The Guatemalan Poor and its Garbage Dump Education System

Guatemala City’s Ugly Realities
The Guatemala City garbage dump, situated in a ravine, occupies 40 acres of land in the nation’s capital. Guatemala is the most populated nation in Central America, with more than 13 million residents. This landfill, one of the largest and most toxic in Central America, houses over a third of the country’s waste, including trash, recyclables, and discarded food items. There are few, if any, health and safety restrictions limiting the items that can be disposed of in the dump. Medical supplies, including used syringes, toxins emitted from discarded gas tanks, as well as other biohazardous materials contribute to the dangers of the landfill. Human and animal corpses deteriorate amid the waste, exacerbating already poor sanitation conditions.

The margins of the landfill are so heavily populated that they are considered a municipality of the city. Reportedly, 30,000 squatters reside along the perimeter of the garbage dump. It is permissible to erect temporary houses or structures bordering the landfill because the ravine and surrounding properties are public land open to all. Approximately 4,000 men, women, and children live within the squatting communities, scavenging in the dump for personal items, including that which can be used for housing and served up as food, as well as sought after for re-sale on the open market. Those who are unable to find space in the margins of the landfill are considered lucky if they can find a few square feet within its borders and among the fetid trash.

However, after methane gas emitted from the compost ignited a fire in 2005, the city decided to erect a wall encircling the ravine and imposed restrictions on entry into the dump. Other dangers threaten the safety of the workers in the dump, including landslides, which are prevalent during Guatemala’s annual rainy season. 8 adults and 2 children were killed in June 2008, after scavenging in a “high-risk” zone notorious for its landslides. Accidents from collisions with garbage trucks and injuries resulting from broken glass and other hazardous items have also often proved fatal. Following these tragic events, authorities distributed identification cards to those who were authorized to work in the landfill, imposed opening and closing times for the entrance gates, and prohibited any child from entering. While both necessary and beneficial, the restrictions displaced families residing in the garbage dump and left them with few choices as to where else one might live.

The Effects of a Violent Civil War
According to the International Development Exchange, the population of Guatemala City, the largest city in Central America and the capital of the country, is reportedly over 3 million people. Staggeringly, over 40 percent of Guatemala City’s residents live in slums, similar to those bordering the landfill. The severe poverty and harsh economic disparity afflicting Guatemala City resulted from the civil war, lasting 36 years from 1960 until 1996. For most of this period, the conflict was fought between the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), a guerrilla group representing the interests of many native Mayans, who opposed the state’s repossession of land occupied by indigenous communities. The conflict had devastating effects of approximately 200,000 casualties. The signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, both mediated and implemented by the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), ended the conflict.

The civil war, primarily fought in rural regions of Guatemala, forced the migration of many families from the highlands of Guatemala to urban centers, including the neighborhoods adjacent to the landfill. There are reportedly 250,000 internally displaced Guatemalans as a result of the civil war. The Guatemalan government has failed to return property formerly owned by refugees and to provide support for their resettlement following the signing of the Peace Accords. If they had done so, large-scale migration and the creation of large squatting communities could have been less dramatic in scope.

Many of the men, women, and children subsisting on profits from the landfill were disconnected from all known living family members due to the deaths, disappearances and refugee crises resulting from the domestic conflict. Currently, 40 percent of the families living in the squatting community surrounding the dump are single parent households, headed by women. Children often work instead of attending school in order to contribute to their family’s income. Some orphaned children lost virtually all family members as a result of the extensive casualties of the bitter conflict. These impoverished orphans must provide for themselves, and in many cases, younger siblings as well, which poses a significant barrier toward obtaining an education.

Road Blocks to Education
As agricultural jobs account for half of the labor force, those living in developed urban areas, such as Guatemala City, are disadvantaged in finding employment. The employment opportunities in Guatemala City are primarily offered in the service and manufacturing sectors, such as food processing, pharmaceuticals, rubber, paper, and textiles. The inhabitants of these “shanty-towns” ―often internally displaced persons― do not have access to the education and training required in order to occupy such jobs, or obtain better ones.

The lack of a shared language between the residents of Guatemala City and the inhabitants of the squatting community further obstructs employment opportunities for the men and women currently working in the landfill. 60 percent of the Guatemalan population is of Mayan descent, often speaking indigenous Mayan dialects, while the remaining 40 percent speak Spanish. Those that migrated from the highlands to the lowlands during and after the civil war generally speak dialects of the Mayan languages. These regional linguistic variations often make them unable to communicate with those living and working in Guatemala City where instruction and knowledge of Spanish is necessary for employment, as Spanish is spoken exclusively. Illiteracy also impedes employment for many Guatemalans as only 69.1 percent of the population is literate, making it the most illiterate nation in Central America.

Floundering Education System
According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), formal education is the most reliable and effective means “to reduce poverty and advance socioeconomic development.” USAID reports that, on average, Guatemalan children attend only 4 years of schooling and only 3 out of 10 students graduate from sixth grade. The Guatemalan educational system reportedly provides for only 20 percent of the country’s children, and most public school systems cap class sizes at 50 students, excluding many children from entering such public institutions. These graphic figures demonstrate the extensive lack of education in Guatemala and the importance of providing schooling in order to prepare children for future employment.

The educational system in Guatemala is poorly structured and largely unsupported by the national government. Little funding is generated for educational purposes as few citizens pay income taxes and property taxes are poorly enforced and ill collected. The government does impose a sales tax, but it is not applied to goods sold in the informal economy, including open air markets. Guatemala has the largest informal sector in Central America, employing 75 percent of the “economically active population” according to the National Economic Research Center (CIEN). The magnitude of the loss of revenue from taxes not imposed on the informal sector is unmistakable and accounts for the lack of funding that the government is able to designate for educational services.

The Ministry of Education is reputedly one of Guatemala’s most corrupt government agencies, as its employees successfully embezzle funds otherwise allocated for educational purposes. The government agency also distributes funds irresponsibly, some of which is directed for purchasing computers, expanding classrooms, and increasing teacher services without hiring additional teachers.

As public schools are sparsely equipped due to limited government funding and corrupt management, private schools have been established to provide educational services in their place for those who can afford the fee. However, the children living in the squatting communities encircling the dump cannot possibly afford the tuition imposed by private institutions. The fees include basic tuition, and additional expenses such as books and transportation costs, without which a private education is unattainable. A Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala reported that “most private elementary schools (grades 1-6) cost 150-200 quetzals [Q] per month, or roughly $20-26. Middle school, none of which are public, cost roughly 300Q (US$40) per month. High school, [from] which less than 20 [percent] of all Guatemalans graduate, costs roughly 450Q ($60) per month.” The UN Habitat reports that “70 percent of the population lives on less than US $2 per day, and of these, almost 30 percent of the population of the country, and 8 percent of the urban population live on less than US $1 per day.” While the fee mandated by private schools exceeds those of public institutions, public schools are certainly not provided free of charge, “these children couldn’t afford the books, school supplies and enrollment fee required by the public school.” Most families living near the Guatemala City landfill struggle to secure daily meals and sufficient shelter. They are unable to afford non-necessities, including an education, which has come to be considered a luxury.

The poor level of education available to most Guatemalan children has implications far beyond the continuation of squatting communities surrounding the Guatemala City garbage dump. The lack of skilled workers in Guatemala, due to the insufficiency of the educational system, ultimately threatens investor confidence in the nation. Foreign direct investment could decrease, despite the possible success of multilateral trade initiatives such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which initially increased foreign investment. All of Guatemala, including the wealthy, stand to lose from the country’s essentially defunct education system and the resulting lack of output of skilled labor.

Hope for Change
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have intervened in Guatemala and worked to provide educational services to Guatemalan citizens. One in particular, Safe Passage, is a non-profit organization that offers free schooling to the children of men and women working in the Guatemala City garbage dump. Safe Passage has expanded to include a secondary school, pre-school, and an educational center for the children’s mothers and fathers. The nutritional and medical services provided by the organization provide other necessary services that are lacking in such an impoverished community. While Safe Passage and other NGOs continue to provide outstanding assistance to those living throughout the garbage dump, the Guatemalan government must still improve the condition of the country’s entire educational system.

Providing education to the residents of Guatemala City in order to help them gain access to greater employment opportunities is becoming increasingly important as the garbage dump, which serves as the primary source of livelihood for many residents of the squatting community, could potentially be closed in the coming years due to the site’s limited capacity for additional trash. The dump generally receives 500 tons of garbage each day according to Tierramérica. Once the landfill can no longer accommodate additional trash, the men and women working in its environs will be rendered unemployed, with less access to food and materials for shelter.

The Guatemalan educational system must be improved if the men and women residing in the squatting community are to have any prospect of escaping from the severe poverty and hopelessness of the Guatemala City garbage dump. While USAID and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations, such as Safe Passage, have contributed resources to increasing school attendance and graduation rates, more must be done by Guatemalan authorities to prioritize the educational system on their political agendas. Increased oversight of the Ministry of Education and its distribution of funds would help to ensure that educational services can be efficiently provided. Government incentives encouraging children to attend school, including food stuffs and monthly stipends, as the Brazilians have done, would increase education rates by compensating for the loss of income resulting from their attending school. Providing alternative educational opportunities, such as trade schools and vocational training, would allow students to pursue a variety of useful careers without which the children of the poor will be almost without hope.

8 thoughts on “The Guatemalan Poor and its Garbage Dump Education System

  • November 16, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    A group of Canadians are leaving shortly on a " Back Pack Supply Mission" All attendees are trying to assemble approximentally 30 back packs of school supplies each to deliver to the kids at the dump.Hopefully we can deliver around 600 back packs Every little bit helps

  • January 26, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Thank you for your research and helping to bring this issue to light. International Samaritan, headquartered in Ann Arbor, MI, has been working to help alleviate poverty in the Guatemala City Garbage Dump Community for 16 years. Working closely with the Guatemalan government, we have built a nursery, K-sixth grade school, as well as adult training and sewing schools for the garbage dump community. We run medical missions, food programs and build houses. We also organize volunteer service trips for people who want to go and help in this community. We have seen some truly amazing, measurable results – students escaping a life of garbage dump squalor – through our programs. On March 3, we will be dedicating the first 7-9 grade school for children in the Guatemala City garbage dump community. International Samaritan is always looking for more people to get involved. Please visit our website at to learn more about how you can help children living in severe poverty in the Guatemala City garbage dump community.

  • April 23, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    This is another example of the way Capitalism treats people. These poor people are supposedly "free". Free to starve, free to die from disease, free to see their children suffer.
    I'd be willing to bet they would enthusiastically give up there freedom to live in a progressive
    socialistic country like Cuba.
    It would be good to see the differences between the two countries and have everyone decide where they would rather live.The terrible Castros, they only lifted their people out of illiteracy and despair

    • May 7, 2012 at 9:21 pm

      What a retard you are. I suppose you're sipping on a latte at Starbuck's on your laptop writing your lines of witless garbage. I've been to both.

  • April 6, 2013 at 11:20 pm

    I have never been to Cuba, but to Guatemala five times. The concentration of land ownership is such that many Guatemalans die–including many children. I doubt that can be said of Cuba. That being said, the idea of socialism in one country emerged with the failture of the October revolution to galvanize workers in the West sufficiently to revolt.

    Socialism is a solution to the problems of capitalism.

    Those sitting at Starbucks are probably members of the working class. They may have the illusion that they are members of the middle class, but if they lost their job with an employer, most of them would quickly find themselves very poor. To have to work for an employer is poverty–as Geoffrey Kay argued in his book, "The Economic Theory of the Working Class." Try telling your boss what you really think on a daily basis–you will likely not be working for that employer for very long.

    So, both workers wherever you live (including this writer and those who read it), and those in Cuba and those in Guatemala are all poor in various ways.

    (For a criticism of Cuba from a left agronomist, see Rene Dumont, Is Cuba Socialist? 1970).

  • May 13, 2013 at 11:19 am

    Socialism isn't really an answer to anything. It has it's own problems – one BIG one being that a managed economy not tied to market influences and prices doesn't work! The Cuban economy has been a basket case since socialism was imposed on it. It has only survived this long because it has been propped up by outside assistance from friendly countries.

    The problem in Guatelmala (I have also been there) and in many other third world countries is corruption and unfettered greed, not capitalist economics. And lest you believe that greed and corruption is only a by-product of capitalism, one only has to look at the realities of socialist and communist societies to see that their populations suffer from the same problems. Shoddily-made, cramped, inadequate housing, low wages, poorly made consumer goods, limited availability of food, and often repressive police and security forces. Meanwhile, those at the top of these communist and socialist states enjoy luxurious housing, vacation dachas and resorts, limousines or western luxury cars, shopping at special "state" stores unavailable to the masses, better food, better medical care…

    • October 27, 2017 at 1:44 pm

      What's the difference between "unfettered greed" and "capitalist economy". As far as I can tell they mean exactly the same.

  • April 14, 2017 at 9:52 pm

    Hi, This is another example of the way Capitalism treats people. These poor people are supposedly "free". Free to starve, free to die from disease, free to see their children suffer.


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