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LABOUR: Sorting Garbage – Green and Dignified Work

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 2 2009 (IPS) - More than 1,500 representatives of waste recyclers from 13 countries, and thousands of other visitors, including the host country Brazil’s left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, met last week in São Paulo, demonstrating that they are no longer pariahs in our throw-away society.

“Today I feel proud of being a ‘catadora’ (garbage sorter), although there is still prejudice against this kind of work,” Lilian Nascimento, a member of the Brazilian National Movement of Recyclable Materials Collectors and part of the team that organised the international event, titled “Reviravolta Expocatadores 2009”, told IPS.

The Oct 28-30 event, bringing together the Latin American Recyclers’ Network, was an opportunity for dialogue with governments, businesses and social organisations, and for exhibiting projects, technologies and private sector initiatives aimed at improving street collection of reusable waste.

The Portuguese term “reviravolta” means to overturn, or a swift and drastic transformation, and “catadores” is the local Brazilian term for garbage sorters. “Catar” is to collect, in the sense of selecting items one by one from the ground.

“‘Catador’ is a good name and should be kept as the general term in Latin America,” but “recycler” has emerged as the common identifier as it is more formal and “is in harmony with current environmental issues and the climate crisis,” said Marisol Álvarez, a member of the Chilean delegation who came in the company of two of her colleagues and two technical staff from non-governmental organisations.

Expocatadores 2009 is the first such meeting of its size, promoted by the Brazilian movement and the Latin American Network.


Lula announced that the state development bank would open a line of credit for recyclers’ cooperatives to purchase electric vehicles, made by Itaipú, the company that runs the hydroelectric power station shared between Brazil and Paraguay. He said the “catadores” would be exempt from vehicle registration fees.

Cities Minister Marcio Fortes, who was with Lula’s entourage, talked about the resources his ministry devotes to infrastructure for recyclers’ cooperatives, especially warehouses for separating the materials they collect.

“The pride of the recyclers” in organising such a huge event, and their “capacity to autonomously engage the federal government, ministers, development banks, public and private companies and foundations, is the most powerful and important achievement of this event,” said Valdemar de Oliveira, head of institutional relations for the Avina Foundation, which sponsored Expocatadores 2009.

The Avina Foundation and the Brazilian Recyclable Materials Collectors’ Movement, together with the Social Development Ministry and international institutions, launched a programme called Cata Ação for training recyclers and incorporating them into the production chain in five Brazilian cities, including the capital, Brasilia.

In Brazil an estimated 800,000 people work sorting through garbage to salvage recyclable materials. Close to 600,000 of them belong to the Movement and are organised in cooperatives and associations, said 29-year-old Nascimento, who has been a garbage sorter for eight years.

“I began to do it out of necessity,” after having worked in bars and as a domestic worker, cleaning houses. “I earn a bit less, but I work for myself,” she said, with the self-esteem she acquired when she learned about “the importance of this work,” as a member of the United for the Environment Recycling Cooperative (CRUMA) in Sao Paulo.

But she is still treated with prejudice, especially at government offices when she declares her profession, and officials reject “catadora” as a valid category.

Meetings for recyclers are important for discussing and learning about public policies related to urban waste, and to fight for their rights, according to Nascimento. Expocatadores has strengthened the links between recyclers’ organisations in 23 of the country’s 27 states, she said.

Some local governments recognise the public service they provide through reducing pollution in streets and rivers, and making landfill sites and open-air garbage dumps last longer, all of which are challenges faced by city management. Climate change is adding even more value to the activity, and the recyclers expect to benefit from carbon credits.

Avina, a foundation that supports sustainable development in Latin America, foments “recycling with social inclusion and solidarity,” promoting organisation, training and investment, in recognition of the environmental problem posed by waste, the increasing cost of raw materials, and the millions of jobs created by recycling.

The Foundation reckons the number of recyclers in Latin America at an estimated two million people, with national movements organised in six countries. At Expocatadores, in addition to the Brazilians, there were more than 30 representatives of the other 11 countries belonging to the Latin American Recyclers Network, as well as a delegation from India.

Roberto Laureano da Rocha, a leader among the organisers of Expocatadores 2009, was born in an impoverished neighbourhood in Greater Sao Paulo.

A garbage sorter ever since he was a teenager, Rocha’s story, told to Avina, recalls the humiliation he felt at the beginning, when “we thought that sorting garbage was the lowest possible occupation, for those who aren’t good enough for anything else.”

Local residents would sometimes “throw water at us when we sat on the pavement,” and would tell their children that the garbage sorters were monsters who would attack them, he said. Among themselves they tended to think “that we ourselves were part of the trash.”

Forming the CRUMA cooperative changed the recyclers’ lives, self-esteem and understanding, as well as their relationship with the authorities and society.

Rocha went back to school, finished his secondary education, and gives talks on recycling. Now he takes pride in earning enough to support his pregnant wife and their two children, and they are building their own home.

Thirty-nine-year-old Marisol Alvarez, from Chile, also began sorting garbage “out of necessity,” when she found it hard to get a factory job in Santiago.

Now, in addition to earning higher wages, she is her own boss and manages her own time, working according to her needs, “from morning to night if necessary” or just a few hours if she has enough money to go on with.

Conditions for recyclers have improved a great deal because the National Movement supported smaller organisations and fomented projects, she said. Her function in the movement is to liaise with the municipalities to organise the recyclers’ work, create registers and obtain support.

“The population is more aware now, and they separate (recyclable) waste in bags and give them to us.” They have meetings with the neighbourhood councils, and all this makes collecting more productive, and improves working conditions, Álvarez told IPS.

Among the experiences Álvarez will take home from Expocatador 2009 are encouragement from Lula’s acknowledgment and support for the recyclers’ work, more recognition from the Latin American Network, and “the quality of the people” she met, in spite of the language difficulty with Portuguese, she concluded.

 
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