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Scores of Families Live in the Garbage Dump

January 18, 1991

CALLAO, Peru (AP) _ The sky above the garbage dump was white with smoke and the sea across the polluted beach shone green with chemicals. Walter Tinco, 4, was sorting shards of glass.

He used both filthy hands to toss the pieces, brown and clear, onto piles that rose higher than his head. Walter’s bare feet trod on a carpet of used toilet paper and torn nylon stockings.

About 80 families live in the dump in the old port city that serves Lima, capital of Peru.

They use pigs, rakes and fire to find bits of glass and metal, plastic bottles, old newspapers and bones, which they sell to buy food. Residents of Callao’s dump pay the truck drivers to unload garbage near where they live.

Walter looked at a hut built of tin, ripped burlap and thatch. ″It’s my home,″ he said.

After a day of work in the dump, 9-year-old Adela playfully chased the dogs that guard the beach from thieves. Her red-flowered dress was covered with grime.

Adela said she liked living in the dump because ″you find all sorts of things: forks, comic books, dolls. It’s fun. Once I even found a silver ring.″

At least 2,000 people subsist by picking through Lima’s garbage, according to a recent study. In a country where fewer than half the people have enough to eat, they consider themselves lucky.

″Yes, the work is filthy, but we are honest, hard-working people,″ said Victor Sanchez, who moved his family to the dump eight years ago. ″It’s the only way we have to make a living.″

Drivers looking for a secluded place to empty their trucks started the unofficial Callao dump decades ago. It stretches for about a mile along the Oquendo beach behind the Bayer and El Pacifico chemical plants.

A creek of acid, chlorine and mercury cuts through the dump and the beach, staining the sand and rocks before spilling into the Pacific Ocean. On the day Walter sorted the glass, two dog carcasses were rotting on its lime-green bank.

″After a while the chemical fumes don’t sting your eyes so much, but some days they make the people and pigs sick,″ said Manuela Olivo, whose house is mearby.

Mrs. Olivo tore apart small plastic bags of garbage dumped that morning by a private truck, standing in a small patch of bloody chicken feathers and human hair. Inside a driftwood fence, her dozen pigs fought over fruit rinds and fish heads.

She said the pigs would root in the new garbage for two or three days, then she and her family would spend a week or so raking and sorting the paper, plastic and cans.

The rest would be burned to reveal hidden glass and bone, she said. Over the years, the fires have created a hill of ash the size of a house.

This load had come from one of Lima’s better neighborhoods, and Mrs. Olivo paid the driver extra. ″Poor people’s trash is filled mainly with rocks and dust,″ she said.

Even though the garbage was from the upper classes, Mrs. Olivo expected to salvage only a small amount of tin and glass. Peru is so poor that little of value is thrown away even by the comparatively well off.

According to the World Health Organization, some Peruvians produce only 6 ounces of garbage a day and the average is one pound. It says the U.S. average is five pounds.

Pilar Tello of the U.N. agency’s Pan-American Center of Sanitary Engineering said less than half Lima’s garbage was taken to official dumps. She said the rest was thrown into the Rimac River, the ocean, Lima’s parks or ″just about anywhere there’s space,″ like Oquendo.

Less garbage is being dumped along the beach now. The Callao city government has said it will fine drivers who unload there and has ordered the dump dwellers to move out.

″There is absolutely no sanitary control″ said Ruben Cavero, a Callao official. ″Diseases from both the people and pigs can spread throughout the city.″

Health dangers are increased by the nature of the garbage, much of which comes from hospitals.

″There are AIDS-infected needles in there, and the pigs are eating tumors and amputated limbs,″ Ms. Tello said.

Oquendo’s families plan to stay, at least until the drivers stop dumping garbage there. They believe life outside the dump would be worse.

The previous national government relocated them to government-built ″pig parks″ five years ago, but water and pig feed were too costly and they returned to Oquendo.

Sanchez, whose parents and grandparents were dump dwellers, said he doesn’t know why the city wants them out.

″By separating the garbage, we’re doing something good,″ he said. ″If they’re so worried about our health, they should send us doctors.″

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