Thursday, February 23, 2006

CHILE: Indigenous Children Torn Between Farm Work and Homework

SANTIAGO, Feb 21 (IPS) - They dream of becoming doctors, lawyers or reporters, but they are more likely to face a future of working as chauffeurs or domestics. Raised in poverty, Aymara and Mapuche indigenous children from the northern and southern regions of Chile tend to drop out of school to go to work.

Camilo Liempi Painecura, 14, lives with his family in a rural area of the region of Araucanía, 670 km south of Santiago. His dream is to study engineering. But he is sometimes discouraged by the exhaustion caused by attending school and keeping up with his chores on the small family farm, and the scarce free time left after his farm work is done.

His parents, Hipólito and Verónica, want him to go to the university. But they insist that he must continue working on the farm in order to preserve his Mapuche traditions and culture.

The couple told IPS that they are raising a mature, responsible young man with customs and habits that differ greatly from those of the "huincas" (non-indigenous people), something that can only be achieved by including children in the day-to-day chores from a very young age.

This story is common in Mapuche and Aymara communities in Chile.

According to the 2002 census, almost 700,000 Chileans, or 4.6 percent of the population, are members of indigenous ethnic groups. Of this total, Mapuche Indians account for a large majority, at 87.3 percent, followed by the Aymara, who make up seven percent of the country's indigenous population.

The Mapuche live in the southern region of Araucanía and the Aymara in the northernmost region of Tarapacá.

Mapuche boys usually take part in planting and harvesting the crops, as well as gathering the "piñón", the nut of the coniferous Araucaria or monkey puzzle tree, which is a staple of the Mapuche diet. Girls tend the barnyard fowl and other livestock, as well as the subsistence garden.

In the highlands 2,000 km north of Santiago, Aymara children herd llamas, alpacas and goats, sell products at the fair, and work loading and unloading trucks full of foodstuffs and livestock.

The young indigenous llama herders often suffer severely chapped skin and early rheumatic pain as a result of the arid highland climate and cold night-time temperatures.

In areas along the borders with Peru and Bolivia, indigenous children are also employed as drug smugglers, to carry small packages of drugs through the desert, by foot or by bus.

Girls, especially those over the age of 15, usually find work as domestics.

Indigenous groups defend child labour, arguing that it forms part of their culture and helps inculcate traditional values, besides the role it plays in meeting basic needs.

But the strong value placed on child labour makes indigenous minors more vulnerable to labour and economic exploitation and to dropping out of school.

These are some of the conclusions reached by the book "Child Labour and Indigenous Peoples in Chile", published by the Colegio de Profesores (teachers college) and based on a study carried out in 2004, with technical support from the subregional office of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The study was conducted in the towns of Codpa, Colchane and Pisigachoque in the north and in Collimallín, Loncofilo, Trañi-Trañi and Puerto Saavedra in the south.

"What is interesting is that it shows the reality of child labour in indigenous communities, from the viewpoints of the children themselves, their families and their teachers," María Jesús Silva, national coordinator of the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, told IPS.

The study reveals that the task of rural teachers who work with indigenous children is especially complex, because they must constantly choose between expecting less from the students who work or demanding the same from them as from the other students, thus running the risk that they will drop out of school.

The children interviewed admitted that once they have finished their farm work and other chores, they are too tired to play or do homework. Some of them also exhibit behavioural problems, which affects school performance and can lead to repeating grades or dropping out.

In 1996, the Chilean government created the Bilingual Intercultural Education Programme to help promote greater learning in schools with a high degree of cultural and linguistic diversity. But 10 years later, this initiative has still not fully succeeded in achieving its goals.

"Teachers generally point to such problems as a lack of suitable materials, high technical and administrative demands and overly large class sizes as obstacles to undertaking more innovative programmes," the study notes. These problems are further exacerbated in schools with only one or two teachers.

In 2003, the Chilean Ministry of Labour and the National Service for Minors (SENAME), in conjunction with the ILO, carried out the country's first survey on child labour. It revealed that there were 196,000 children and teenagers between the ages of five and 17 working in Chile, and that most of them lived in rural areas.

Of that total, 107,676 were working in "unacceptable" conditions. In other words, they were either the victims of sexual exploitation, involved in illegal activities, or employed in dangerous occupations.

Given the scope of the problem, SENAME decided to establish a registry of children and teenagers facing situations like these, in order for their cases to be investigated by the police and the Department of Labour. There are currently a total of 1,700 minors on this list.

Angélica Marín, a psychologist at the SENAME Department for the Protection of Children's Rights, praised the new study because it gives greater visibility to a reality that is largely ignored by the general public, and can help promote debate on the conditions in which these children and teenagers work.

It is not a question of challenging the traditions of indigenous peoples, but rather of ensuring that children from these ethnic groups are not forced to carry out work that is dangerous or overly demanding, and which also obliges them to give up their studies, Marín commented to IPS.

"The research also sheds light on other difficulties that children in these regions must face, such as poverty, the fact that their parents are typically illiterate, and the isolation in which they work, which makes them more vulnerable to sexual abuse, for example," she said.

"The study will help to focus resources on key areas and develop a specific response to the problems of indigenous children. The challenge now is to coordinate the work done by the different bodies concerned with this issue throughout the country," she added. (END/2006)

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