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VENEZUELA: Women Recycle for Income and Environment

Humberto Márquez* - Tierramérica

TACARIGUA DE LA LAGUNA, Venezuela, Sep 12 2009 (IPS) - The women of this town in northern Venezuela no longer say “garbage” but rather “secondary raw material,” and instead of referring to recycling, they talk about “separation at point of origin.”

Eduarda Román at her house, next to a mural of Tacarigua lagoon.   Credit: Humberto Márquez/IPS

Eduarda Román at her house, next to a mural of Tacarigua lagoon. Credit: Humberto Márquez/IPS

Tacarigua is a long coastal lagoon covering 9,200 hectares along Venezuela’s Caribbean coast, a three-hour drive east of Caracas.

The lagoon has areas where freshwater meets saltwater, but most of it is separated from the sea by a sandy strip 28 kilometres long and about 300 metres wide.

“Here, we women organised ourselves in a small company to collect what we used to see as garbage,” María Auxiliadora Uriepero, who has six children and 11 grandchildren, told Tierramérica. She stood in the doorway of her half-built house of cinder-block walls and zinc roof, which currently serves as a warehouse for her sacks of discarded bottles.

Lacking interior dividing walls, many houses like this can be found in Tacarigua de la Laguna, a town on the edge of the national park of the same name. Some 5,000 residents, here and in neighbouring Belén, make their living from fishing and tourism on the nearby beaches. But unemployment is rampant.

Uriepero went over the numbers: “I need to collect about 58,000 bottles in order to fix up my house. Wherever I see a bottle, I pick it up. My whole family does the same. We already have 90 sacks full,” weighing 20 kilograms each, with plastic and glass bottles that are sold to recycling companies.

She doesn’t rely solely on this source of income. She also sews and makes ragdolls, bakes cakes and other sweets, sells refreshments and candy, and weaves hammocks. “Now, with a group, we set up a company for separation at the site of origin. We call it ‘Flor del Mangle’ (Mangrove Flower)’,” Uriepero said.

The red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) forest is the lagoon’s main ecosystem, extending over 4,000 hectares, but there are also other mangrove varieties: white (Laguncularia racemosa), black (Avicennia germinans) and buttonwood (Conacarpus erectus).

The national park, created by decree in 1974, covers 39,100 hectares that include the lagoon and shoreline, and the sandbar that separates it from the sea. In 1991, 20,000 hectares of adjacent sea were added. It is one of the sites protected under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, named for the Iranian city where the pact was signed in 1971.

On a narrow street, in the shade of mango trees, and just a few metres from one arm of the lagoon, Vilma Gutiérrez removes dirt and labels from 1.5-litre plastic soda bottles. “Each day we walk several kilometres along the beach and collect and separate out glass, plastic and aluminium,” she said.

“I’m no longer ashamed that people might see us and say ‘there goes that garbage lady.’ The people in the government (of the northern state of Miranda) have taught us that it isn’t garbage, it’s secondary raw material, which we can use to run our association, ‘Corocora Mar y Sol’,” Gutiérrez said.

The “corocora roja” (scarlet ibis, or Eudocimus ruber), is a plentiful bird in Tacarigua, an area where more than 250 bird species can be found.

Four kinds of sea turtles lay eggs in the park, among them the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), both globally endangered. The park is also home to the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus).

The maritime and lagoon areas are habitat for fish species that are in demand at the local food market, like the common snook (Centropomus undecimalis) and the white mullet (Mugil curema).

The 20 species of mammals found in the area include the red brocket deer (Mazama americana), the capuchin monkey (Cebus olivaceus) and the endangered ocelot, or painted leopard (Leopardus pardales).

Flor del Mangle and Corocora Mar y Sol are two recycling microenterprises. The former is incorporated and the latter is registered as a partnership. The Miranda state government is promoting the creation of more such entities.

“We are developing this project to boost conservation of the park as a biodiversity preserve, and for food security, while we are also supporting vulnerable groups of citizens and creating ecological awareness in the area,” Evelyn Pallota, the state government’s environmental director, told Tierramérica.

Corocora Mar y Sol – where “we started out with nine, and now have five partners left,” said Gutiérrez – proposed acquiring baskets appropriate for collecting materials, as well as uniforms, gloves and facemasks. “And – why not? – perhaps a small truck.”

The candidate for driver is her husband, who is currently unemployed. “So far we have all been women partners, but with the volume of material we want to achieve, men are going to be needed to do some of the work,” said Gutiérrez.

“One of the partners has filled three barrels with glass. She told me she already feels like a small entrepreneur and wants to apply for a microloan from some government body and for health insurance for everyone in the group,” Milagro Liberón, a local schoolteacher and supporter of the project, told Tierramérica.

Liberón is setting up a location that will serve as a collection centre and will provide training and logistical and legal support to the groups of collectors. Working with her is Eduarda Román, whose patio faces an arm of the lagoon, where she feeds the iguanas, turtles and herons that come by.

Nothing is wasted at Román’s house. Leftover food scraps go to the compost bin to help grow papayas and mandarin oranges. Her neighbours “have begun to separate the solid waste in their homes and then they call so that the collectors come by to pick up a bag of this or that,” she told Tierramérica.

Liberón works with papier mâché and teaches others how to make crafts. Which means that “beyond the recycling collection enterprise, we can take the next step, which is eco-design: making artistic and utilitarian items with some of the collected materials,” said Pallota, the state government official.

In addition to support from the state government, the British Embassy in Caracas has donated scales to weigh the materials, and the U.S. glass bottle manufacturer Owens-Illinois provided a glass grinder and purchases the group’s output.

“We pay them 300 bolívares (140 dollars) per tonne, and we are happy to support the groups that organise to improve their lives and the environment,” Marycarmen Polanco, director of Owens-Illinois in Venezuela, told Tierramérica.

“For our factories, the recycled material totals about 100,000 tonnes annually, or 30 percent of the raw material,” she added.

The Tacarigua area is part of the Barlovento, a fertile 4,600 square km plain irrigated by the Tuy River and its tributaries. In colonial times it was filled with cocoa plantations worked by slaves from Africa.

“It remains a pocket of poverty, with low economic activity and high unemployment. The basic needs of 47 percent of the population are unmet, according to government statistics. There is a lack of schools and the young people move away,” said Pallota.

“We launched projects like Tacarigua to raise awareness, train environmentally responsible citizens, prevent pollution of the lagoon, beaches and fields, and generate jobs that allow people to take the first step up and out of poverty and marginalisation,” she said.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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