Venezuelan scavengers vie with vultures for Brazilian trash

Venezuelan migrants wait while the rubbish truck unload at the garbage dump in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil April 13, 2019. Picture taken April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

By Anthony Boadle

PACARAIMA, Brazil (Reuters) – Surrounded by vultures perched on trees awaiting their turn, Venezuelan migrants scrape out a living scavenging for metal, plastic, cardboard and food in a Brazilian border town’s rubbish dump.

Trapped in a wasteland limbo, they barely make enough to feed their families and cannot afford a bus ticket to get away and find regular work in Brazilian cities to the south.

They blame leftist President Nicolas Maduro for mismanaging their oil-producing nation’s economy and causing the deep crisis that has driven several million Venezuelans to emigrate across Latin America.

Venezuelan Antony Calzadilla is seen at a garbage dump as his child waits for him, in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil April 13, 2019. Picture taken April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

Venezuelan Antony Calzadilla is seen at a garbage dump as his child waits for him, in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil April 13, 2019. Picture taken April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

“I left because I was dying of hunger. We are trying to get ahead looking through this rubbish. Every night I pray to God to take me out of here,” said Rosemary Tovar, a 23-year-old mother from Caracas.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have fled the political and economic upheaval in their country through Pacaraima, the only road crossing to Brazil, overloading social services and causing tension in the northern border state of Roraima. More than 40,000 Venezuelans have swollen the population of state capital Boa Vista by 11 percent, Mayor Tereza Surita told Reuters.

The influx has also been a headache for Brazil’s new, far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has so far resisted U.S. pressure to take a more forceful attitude against Maduro. About 3.7 million people have left Venezuela in recent years, mostly via its western neighbor Colombia, according to the World Bank.

A dozen Venezuelans scramble to grab bags of rubbish that tumble from the Pacaraima trash truck twice a day. They then sift through the piles as fetid plumes of smoke rise from the smoldering landfill. Sometimes they scavenge at night using headlamps.

“We are looking for copper and cans, and hopefully something valuable, even food,” said Astrid Prado, who is eight months pregnant. “My goal is to get out of here. Nobody wants to spend their life going through garbage.”

Charly Sanchez, 42, arrived in Brazil a year ago and has not been able to get to Boa Vista to get his work papers so that he can find employment.

“We live off this. We make enough to buy rice, maybe some sausage, but not enough to buy a ticket to Boa Vista,” he said.

Copper pays best, 13 reais ($3.30) a kilo, but it takes Sanchez a whole week to gather that much “wire by wire.”

On a lucky day he said he had found a discarded cellphone, but not today. Some spaghetti, a small jar of sugar and a bit of cooking oil was Sanchez’s pickings for the day.

A Venezuelan man holds pillows after scraping on a garbage dump in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil April 13, 2019. Picture taken April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

A Venezuelan man holds pillows after scraping on a garbage dump in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil April 13, 2019. Picture taken April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

Samuel Esteban, using a breathing mask for the smoke, stuffed cardboard into a large sack. For 50 kilos he will earn five reais, one third of the minimum monthly wage in Venezuela but just enough to buy a liter of milk in Brazil and some bread.

Tovar criticized Maduro for denying that Venezuela is facing a humanitarian crisis.

“He is so wrong. Look at us here in this dump,” she said. “If Maduro does not leave Venezuela, I will never return there.”

(Reporting and writing by Anthony Boadle; Additional reporting by Leonardo Benassatto; Editing by Tom Brown)

Warding off hunger, Venezuelans find meals in garbage bins

A man sits on a rubbish container in Caracas, Venezuela February 26, 2019. Picture taken February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Shaylim Valderrama

CARACAS (Reuters) – Tony, a 36-year old security guard, rummages through the garbage bins of a wealthy district in Caracas on his days off work, scavenging for food as Venezuela’s economic meltdown has left even the employed struggling to find enough to eat.

“I smell it and if it smells good, then I take it home,” said Tony, who declined to disclose his last name because he does not want his wife and four children to know how he has been putting food on their table for more than a year.

He said he typically finds scraps of meat, cheese and pieces of vegetables on his garbage runs. “I wash it with vinegar, a lot of water, and I add onion and sauce.

Scenes of Venezuelans picking through garbage in a search for something to eat has for years been a symbol of the nation’s economic meltdown, which has been marked by widespread shortages of food and medicine as well as hyperinflation.

But the problem received renewed attention this week after the South American nation’s socialist government deported American journalist Jorge Ramos, who showed a video of people eating garbage while he interviewed President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro, who has been in power since 2013 and was re-elected last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent, has previously dismissed journalists’ questions about garbage consumption, saying they were part of a U.S.-backed propaganda campaign against his government.

He denies there is a humanitarian crisis in his country and says foreign governments are seeking to undermine him.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

It is not uncommon for poor and indigent residents of the world’s wealthiest nations to root through dumpsters. But it is rare in those nations for people with full-time jobs to rely on garbage to sustain their families.

Prices in Venezuela are rising more than 2 million percent per year, and the country’s minimum wage, worth around $6 per month, buys little more than a tray of eggs.

Many Venezuelans rely on remittances from relatives who have joined an exodus of an estimated 3.4 million people since 2015, according to the United Nations, while others depend on government food handouts.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who in January declared himself to be Venezuela’s interim president, led an effort last week to bring humanitarian aid into the country, but troops blocked trucks from getting in.

Most Western nations including the United States have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

“I’ve had to teach my children to eat everything,” said Estefani Quintero, 35, a mother of seven who travels two hours to Caracas from a distant suburb to trawl garbage bags. “Of course it’s the government that’s at fault for this. We used to eat breakfast lunch and dinner, we even threw away food.”

(Reporting by Shaylim Valderrama; Writing by Sarah Marsh and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Paul Simao)