El Milagro is a slum on the edge of a landfill in Trujillo, Peru, where children are forced to scavenge for food to survive. When a Spanish filmmaking team learned of the situation, they dove in deep to uncover what life is like for the residents. Producer Aina Gómez Pizá recently answered my questions via email.
How did you find out about this situation?
When we were shooting a previous documentary on an unrelated topic, we met some very interesting people that had been to the landfill at El Milagro doing volunteer work at a school that tries to pull children out of work and into school. There are some charities that were founded by Spanish people and we started investigating. The idea kept crawling in our minds until it just wouldn’t leave us. We knew it happened in many places but this was something we could have access to, and where the issue seemed blatant, so there we went.
How did these conditions develop historically? It seems pretty amazing that a government would let it happen, although I know there are other places in the world like this too.
For decades, thousands of people migrated from the mountains to the nearest city, in this case, Trujillo, which is the second largest city in Peru, with approximately a million inhabitants. This very rapidly growing population leads to misery as they can’t find proper jobs. Simultaneously, the amount of garbage produced increases rapidly, so many people find an opportunity in someone else’s mess — which is very positive until they tell their children they should do it too instead of going to school.
The government’s attitude towards this problem is very misleading. Officially, they have done and are doing many things to prevent it, but the reality says something else. Some of the government’s spokesmen, such as the city’s mayor, openly lie about the fact, telling us the problem has already been solved. Their official statement is something like, “There used to be a problem but I solved it. Children are now free because of me.”
There are many other places where this happens, and not only in South America. It also happens in Africa and Asia. To our surprise, child labor also happens in Western countries, although, of course, not to the same extent.
Who forces them to work there?
Children are mainly being forced to work by their parents. Most of them live in dysfunctional families where one of their parents is either absent or absent-like and the other parent demands constant help. We encountered families where the parent needed extra help (apart from what the parent provided for) and in other families the child was the only provider. Because they have simple and easy access to a job, and they have normally been taught to do it since they were toddlers, they just carry on doing what they know how to do.
Do the kids realize how horrible their situation is, or is this all they have ever known?
What life has taught these children is that they don’t have options. Picking garbage is all they know. When they wake up in the morning, that’s their life. When they go to bed at night, that’s their life.
When they hear stories about people who lead alternative lives, or when they meet people like us or volunteers from charities that work with them, they don’t relate.
They know what they do is unfair, somehow, but they think it’s a question of money. “They were born poor so they will remain poor” is approximately what they think. They are the living example of the poverty cycle. They have developed a psychological resilience that doesn’t cease to amaze us.
Your press materials say that you “attempt to expose” these conditions. Were you thwarted in your plans to do so?
They tried to thwart our plans to film the children working — mainly other locals. We were repeatedly reported to the police for “violating children’s rights,” which is quite cynical, and the police in turn called us in several times to inform us that we should stop or we could be sent back to our country. We were also taunted and harassed by local men.
Why do the authorities want to hide this? Wouldn’t they want help to fix it?
We asked several social workers and charity workers the same question and the only answer we came up with was that if they hid the problem, they didn’t have to deal with it. We also found a common idea, and not only among Peruvians, but also in other countries, where people think that child labor is simply the lesser of two evils, and that if the child didn’t work, he wouldn’t have anything to eat. This is a very dangerous thought because it leads to conformity.
There is a cycle of ingesting garbage, including what’s fed to the pigs winding back up on the dinner table. Have there been any cumulative health effects in the local populations?
When pigs are fed from the garbage, they feed on organic matter that is decomposing. Some of it might have taken quite some time until it reaches the pig. In turn, these pigs are sold to the local markets, and create a health problem. They may and have provoked trichinosis, which is a parasitic disease, which, in a generally immune-depressed society, causes great stomach problems and may lodge in the brain, causing great damage and possible death. We didn’t get near any pork produce whilst we were there.
There are many other health problems that arise in that context, particularly amongst the people who work in the dump (they don’t wear any protection), and it can be seen in the film.
El Milagro screens on Sat., Jan. 26, 10 a.m., and Tue., Jan. 29, 8:30 a.m., both times at the Metro 4. See elmilagrodocumentary.com.