Turning trash into treasure in Central America's biggest garbage dump
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Turning trash into treasure in Central America's biggest garbage dump

Empty milk cartons, old newspapers and used soda cans may look like garbage to most people, but to a women’s collective in Guatemala, another person’s trash is their treasure.

Six years ago a group of abused women from an adult literacy program in Guatemala City learned how to make jewelry out of recycled materials — and they haven’t looked back since. The small crafts workshop quickly became a thriving independent business that now exports goods as far as the U.S.

Using old magazines and cardboard boxes, the 26 women, who used to make a living scavenging for materials in Central America’s largest garbage dump, have been able to start their lives over again and escape the extreme poverty of their past.

“On average, the women make 70 percent more than they did working at the garbage dump,” says project manager Ilusion Farias. “Before joining Creamos they had incredibly low self-esteem and depended heavily on their spouses for support. Now most of them have stopped working at the garbage dump.”

Building self-esteem, trust and business savvy

Creamos, which means “we believe” and “let’s create” in Spanish, is focused on sustainable entrepreneurship and consists of a group of mothers who are learning to read and write at Caminos Seguros (Safe Passage), an organization that works with Guatemala City’s garbage dump community.

The mothers, who all live close to the project, study there for two hours each day and then create their jewelry at home to provide flexibility in caring for their children. Once a week they come together for a group meeting where they turn in their work, conduct peer reviews and receive a payout from the previous week’s sales.

“I worked in the dump for 12 years, but I much prefer it here,” says Rosa Cristina Aguierre Marroquín. “I feel more confident, I can support my children better and I trust all the people I work with.”

Each unique piece of jewelry is made from recycled materials donated by local schools and businesses, or collected by the women themselves, and finished off with shop bought beads and clasps. The final products are then sold at events, in participating stores around the country and in Creamos’ own shop, which is staffed by members of the project.

With its emphasis on applied education, Creamos makes use of the math and literacy skills that the group learns in the classroom: each woman prices up her product, calculating materials used against individual labor costs.

The project also provides the women with free day care for their children, access to a medical clinic, two meals a day and classes on nutrition and financial planning.

Ana, one of the participants in Creamos, studying in class with her baby. Photo: Anna-Claire Bevan

Ana, one of the participants in Creamos, studying in class with her baby. Photo: Anna-Claire Bevan

Fighting the stereotypes

Predatory lending, combined with low adult literacy, is a major problem in Guatemala and people often sign contracts without understanding the content. Many of the women in Creamos have fallen victim to this fraudulent practice, often co-signing on a friend’s purchase on credit and then finding themselves responsible for paying it. A bad credit score mean it is difficult for them to open up bank accounts, so consequently it’s difficult for them to save. On payday, most of the members used to hide their wages in their houses, which regularly got broken in to, or spend it before neighboring gangs had the chance steal it.

“Because of the community they live in, gang violence and prostitution is common, and they tend to be stereotyped against for being from Zone 3,” says Farias, referring to the neighborhood that contains the garbage dump, where most of the families live. “Their lack of education and financial income has made them a target for big interest loans and large debts.”

To combat this problem, Creamos set up an internal savings scheme where members could deposit any amount of their paycheck and draw upon it when needed.

“One mother was able to save enough to buy bunk beds for her children so they could sleep in their own beds for the first time. Other mothers have been able to get themselves out of sticky situations when sales are low and one even saved enough to help pay to have her house built out of bricks instead of just laminates,” says Farias.

Offering more than just financial security, Creamos also supports personal development through peer reviews, in which the women evaluate each other’s work and implement the first round of quality control measures.

“I’m always learning things here,” says Annabelle Hernandez, a member of Creamos. “In the past, doors have closed on us, but now they are opening. I feel so happy, my self-esteem has increased and I don’t have to go back to the garbage dump anymore.”

From earrings to key rings, bracelets to bags and photo frames to wallets, the women are becoming experts at targeting their goods towards their clientele; while Guatemalan buyers like detail and want the items to look “mall-bought,” U.S. customers prefer to show off the recycled element of the designs.

Recently the program has expanded to include a sewing company, with more than 20 women who are training to make uniforms for the volunteers and students of Safe Passage, and a self-esteem group, which organizes activities and ad-hoc income-generating projects.

What started out as a fun crafts workshop has become a resource for entrepreneurship, enabling many women to escape the dangers of working in the garbage dump.

“We hope to continue to not only increase sales and the size of Creamos, but also to better equip the women of Creamos for a successful life,” says Farias. “We believe education is only the first step to breaking the cycle of poverty; what you do with that education and those skills is what matters most.”