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Education: a way out of life in the landfill

Maria Hadzhieva, Wonder volunteer

Our partner Junkabal works with marginalised communities living in close proximity to Central America’s largest garbage dump to break the cycle of social and economic deprivation through education, vocational training and welfare support for women and girls.

Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America, so is its capital, Guatemala City, the most populated city in the region. At times of economic recession and slowdown, Guatemala City receives new influxes of migrants, many of whom settle in the so-called ‘Basurero’ neighbourhood (meaning ‘dump’ in Spanish) – a district on the margins of the landfill site that receives a third of the country’s waste. It covers 16 hectares of land, containing all sorts of rubbish, including animal corpses and biohazardous medical waste, and receives 500 tonnes of new garbage every day.

The population living on the densely populated dump margins scavenger the landfill every day for items for re-use and re-sale. Estimates show that around 40% of families in this community are single-parent, headed by women and that many children are out of school and work in order to support their families.  

Living in the Basurero is characterised by insufficient income, lack of safety regulations, toxic air and gang culture, which create and intensify barriers to participation in formal education. Combined with systematic gaps in state education services, there seems to be little opportunity to escape precarious and dangerous life on the landfill. According to USAID reports, on average, Guatemalan children attend only 4 years of schooling and the Guatemalan educational system provides for only 20% of the country’s children. Children and families living near the rubbish dump are particularly excluded from education as they cannot afford the costs of schooling.  

We work with a local partner, Junkabal, to offer an alternative means of training for girls and women living on the margins of the landfill site who would otherwise have no opportunity to enter formal education.  

Fundación Junkabal is a charitable organisation which runs a number of different programmes aimed at empowering women and girls through educational and social support. Fundación Junkabal offers vocational training to over 500 women a year in areas such as beauty, baking, pastry, catering, chef skills, community management, and IT. These courses are offered in both 5-month and two-year programmes, certified by the Ministry of Education.  Through vocational training, women learn the practical skills needed to enter the formal job market and even set up their own businesses. It provides a reliable and sustainable means of income generation and a better quality of life. As a result, the economy also benefits from having a more skilled workforce with a positive impact on investor confidence.  

The organisation also runs Colegio Junkabal - a school that educates around 500 girls from families on very low incomes. It additionally offers health services and training to stimulate the creation of a healthier community. All of these combined, support children and women from the squatting community in becoming powerful individuals that contribute to the economic and social development of the whole Guatemalan society. These approaches to tackling deprivation address the core causes and empower beneficiaries to become agents of change on their own. It gives the skills and awareness needed to make a stable living after the duration of the programme.  

A Junkabal student shares her experience:  

“Junkabal is more than home warmth. I’ve had excellent classmates and teachers, integral formation and management classes. We have received teachings the way a mother teaches its daughters, and that is a beautiful experience. I thank all the persons that support us, teachers and classmates, you have helped us to achieve our goals and reach further.”   

Many challenges in the Basurero neighbourhood in Guatemala City, however, remain. As the population living around the rubbish dump continues to grow, there is a need to expand the scope of work of organisations such as Junkabal and other NGOs in the area, which would be difficult without increased government support towards education and general social service provision. Moreover, the need to develop sustainable income generation, an alternative to rubbish collection, becomes more pressing in the context of a possible closure of the landfill site as its capacity to receive waste is exceeded. Its closure would leave a large population without a source of even precarious income and while the work of Junkabal and Wonder Foundation, as a partner organisation, is critical in addressing the challenge, we require further support.   

Junkabal’s mission and success bring attention to an often silenced but emerging humanitarian crisis - life on landfills. There are around 15 million informal litter pickers globally and this number likely to rise if current trends in urbanisation, uneven economic growth and unsustainable waste management continue. Many more disproportionately affected girls and women in squatting communities around the world could and should be empowered through education in the way Junkabal make a life difference for them in Guatemala City.  Currently, Junkabal is also rebuilding one of their schools, destroyed during a devastating earthquake in 2017.