BOGOTA — In poor cities around the world, millions eke out a living by scavenging recyclable materials from the streets that can be exchanged for fractions of a cent. They are at the lowest rung of consumer society, the very rockbottom of globalization. And they know it.
“If we were any poorer, we’d be dead,” said Jorge Eliécer Ospina, a trash recycler making a few dollars a day in Bogotá, Colombia. He belongs to the 18,000-member Bogotá Association of Recyclers (ARB), which recently hosted hundreds of waste pickers from over 40 countries for a four-day conference.
Funded by international non-profits, the First World Congress of Waste Pickers was held “to exchange experiences and to create national and international alliances that will protect us from being stepped on by local governments,” said Ospina.
Informal trash recycling worldwide is increasingly viewed as a legitimate profession that provides a badly needed service that helps protect the environment and reduces litter in urban areas. Bernardo Toro, a scholar who works with waste pickers in Brazil, titled his conference presentation: “Recyclers: 21st Century Professionals.” Asked about the title, Toro explained, “A professional is a person that possesses knowledge, abilities, skills, traditions, values and instruments to systematically provide a relevant good or service for society.”
Such economic development agencies as the World Bank and some local governments are beginning to agree with Toro. Since informal trash recyclers are becoming better organized, cash-strapped governments now see them as viable partners and are integrating them into official waste management systems.
Panelists from Brazil, Chile, Cameroon and other countries shared their experiences with the joint projects. Severino Lima Júnior, a leader of Brazil’s National Movement of Recyclable Materials Collectors, applauded his government for providing his organization a credit line of $85 million with the national development bank. The government hopes the loans will help the group raise incomes and improve working conditions for its members.
Local recyclers in Bogotá took their counterparts from Africa, Asia, and the rest of Latin America on a tour of important recycling spots in the city. At one stop, delegates saw a recycling center administered entirely by informal recyclers. The city ceded management of the center to the ARB after a Supreme Court case forced the government to implement affirmative action policies in favor of recyclers when soliciting waste management contracts.
But just as likely, said groups from several countries, local governments will turn to private companies to manage recycling, which threatens to put thousands of informal workers out of work. In August, the Bogotá government will solicit proposals to transfer management of the ARB recycling center to private contractors. “We’re afraid of the plan and we’re fighting against it at the mayor’s office,” said ARB member Margarita Orozco. “We want this center to remain managed and administered by the recyclers.”
Hamit Temel from Ankara, Turkey, cited another problem expressed by many participants: near-constant harassment from local authorities. In 2003, the Ankara government destroyed his group’s warehouses in a squatter settlement, where most of them live. And an Argentine delegation told how just days before the conference, police violently evicted a group of 50 recycler families squatting in a building that doubled as a storage facility.
Although trying to forge common solutions to such problems, the conference also highlighted local subtleties among the different delegations. A presentation from Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, a group made up almost entirely of women from Pune, India, described recycling in India as a highly specialized occupation with a distinct division of labor. Laxmi Narayan and Sangita John outlined a typology of at least six different types of recyclers. At the bottom-end of the hierarchy are those that scour massive dumps and brave frequent dump fires during the summer months. At the wealthier end of the pyramid are doorstep collectors and itinerant intermediaries who simply buy materials collected by others.
Some of the groups at the conference do more than simply recycle trash. The Community Sanitation and Recycling Organization (CSARO) from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, uses part of the waste collected by its members to make handicrafts sold in markets. They make flowerpots from discarded rubber tires, stationary from paper, and colorful purses from used plastic. But their most profitable product is packaged compost they make from organic trash.
Laila Rashed Iskandar, an organizer with several recycling groups in Cairo, Egypt, notes that like her Cambodian colleagues, groups in Cairo specialize in processing recyclable materials and manufacturing. In this aspect, she explained, Cairo is ahead of its Latin American counterparts, who focus on the basic tasks of collecting, sorting, and selling recyclables.
“However, we’re way behind the Latin American organizations in organizing, and consolidating, and dialoguing with government and lobbying for legal, legislative, and procedural reform,” said Iskandar. Asked why, she responded. “Because we’re fragmented; we’re not united. It’s very simple.”
Still, almost all of the conference delegations, including the Latin Americans, were from established recycler organizations, which represent only a fraction of active waste pickers worldwide. Those who continue to work independently do so under more precarious conditions, make less money, and receive no health or social security benefits.
Although Bogotá has some of the oldest and best-organized recycler associations in the world, just beyond the conference walls, most recyclers in the city remain outside the loop. The improvement of organizing efforts will surely be revisited in the next world recyclers’ conference slated for 2010.
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