Peru’s Scavengers Turn Professional

Lucien Chauvin

Jose Luis Gonzalez, 60, has been called many things — almost none of them nice — in his 40 years working the streets of Lima, Peru’s sprawling capital. "They call us vultures or scavengers most of the time, but sometimes they are meaner, saying we are thieves, criminals. It has never been easy work," he says.

Gonzalez is one of an estimated 100,000 people in Peru who make a living diving through garbage to collect refuse — paper, metal, glass — that can be resold for a profit. It is a hardscrabble life, but one thing positive may now be handed to him and his fellow trash sifters: a new name for their profession.

Early each morning, he mounts his modified tricycle cart, pedaling through the streets of the seaside district of Barranco in search of treasures. He forgoes a shrill horn for his booming voice, shouting for glass, paper or used items that he can resell.

"You have to be considerate and not make a mess. If you cause trouble, the police will take your cart, and then you’re stuck," he says. On a typical day, which usually includes six hours’ collecting goods and two hours’ sorting and selling items to middlemen at a municipal lot, he clears around $3.50. A good day means double that, which is still not very much for him, his wife and the four school-age kids they have at home. He earns around half the monthly minimum wage of $175, average for people in his line of work.

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