It is sugar cane as far as the eye can see, acres and acres of it stretching far into the horizon. I am in Ledesma in the north of Argentina, home to the country´s largest sugar processing plant. In the 1800’s Guarani indigenous people from neighbouring Bolivia were brought to work here and today continue to provide cheap labour to the estate. Many live on the margins of sugar cane plantations without access to land for their own use while others live in precarious conditions on the edges of urban settlements.
For many indigenous youth the only future that they can see is this: 10 hour days cutting sugar cane at a daily rate of U.S. $10. Many turn to drugs and alcohol, and suicide rates among young men in particular are disproportionally high.
But for Elio Gimenez and Ale Velasquez things have changed. They have begun to dream a different kind of future.
“Before it was agricultural work or nothing,” says Ale. “When you leave the estate at the end of the day you are nobody. You have not developed any skills, you have not learned anything. All you are is totally exhausted.”
Ale began work on estates from a young age. In his community there was no secondary school nearby and his parents could not afford the bus fare to send him to school further afield.
Today he is 22 and for the first time learning new skills at a carpentry workshop run by a CWS partner in the South American Chaco. The Pastoral Ministry for Indigenous Peoples of the Catholic Conference of Bishops is working to promote alternative income generation opportunities for young people.
With support from Week of Compassion, the ENDEPA training centre purchased carpentry equipment and is now running intensive workshops with 20 young Guarani men and women from four nearby communities, 19 of whom do not have secondary school studies. Their transport to and from the training centre is covered by the program and they also participate in life skills training, focusing on strengthening their self-esteem and planning for the future.
“Learning helps you grow as a person,” says Ale who now plans to open his own carpentry workshop and help train other young people. “Before I felt like a nobody, but now that I am learning and making things, it is different.”
His colleague Elio, also from El Bananal, agrees.
“It is lovely to learn. Coming here has given us a focus, to work with wood and forget about everything else. Some young people turn to drugs but we come here instead,” he says.
The atmosphere in the carpentry workshop is one of absorption – the young people are fully focused on their task of making bedside tables with locally-sourced cedar tree wood. I am impressed at the quality. If I wasn´t travelling by air with luggage restrictions I would have bought one myself!
Once the carpentry training ends in October, Elio tells me he will continue at the training centre and begin a course in welding. He does not plan on going back to work on the agricultural estate. “For so long now it has been the estate or nothing. But things are changing. Young people want a different kind of future and coming here to the training centre is helping us build that.”
The empowerment of indigenous youth is a key component of the CWS South American Chaco program which for over ten years has been supporting groups of indigenous youth finish high school as well as access teacher training and law programs. Many of these young indigenous professionals are now working in both the legal and education system. Vocational skills training such as carpentry is a new component to the program based on requests from the young people themselves. Over the next year we will continue to follow Ale, Elio and their colleagues’ journeys towards a more dignified and fulfilling future.
Fionuala Cregan, CWS Program Officer for the South American Chaco