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 Friday, 17 January, 2003, 10:15 GMT
Argentina's everyday fight for survival
Silvia, a 'cartonero'
Silvia collects rubbish so that she can feed her children

Argentines are becoming increasingly resourceful in their struggle to weather their country's crisis.
The sound of nightlife in downtown Buenos Aires is not so much heels clicking to a tango but the trundle of carts loaded up with trash.

Each evening, thousands of families take to the alleys and boulevards to salvage heaps of cardboard and paper.

They're called the "cartoneros" and they make about 4 US cents (2p) on every kilo collected.

Jose Maria Munoz on TV show, Recursos Humanos
Jose Maria Munoz competes for a job on TV
In a country where over half the people are in poverty, this is the only way they can put food on the table.

A year ago, when Argentina's economy melted and the peso collapsed by 70%, a new industry was born.

Waste paper rose in value, and the poor took it upon themselves to gather it.

'Paying the price'

Take Silvia, in her mid forties. To feed her 10 children, she rummages through Buenos Aires bins from five until eleven o'clock at night, five nights a week.

One of the 'cartoneros'
All you see around town are people taking out any little bits of paper - they are like ghosts in the night

Ellen Popper, retired
She stores her sacks of old paper at her tough housing estate apartment, and once a week she sells her load to a middleman for $15.

Surprisingly, in a country blighted by corruption and mismanagement, poor but proud people like Silvia are still prepared to take some responsibility for their plight.

As she sees things: "The governments, the people at the top, we chose the wrong people to direct us. We were mistaken and unfortunately, we're now paying the price."

Scavenging has become recognised as a legal activity. Cartoneros can register like any other trade - and the city leaders seem to value what they see as a service to the community.

"While the activity of the cartoneros results in getting value out of rubbish, from the point of view of the environment, the cartonero is making a positive action," explains Eduardo Epsteyn, environment secretary, Buenos Aires City.

Human resources

The same resourcefulness has characterised job-hunting for some Argentines.

Last summer, Jose Maria Munoz was an unknown, unemployed 23-year-old struggling to keep his spirits up.

His break came when he answered an advert in a paper.

After trying different ways to try and find a job, it looked to me as a different option

Jose Maria Munoz
The interview was unconventional to say the least. For Mr Munoz had to go on prime time television and win his job on an Argentine game show.

"After trying different ways to try and find a job, it looked to me as a different option," explains Mr Munoz, now a $600 a month retail sales assistant.

The show is Recursos Humanos - in English, Human Resources.

Contestants are filmed doing a job and tested on how they handle awkward customers. The audience then gets to decide on who should win.

In its six-month run in Argentina, Human Resources has helped secure work for 320 people.

Revolutionary ideas

All over the country, the feeble economy has pushed Argentines into ever more desperate measures.

In what seems like a chapter from the Russian Revolution, thousands of Argentines have saved their jobs by seizing control of debt-ridden factories when the bosses fled.

The men of the Union and Force Co-operative occupied their metal work plant for six months, defying the bailiffs who wanted to liquidate its stock and assets.

Finally the courts granted them the right to continue running the business themselves.

With half of the country's 36 million population in poverty, the authorities are reluctant to use muscle to enforce the bankruptcy laws, which should give creditors priority.

A new society?

The workers now running food factory Ghelco argue that it's better to allow them to keep going rather than make them join the millions of unemployed.

Ghelco worker
Ghelco workers share the profits at their factory
Ghelco is now run at a profit by a team of 50. Many of the duties are shared. And they all have the same wages.

Today, they can take around $55 per week, which is higher than the national average.

Their lawyer argues that it's in Argentina's interest to bolster workers' rights when a business is insolvent.

"We're asking that insolvent companies are not liquidated," says Luis Caro. "Because if they were, then the whole of Argentina's productive system would be destroyed."

Golden grain

Argentina's grain farmers, who have an estimated $1.6bn of soya and maize in storage, are also devising new ways to keep business buoyant.

They have recognised that grain has become a much safer bet than the bankrupt country's beleaguered peso.

Eduardo Boemo, director of Montes de Oca Cereales
Eduardo Boemo says grain is worth more than money
The silos that store the grain have become another sort of "bank".

"Rather than put their money with the financial institutions, where you don't know what's going to happen to it, people here keep it as grain in the countryside," says Eduardo Boemo, director of Montes de Oca Cereales.

His fields of soya, when harvested, will be priced in US dollars on the global commodity markets.

As the peso is worth just a one third of its 2001 value, Mr Boemo now has a lot of buying power in Argentina, where farming accounts for half of the country's $26bn in exports.

Back to bartering

Mr Boemo also has a valuable commodity for bartering with local suppliers, particularly now that the banking sector has been discredited.

The auto industry, reeling from a 54% slump in new car sales since 2001, now accepts grain instead of pesos for the farmers' favourite, the pick-up truck.

Eduardo Boemo, director of Montes de Oca Cereales, with his pick-up
Eduardo paid 88 tonnes of grain for his pick-up
Leandro Gerber, fleet sales manager at General Motors Argentina, reports that about 50 pick-ups a month are sold through this system.

Other purchases exchanged for grain include farm equipment, seed and property.

It may seem like an archaic system, but this is doing business Argentine-style in the 21st century.

  The BBC's Dharshini David
"Day to day survival is utmost in Argentinean minds"
See also:

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