An ethnographic approach to understanding children and labor in Madre de Dios

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A young boy from the native community of Palma Real carries handcrafted sets of bows and arrows souvenirs to be sold in the nearby city of Puerto Maldonado

“I moved from the sierra to Madre de Dios to work in gold mining when I was 10 years old. My parents died when I was four and I had no one else. I slept in the streets and worked on people’s chacras (plots of farmland) making about 3 soles (~$1) per day picking fruits and vegetables. But then a friend of mine told me all about the gold in Madre de Dios so we came here! I had crazy ideas when I arrived to Madre de Dios… like buying an airplane. I was so young but it seems believable because I was making five times more money panning gold, around 15 soles (~$5) per day.”                     -Armando

“Armando” (name changed to protect identity) panned gold nearly everyday for a year after arriving to Madre de Dios at the age of ten years old. Because he was a child in violation of labor laws, Armando was picked up by the Comisaría (local authorities) and was taken to Albergue Juvenil (Youth Lodge), where he was provided with meals, a bed in the dormitory, and access to education at El Colegio Simón Bolívar in the small town of Mazuko. Families that live in rural communities (often who work exclusively in mining or logging) have limited access to schooling and will sometimes send their children to live in towns with family members, friends, or at lodges (such as where Armando lived during most of his years as an orphan). Upon arriving to the youth hostel, the padrino (godfather, or sponsor) of the lodge told Armando he could not work anymore in mining and that he was only to attend school and gain vocational skills working at the lodge chacra and medicinal garden.

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A woman and young man from the Andes mining gold on the shores of the Madre de Dios River

Armando learned to read and write along with forty other children, but despite the padrino’s orders he and several other children clandestinely worked in mining and logging during weekends and school vacations. Families that sent their children to live in the lodge often hired other lodge children to work in their mining or logging concessions. The work arrangements varied; sometimes a patrón hired children merely as obreros (laborers that were paid a fixed daily rate) to work in his own operations, while other times children paid concessionaires a small fee to log or pan gold independently on their land and were able to keep most of the profits for themselves.

Two boys setting up a caranchera for mining on the Madre de Dios River- a common sight upriver from the capital city of Puerto Maldonado

I have begun to document the forces that shape the lives of people who as adolescents participated in the market economy in Madre de Dios. This past week I conducted a dozen in-depth structured interviews with ecotourism and conservation workers who spent their adolescence working. A few examples of interviewees and their backgrounds working as children include:

  • a park ranger who worked on his family chacra (used both for commerce and subsistence) since the age of six and who continues to plant, harvest, and sell crops for his family when he is not guarding the post
  • an ecotourism housekeeper who worked as a vendor and restaurant server in the informal urban economy since the age of ten to help meet the demands of her single-parent household
  • a tour guide who worked with his father in mining since the age of twelve until only four years ago, once he finished his education and began a successful career as a freelance guide
  • a conservation worker (biological researcher’s assistant) who as a young child escaped his abusive home and worked in castaña, timber, and hunting, during which he developed skills and knowledge that enabled him to later find more meaningful work in conservation
  • an ecotourism student who migrated to Madre de Dios from Cusco, where he spent his childhood working cooperatively on the chacras of his family and neighbors through the traditional Andean system of reciprocal labor, which Quechua speakers refer to as “ayni” (click here and scroll up to pg 81 for more on the subject)
A young child helps her mother wash clothes for Miners on the Madre de Dios River
A young child helps her mother wash clothes for miners on the Madre de Dios River

These stories and others I have recently documented reveal a high degree of variation in how people in Madre de Dios participated in the market economy since they were young children. But how does the ethnographer go about capturing the range of stories with a fixed set of interview questions? I draw on Michael Agar’s (2006) discussion of ethnographic logic to explore these complex work patterns among children in Madre de Dios. Agar describes ethnographic logic as:

  • abductive (from latin,  ‘lead away’), because the ethnographer is ‘abducted’ by a new surprise , or what Agar calls a “rich point” – the stuff of of which raw ethnographic material is made. In journalism, this is akin to a journalist following a new lead or story. (As an aside, there has been a renewed interest in abductive reasoning in artificial intelligence research to get machines to think more like humans).
  • iterative (from latin, ‘to repeat’), because ethnographic research consists of repetition (hence why I am conducting structured interviews with multiple participants about the same topics and themes). Iteration combined with the abductive reasoning is how ethnographers pursue new surprises; we look for new ‘rich points’ through repeating methods like interviewing a series of people.
  • recursive (from latin, ‘to run away’ or ‘to run back’), because ethnography is about problem solving within problem solving (this is where it becomes a little abstract). Agar says, “Recursion helps understand when you are “done” with a particular rich point, and why some rich points are richer than others. You are done when abductive work yields no more abduction. And you are dealing with a truly spectacular rich point when the abduction seems like it will never stop, one abduction calling up another calling up another until you run out of time. Those kinds of rich points lead to book topics or even a life’s work.”

In other words, the logic of ethnographic work entails following leads, repeating the sampling approach, returning to older unsolved questions while simultaneously pursuing new ones until finding no new variation in the data or new surprises (or what some qualitative research circles call ‘saturation’).

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A young man on a ferry carries lumber from the other side of the Tambopata River. Many children also work as estibadores (loaders/dockers) in logging or Brazil nut operations for a daily wage of around 30 soles (~$10)

Through conducting interviews this past week and asking questions about livelihoods and work histories I have discovered a fascinating complexity of work patterns in adolescents in Madre de Dios, originally prompted by the simple question, “What was the first job you had?” One thing that sets ethnographic research apart from other social scientific approaches is the abductive, iterative, recursive logic we use; had I not been an ethnographer,  I  would have simply adherd to only asking the questions on my structured interview list while ignoring these new ‘rich points’ or surprises. Through pursing new surprises in the unexpected domain of childhood work experiences I am learning tremendously about interconnections and interdependencies of biodiversity conservation and natural research extraction.

Without delving deeply into data analysis I can still describe a few general observations about work and childhood in Madre de Dios based on recent interviews. First, children often perform unpaid labor for the family as a subsistence strategy in the peasant economy in rural Madre de Dios. Second, intergenerational transmission of knowledge and experience in logging and mining is a factor that plays into whether someone who currently works in conservation has a background that includes natural resource extraction (which almost always begins by working alongside a father or uncle during adolescence). Third, children often perform paid labor in urban informal markets (in Puerto Maldonado) as an income diversification strategy of the household, especially when a parent is ill, loses a job, or the child lives in a single-parent household.

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Children of a riverine mining pueblo sit on a supply boat on the Madre de Dios River. Through interviews I have learned that many children in the region spend time working with their parents in mining during weekends and school vacations. If someone in ecotourism or conservation worked in logging or mining, they likely first worked alongside their father or uncle as a child.

Fourth, decisions about which child of a household joins the labor force is influenced by a number of factors such as intrahousehold inequality (between men and women; seniors and juniors; nuclear and extended family), gender and age of children in the household, and broader socio-cultural and political economic forces. My  final observation for now is that sometimes children in the household are self-driven to take on work to purchase items for themselves that their families could not afford. This brings me to an interesting point that is often overlooked when the topic of ‘child labor’ is invoked. If the reader has access to the peer-reviewed academic journal Annual Review of Anthropology, see Nieuwenhuys 1996 for a review piece on child labor in anthropological research. Nieuwenhuys describes a paradoxical tension between the conceptualization of childhood on one hand and lack of institutional support for impoverished children on the other:

“[T]he moral condemnation of child labor assumes that children’s place in society must perforce be one of dependency and passivity. This denial of their ability to legitimately act upon their enviroment by undertaking valuable work makes children altogether dependent upon entitlements guaranteed by the state. Yet we must question the state’s role—as the evidence by growing child poverty caused by cuts in social spending has illuminated—in carrying out its mission.”

This is indeed an interesting paradox worth further exploration. To demonstrate this point about the troublesome cultural category of  ‘children’ as passive and dependent, I just finished interviews with two ecotourism workers this week who both worked as estibadores  (loaders) in logging operations when they were 12 and 14 years old; both of them sought out jobs on their own volition so they could buy bicycles, which their families could not otherwise afford, and they told me these stories with pride.

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A child from the native community of Palma Real enjoys taking his bike to the riverbank, where he can enjoy rides near the water

It is important to note a limitation in my work as it pertains to children and labor in Madre de Dios;  I am unable to cover the entire range of variation in work patterns given the bias of my sample (i.e. my sample is limited to people who have experience working in conservation and ecotourism, most of which grew up in households and were protected and supported by their families). While I have documented three cases of extreme exploitative child labor (each of whom were orphans), if I were to write a manuscript about child labor in Madre de Dios I would lack primary data on the exploitative dimensions of human trafficking, slave labor, and child prostitution that is far too common in and around gold mining operations in Madre de Dios. Fortunately such primary data already exist; The Institute for International Studies (IDEI, Instituto de Estudios Internacionales) based out of Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú published a report in 2009 that estimates 20 percent of children in Madre de Dios are subject to coercive labor. To put it another way, for every four children I see walking to school, playing in the plaza, or running around the market there is one child who is living an invisible life as an indentured laborer. Another great source comes from Verité (an organization that examines labor issues worldwide), who published this report that includes interview excerpts, summary of major findings, and samples of interview question.

Laberinto, a small mining pueblo that serves as a riverine transportation hub to several mining communities and operations along the Madre de Dios River.
Laberinto, a small mining pueblo that serves as a riverine transportation hub to several mining communities and operations along the Madre de Dios River.

Children from the Andes are often recruited through deceptive tactics under the guise that they will work in well-paying jobs as restaurant servers  in small riverine pueblos near mining camps or as temporarily gold miners. However, through the instrument of debt peonage, children become sequestered in these work places as slaves as their wages are gouged to pay for the exorbitant prices of their meager food provisions and bunking arrangements. Young girls cannot make enough money to survive by earning one sol (~30 U.S. cents) per each beer they sell at the cantina, so prostitution often becomes the only way for them to pay their debt and escape servitude. Young boys working in the mines are subjected to harsh conditions that often cause illnesses, which they are treated with medicine that puts them further into debt. Thus, children become perpetually subjected to unsanitary living conditions, sexual and physical abuse, and they are deprived of basic (health, mental, and emotional) necessities (see this report about trafficking of women and children in the region).

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A prostitution house in a remote pueblo several hours upriver from the region’s capital city of Puerto Maldonado

During preliminary ethnographic fieldwork for my dissertation last year I sometimes heard the terms “charapita” (little turtle) and “jovencita” (young sweet girl, the diminutive suffix ‘cita‘ denotes affection) in reference to highly desired child prostitutes who work along the river in the pueblos where miners stock up on supplies and imbibe between shifts of work. There are a staggering 2000 adolescent girls and woman working at any given time in the 400 prostibares (prostitute bars) in Madre de Dios.  During trips on the river last year I photographed mining operations with a telephoto lens only to later discover that many of the workers pushing wheelbarrows and operating the carancheras (semi-mechanized mining equipment) were children and young teenagers.

Students in Puerto Maldonado commemorate International Day Against Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking, September 23.
Students in Puerto Maldonado commemorate International Day Against Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking, September 23.

Last month I was walking down the busy Avenue Léon Velarde when I stumbled upon a parade of children marching to the Plaza de Armas (town center)— apparently it was International Day Against Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking (September 23). The commemorative day came just weeks after a major human trafficking bust in Madre de Dios in which 36 children were rescued from trafficking but the local prosecutor returned them to the community where they had been living in indentured servitude and subjected to unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, and deprived of education. Hopeful news broke the morning of the International Day Against Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking that Peru will hire four special prosecutors to investigate cases of human trafficking across the country, including in Madre de Dios.

In addition to International Day Against Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking (September 23), I have documented a kaleidoscope of other events since returning from the jungle to Puerto Maldonado in September, including parades and danzas traditionales (traditional dances from Western Amazonia) to celebrate ecotourism, conservation, and the environment for World Tourism Day (September 27), a series of political rallies, candidate speeches, and other events that led up to very important first round of regional elections that took place on the 5th of October (and will finish in a few weeks between the two most population candidates), Festival de la Castaña Amazonica (The Amazonic Brazil Nut Festival, October 18), and most recently, the procession of El Señor de los Milagros (October 28), which has an interesting story specific to the Peruvian history of slavery, immigration, and conquest. I plan to share my experiences of these events soon (and their ethnographic importance) through writing, photography, and videography, but I’m so busy conducting interviews right now it is difficult to keep up with all the other data and content to share- so stay tuned! And thanks for reading!

In the meantime, here’s a sneak peak of a few events from around the city this past month:

Ecotourism students dressed in traditional Ese Eja clothing and parading down the main street, Leon Velarde to commemorate World Tourism Day through a celebration of tradition, environment, and conservation
Final rally for candidates of the political party Fuerza, who did not win any major seats during regional elections in early October
Fourth Annual Castaña (Brazil nut) Festival, during which there was live music (including traditional selvatico music), food vendors served traditional plates (and some ‘carne de monte’ or wild animal meat, including huangana, picuro, and others) with castaña sauce, and like most events in Madre de Dios, there was a “Miss _______ pagant”, this one for “Miss Castaña 2014)
Procession of El Señor de Los Milagros near the plaza

3 Replies to “An ethnographic approach to understanding children and labor in Madre de Dios”

  1. Wow! The pictures are amazing and I’m interested to read the interviews. I see an interesting parallel between why your subjects choose to work and why poor American kids choose to work. I think the concept of children as passive is an interesting bias we have developed. Interested to hear more!

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