts.
They shrug at Cambalache’s stench and at the ash from its daily fires, which
clogs the airways of those working at the dump.

Bands of Warao
children sift through the piles of garbage. On a recent hazy morning, a girl
plucked from the trash a half-consumed plastic bottle of Frescolita, a
Venezuelan soft drink whose flavour resembles cream soda, and quenched her
thirst with what remained inside.

Christian Sorhaug, a
Norwegian anthropologist who has lived among the Warao, doing field work here
during the past decade, said, “Cambalache is the worst place I have ever seen
in my life.”

Entire families
arrive at sunrise each day, chasing after trucks that unload fresh cargoes of
trash. One truck that arrived at Cambalache this month had painted on its side
the name Jose Ramon Lopez, Ciudad Guayana’s mayor, under the words “Socialist
Beautification Plan.”

The authorities know
about the Warao who live at Cambalache. Their living conditions are a highly
sensitive issue.

The mayor’s office,
which refers to the area where the Warao live as “UD-500,” said in a statement
that it was planning to build more homes for the indigenous families

Warao leaders and
researchers from the University of California at Berkeley informed federal
health officials in 2008 of an outbreak of a rabieslike disease that killed
dozens in Delta Amacuro, only to have the authorities refuse to see them,
attack them in speeches, try to discredit their findings and open a criminal
investigation into their report.

A Cuban doctor
working for the government provides basic health care to residents, forwarding
Warao with serious diseases like tuberculosis and measles to public hospitals.
Wilhelmus van Zeeland, 69, a Dutch priest who works with the Warao at
Cambalache, said health care programs had helped lower deaths from
sanitation-related diseases since he arrived here in 1999. Corporacion
Venezolana de Guayana, a state-owned industrial conglomerate, recently donated
15 cinderblock houses to the Warao here.

Pedro La Rosa, 42,
who is considered the leader of the Warao at Cambalache, said at least 30 more
homes were needed. “We’re never going to leave this place,” he said in an
interview. “We’ve claimed this land and made our life in this dump, and this is
where our future rests.”

The Warao keep
arriving at Cambalache, dividing themselves between squatters who stay and
those who come for a few weeks to scavenge goods to sell back in the delta.

Sometimes it is hard
to tell who belongs to which group.

As the smoke from
Cambalache’s fires blew across the Orinoco, Ismenia La Rosa, 41, welcomed a
visitor to her tent among those the Warao call “floaters,” for their urge to
return home to the delta’s swamp forests.

She cradled her
newborn son, merely 6 days old and still lacking a name. He was her fifth
child, she said, with an exhausted expression that revealed neither happiness
nor sorrow. “My son was born in Cambalache,” she said. “I think this is where
he’ll stay.”