Cuidad Guayana, Venezuela – Emiliano Veria searches through knee-high piles of garbage, in a dump that stretches to the horizon.
It’s a daily fight between him, scores of other scavengers and carrion birds. Amid smouldering waste, the pickers look for metals and clothes to sell. Alongside the vultures, they hunt for food to eat.
“It’s not better here than elsewhere, but I can’t find work and I have no money. The little I find here is to buy food. If not, I have nothing. Nothing here, no work,” Veria said.
The 29-year-old has been working at Cambalache – on the edge of Ciudad Guayana in Venezuela’s eastern Bolivar State – for more than a year, usually for three months at a time.
He, like his wife and children with him, is a member of the indigenous Warao.
President Hugo Chavez has championed indigenous communities, which make up about two per cent of Venezuela’s population. Before taking power in 1998, he said he would pay back the state’s “historic debt” to the customarily marginalised groups, and subsequently recognised them in the constitution.
The Warao number more than 20,000 people, who usually live on the waterways of the Orinoco Delta – a sparsely populated area the size of Belgium. There, the Orinoco River spreads out along 360km of the Atlantic Coast.
Of about 80 families – some 400 people – living at Cambalache, almost all are Warao. Working off the city’s waste can be fatal. Rubbish trucks have crushed several children and adults during the past few years. The workers are also mindful of thieves, who carry out violent attacks in the area – particularly when pickers are working at night, lit only by torchlight.
There is also the constant threat of disease – measles, tuberculosis and other respiratory problems.
The banks of the Orinoco River are home to some 20,000 members of the Warao people [Simon Boadas/Al Jazeera]
Furthermore, non-governmental organisations say HIV is a problem for the population there, with women sometimes reportedly drifting into prostitution.
The work is hard, as 45-year-old scavenger Miguel Lopez said: “Those who arrive early earn more. You can work up to ten hours and still you can afford almost nothing.”
Perhaps an irony of their work is that the metals they search for – such as aluminum and steel – are in abundance in the region. Ciudad Guayana, a city of about 350,000, has been experiencing a boom, powered by steel plants and aluminum smelters. The area is rich in supplies of iron ore and bauxite.
As the metropolis has grown economically, the Warao population at Cambalache has increased with it. It has more than doubled since 1998, when there were 35 families living off the dump. Now, alongside residents’ shacks, the government has provided 30 concrete homes and there is a metal structure that is used as a school.
But community representatives say the state has not fulfilled promises to build 45 homes and a permanent school.
“They promise to come and we are wasting our time waiting,” Raimundo Maica, a community leader, said. “Because we have to go to the dump every day to work and solve our problem of having no food. We are not made of iron. They say that they will come on a specific day and hour and we’ve waited with empty bellies. Why do they work for others and not us?”
Of those who make the journey from the Delta to Cambalache, most take months using boats. Some have died from dehydration on the way. But still Cambalache is seen as a more promising venture than staying at home.
The waterways of the delta provide scant economic opportunity. Subsistence fishing and harvesting a small amount of crops is the norm.
One such community, near the Delta’s capital, Tecupita, is the Moriche. Here about 700 locals live on the banks of the River Orinoco, listlessly lying in hammocks after securing a daily catch of fish. Chavez’s administration has made much publicity of social welfare programmes – named Las Missiones – which include educational stipends for such villages.
The Moriche community is one of several which needs more support, village leaders say [Simon Boadas/Al Jazeera]
But people complain that their requests to the state – including for vital medicine and livelihood assistance – go unanswered.
Segundo Malave, 58, said: “I want that the government helps us. But here they don’t want to help us. They need to send resources here, but they don’t.”
Residents say politicians come to visit them, but only when they want their votes. Abel Palacios acts as the village’s government representative. For him and fellow Warao, migration to the city is no solution.
“I don’t believe this is a way out,” Palacios said. “It’s better that we live in our own habitat. We have land, we can plant food. If we go [to the city], it is a different way of living.”
There is fear over the loss of the Warao’s practices and culture – which often involves land worship, shamanistic practices and ancient forest farming. The city takes them away from these traditions, and brings discrimination and the opportunity to abuse drugs, Warao members say.
There is also an emotional impact of peers moving to Cambalache.
“I feel sadness,” Palacios said. “Because they are looking for survival. They are not going because they want to, but for necessity. Because they are hungry, they don’t have things to wear. This is why I feel so much sadness. This sadness is very strong. But it’s the reality we live with. It’s a reality.”
The state government says it is giving the Warao livelihood assistance in their own communities and in Ciudad Guayana. But it does not want a permanent community in Cambalache.
Losing their culture?
Yaritza Aray, an indigenous representative in the regional Bolivar State government, said: “I cannot give them a home that is not suitable for to live in. I cannot give land for cultivation if none is suitable for planting.”
“So we are attending to them. But also we ask ourselves if it is good to continue there or would it be better to search for solutions in their own communities, on their original land.
“And if they come to the city, how do we assimilate them without losing their culture?”
Despite wanting more government assistance at Cambalache, Veria and Lopez still support Chavez’s administration.
Lopez said: “I tell you one thing, I am Chavista, but Bolivar State should have a bigger budget. The people that work here need more money, but there is no budget. The state does all their work in the city. And for the rubbish tip, there should be different funds.”
But the government’s social programmes have so far failed to bring this indigenous group out of poverty.
Instead, the Warao at Cambalache remain outside both their traditional cultures and the modern city.
Follow Rhodri Davies on Twitter: @rhodrirdavies