August 9, 2007 / 6:19 PM / 11 years ago

Scavengers jobless as Costa Rica cleans up trash

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters Life!) - Costa Rica, an eco-tourism haven of volcanoes and tropical wildlife, is cracking down on its stinking garbage dumps, putting scavengers who made a living from collecting rubbish out of work.

Angela Cano, a 52-year-old immigrant from Nicaragua, puts on woollen gloves before looking for recyclables in the trash at the Rio Azul landfill in San Jose July 23, 2007. REUTERS/Monica Quesada

Despite being home to quetzal birds and jaguars, Costa Rica is struggling with saturated landfills, low levels of recycling and the dumping of about 300 tons of garbage a day into vacant lots and rivers.

Poor scavengers, known as skin divers because they push through the garbage with a breast stroke-like swimming action, collect cardboard, zinc, paper and glass. Their finds are passed on to other scavengers who separate the goods for sale to middlemen who haul off the recovered trash.

But the Costa Rican government, which depends on tourism as its top source of foreign-exchange earnings, says there is no place for skin divers in its strategy to cut its net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2021, as rubbish tips emit harmful methane gases.

“We are looking to ecological solutions like the industrialization of solid waste, recovering 70 percent of what is generated,” Health Minister Maria Luisa Avila said in an interview.

“The future should see recycling and reduction.”

The new policy, which means switching to industrial recycling and a public education program to teach people to separate garbage in their homes, is bad news for skin divers.

Many came to Costa Rica from impoverished Nicaragua, attracted by the relatively high pay of $100 a week and undeterred by the respiratory and skin diseases that come from working and living on a rubbish dump.

“It is horrible work but you get used to it,” said 52-year-old Angela Cano.

Skin divers say they started working on the rubbish tips because they struggled to find work in Costa Rica’s cities and coffee farms. Coffee pickers make up to $75 a week but the work is seasonal.

TAKING A PAY CUT

Skin divers will now have to survive on $40 a week that the government will provide for up to three months until they find other jobs.

“You can’t live on $40 a week and at this time I don’t see any option for work, especially at my age,” said Cano.

Her husband and fellow skin diver Maximo Castillon plans to go to work in construction with one of their sons, while Cano could become a lower-paid domestic worker.

Slideshow (8 Images)

The government is undeterred. It closed the country’s largest landfill, Rio Azul which received most of the garbage from the Costa Rican capital and surrounding communities, last month. Smaller dumps are receiving the trash until next week when a new landfill will open in Asseri, near Rio Azul.

But skin divers will no longer swim in any landfills, said Pablo Fernandez, a lawyer with Costa Rica’s Ombudsman’s office.

“From now on the law prohibits them from skin diving because of the health risk it exposes them to,” he said.

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