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Accommodating an army of garbage pickers

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) -- Scheduled between the modern air-conditioned commuter lines, there is a different kind of train running in Buenos Aires these days, and the little sign above the conductor's window says it is "special."

The seats have been ripped out to make room for passengers' shopping carts. There are no lights and the windows are covered with rusty wire rather than glass. The carriages stink of marijuana.

This is "El Cartonero," a train running from industrial rust belts to the capital's wealthier districts to transport "cartoneros" -- people who collect "carton" or cardboard for recycling to eke out a living during Argentina's worst ever economic crisis.

It may be a deplorable train, but it is symbol of how the army of scavengers in Buenos Aires is forcing authorities and society in this "Paris of the South" to accommodate them.

While Argentina shows the first faint signs of recovery after four years of recession, entire families, including formerly skilled factory workers, are piling off the trains for work that earns sometimes 50 pesos or just $15 a week.

Alberto Ayunta, a house painter, has been in the business for just five months but sees no return to a regular job. Every day, he takes the train for two hours to the elegant Belgrano district to make the rounds with his wife and a shopping cart.

"I don't like it. It is horrible, but at 53 who is going to give me a job," he asked as he sifted carefully through the garbage in front of upscale buildings and stores.

Argentina's unemployment rate stands close to 25 percent and it will take years to rebuild an economy crushed by mismanagement and a mountain of debt. Nearly 60 percent of the nation's 36 million people are poor and 10 million live in extreme poverty, meaning they go hungry in a place that once considered itself the world's grainery.

Anthropologist Francisco Suarez said the cartonero was a species in extinction 10 years ago but began returning with the recession in the mid-1990s. A January 2002 currency devaluation accelerated the process as products like paper and copper became too expensive to import and had recycling value.

"The activity grew sharply with the necessity to find these materials and the deepening social crisis," Suarez said.

No one really knows how many are out there, not even the government. Suarez calculates some 10,000 carts work in the capital and 30,000-40,000 in the greater metropolitan area.

At Buenos Aires City Hall, officials admit they were overwhelmed by the rapid proliferation of cartoneros.

"Sincerely, a year or eight months ago, we were not ready to work with the cartoneros like we are today," said Eduardo Epszteyn, Buenos Aires secretary for the environment.

Now City Hall has changed course. In December, the city approved a law legalizing garbage picking, punishable since the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

It also launched a campaign prodding residents to separate recyclables in green bags so that cartoneros do not have to rifle through rotten food or sharp objects, and it started vaccinating against tetanus.

The leftist municipal government is working on new garbage contracts to include cartoneros, who were accused last year of "stealing" garbage from the waste management companies paid by volume for the amount of rubbish they bury. Companies will be paid according to how clean they keep their areas and will presumably need the cartoneros to help them.

"They have put the issue of recycling and solid waste management on the political agenda for the first time," said Epszteyn. "Until the cartonero phenomenon surfaced, with so many people digging in the garbage, no one talked about it."

Epszteyn's people work closest with a network of cooperatives, with whom they meet every Friday to discuss how the activity should be regulated. In their debate, they use the politically correct term "recoverer" rather than "cartonero."

One of the model cooperatives is Ceibo, which aims to give 100 squatter families sustenance through organized recycling and neighbor participation in the upscale Palermo district.

"We've taken the lonely task of foraging in the garbage at night and turned it into a group activity," said Ceibo coordinator Cristina Lescano, surrounded by dusty piles of paper and plastic in her squat, once an elegant home. "But we desperately need a warehouse to process everything."

Cartoneros are rapidly coalescing into organized groups, something that did not happen with the old school of cartoneros, most of whom came from poor backgrounds.

"With the devaluation, people with industrial and labor experience came in and they began organizing," said Suarez.

Organization is going beyond work issues and into social activism. One of the groups, known as the "White Train," has organized food relief convoys for malnourished children.

In the dark of the night, activists make the rounds to advise cartoneros to unite so the government doesn't bulldoze their rights in its drive to clean up the profession.

A leading candidate for Buenos Aires' June mayoral race, Mauricio Macri, whose family has a city sanitation contract, says he will find "a definitive solution to the problem of the cartoneros." Macri has accused cartoneros of stealing, not paying taxes and ruining the city landscape.

"If they don't organize, they will all be pulled off the street," said Alberto Simini, a former cartonero trying to represent 800 to 1,200 individuals working in Belgrano alone.

Epszteyn has a friendlier approach, but warns the city will take a hard line on prohibiting minors from the activity and keeping cartoneros out of tourism areas. Cartoneros will also have an identification card, a uniform and gloves.

"These are all advances which we will implement as we gain trust and intimacy," said Epszteyn.

But for the disillusioned people pushing the shopping carts, trusting the government is asking a lot.

"The government does not understand the sacrifice we are making," said Dina Vargas, the 63-year-old wife of Alberto Ayunta. "The government should come out onto the streets, see how the cartoneros travel, see us at 3 in the morning."

Ask any cartonero what he or she wants from the government, and almost all would say a normal job, with decent wages, schedules and transport.

"This is not life for me," said Ayunta. "I'm OK now, but how long can I last? A year from now I could be gone and who will remember me. Nobody."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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