The International Alliance of Waste Pickers is a networking process supported by WIEGO, among thousands of waste picker organizations with groups in more than 28 countries covering mainly Latin America, Asia and Africa.
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June 17, 2012

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On June 16, waste pickers from India and six countries in Latin America, along with allies with GAIA, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and Taller Ecologista, spent the day discussing and planning the messages they will take to Rio+20 and the People’s Space.

One of the first topics of discussion was the context of the Rio+20 meeting and what it means for waste pickers. Waste pickers with the national Brazilian movement (MNCR) provided local context about waste pickers in Rio as well as throughout Brazil.

“Our role here is to challenge ideas about the green economy,” said Carlos Alencastro. “To work together with other social movements, to affirm the integrity of society as a whole. We need to make sure that our movement’s position is useful to real green economy.”

“In the discussion about energy and the extraction industry, the waste pickers must be present. They’re talking about nuclear and thermal energy, but we don’t talk about waste pickers,” said Eduardo Giesen, of GAIA. “This is what we have to change.

Giesen helped situate Rio+20 historically, explaining that it’s part of a broader environmental process that began in 1972 at the Stockholm UN Conference, with discussions about a global environmental awareness. The environment began to be discussed in the context of development.

At Rio’s Earth Summit in 1992, a UN action plan called Agenda 21 was released that was supposed to be a comprehensive blueprint of global, national, and local actions to be taken by governments, world leaders and major groups that affect the environment. But what actually happened is that development minus the sustainable part grew stronger and eventually, the sale of nature and “environmental services” became a very profitable business, Giesen explained. This has led to further privatization of water, forests, other natural resources.

The delegation also discussed the role of Zero Waste as a key message throughout Rio+20 and the People’s Summit. These discussions were followed by presentations from each of the groups, including the local context for the waste pickers.

Carlos Alencastro, a waste picker and leader with the National Movement of Waste Pickers in Brazil, said, referring to Rio+20, ‘There is no expectation of real change from the inside. Thats why the People’s Summit was organized.”

For Alencastro, the movement’s participation in these events is an opportunity to form connect with other social movements. “We believe Rio+20 is a step, but it is also a reaffirmation of capitalism,” he said. “As a social movement, we need to fight for socially and environmentally inclusive public policies.

Alex Cardoso, also with the national Brazilian movement, talked about how theoretically, source segretation is written into Brazil’s national solid waste management law. But what’s actually been happening is actually an increased drive for privatization.

“The law is very good,” he said. “But the lobbyists are very strong.”

“At Rio+20, we want to analyze what is happening around Brazil so that we can understand what is going on,” he added. He also honed in on the situation in Rio, saying that here, capitalist interests “…want to transform nature into dollars.” He gave the example of a the Ponto Verde system, managed by a Portuguese company with very expensive contracts. Other issues are the dump site closures. At the People’s Summit and at Rio+20, about 120 waste pickers will be responsible for recycling (coordinated by a small group of waste picker leaders based in Rio). This is not only going to serve as the recycling set-up for thousands of people these days, but is also meant to serve as a model for others to see how waste pickers provide an environment and social service.

Mariel Vilella, with GAIA, pointed out that the green economy as it is doesn’t take waste pickers and the workforce into account but practices waste management policies that include privatization and waste to energy schemes. “Waste pickers provide concrete solutions to waste management,” she said.

Notes/minutes from waste pickers’ experiences in Latin America 

Uruguay, Eduardo. Waste pickers started to get organized through a Union, Ucrus, that then has started having cooperatives especially after their participation in the 2nd Latin American Conference. He is part of the first cooperative created in Montevideo, Juan Cacharpa. They used to work in the dumpsite before and then since then they started to formed the cooperative among those 150 waste pickers but very them decided to become into a cooperative. This group is mostly formed by relatives although it has external members. Eduardo explained that in Montevideo women waste pickers stay at home mostly doing second segregation/sorting. The most common threat in their history was privatization, which took different forms. The dumpsite was turned into a landfill methane extraction system. But the last form of privatization we have now is around an incineration plant. So we are trying to let people understand that this project will take all the materials from us.

Uriel, Bogota. His organization is Muslis, waste pickers/recyclers. What is supporting their work in Colombia is a title that comes from 2003 and allows them to pressure the State to get integrated into the system, however they still can’t because there is little will to do this from the municipality.

Felipe, Republica Dominicana. He came from a base group called San Rafael. They started getting organized in order to have social inclusion and economic recognition. He explained the risk they have from a waste to energy project and other kinds of projects like that which want to burn their waste.

Davi, Nicaragua. Started work in La Chureca dumpsite many years ago. It is one of the largest dumpsites and has existed for more than 40 years. From 1977 until 2007 they were not organized at all and no one thought there was any need to have organization. He went to jail in that year and more than 800 waste pickers marched and managed to get him out. Now they have 2600 waste pickers organized but their goal is to have the 10,500 waste pickers in the country organized. (Nicaragua has 6 million people). In 2010 they made their general assembly where more than 600 waste pickers attended. 80% were women in that meeting, 400 in total. Today they have 8 cooperatives, one legalized and the others in the process to get legalized. Now they have one legalized with 34 waste pickers all women at the Ometepe Island. So this has been a process, to achieve the organization part of the waste pickers, that was able to, for example, create the Luz del Futuro group in Bluefields. Even though they have lot of achievements recently, they can’t forgot about the threats they have. The dumpsite has been closed there thanks to the Spanish Cooperation. They have created methane extraction to create biogas which in fact they are not doing at all and the pipes are throwing the methane outside the pipes but not even burning it yet. Other threats there include incineration as a result of privatization.

Jyoti pointed out that all carbon credits as part of Kyoto Protocol are creating this kind of false naming – naming something nicely that is not nice at all, and not even reducing emissions. Davi said “exactly, its the big lie”. But for them the other threat is their political model, because sometimes they have things like “citizenship power” where they put people there who claim to be waste pickers but they have political party interests. Then he explained their role now as part of the Management Secretariat.

Sushila, SMS and the Alliance of Indian Waste Pickers, India. She was a waste picker since she was 10 years old. She never went to school. Her mother was also a waste picker. She is part of a women waste picker group that began with a survey SMS made a long time ago. They accept the fact they were middle class activits that needed to understand how to organize the waste pickers if they wanted to get organized first etc. From the first 6 months they didn’t trust them at all, thinking they only wanted money from them, but in fact SMS did the opposite and helped them create their own bank account. They also facilitate learning processes with them as they don’t know how to write or read. They don’t have IDs to open a bank account, so they started self help groups that helped them deal with their problems as most of their husbands were alcoholics. SMS organized courses from 16 days to 3 months, with basic things from dealing with life issues, legal issues, how to prevent police harrasment, etc. In those 3 months they get trained in composting etc but they start funding them in order for them to be in the courses/trainings (leadership training courses). They used to fall asleep in the courses but then they become more interested. They also found this other problem where the young women were in very bad conditions, they get married at 12 years old and stop all studies etc etc. So SMS become a programme for learning/teaching etc and in this past years they have achieved the fact that there are no children wps working and discrimination get reduced. Once this step was set, they start the zero waste programme and models for wps, in order for them to get in chage of waste handling etc. They have 9 models to handle the waste, they organize 6 collection points where women will send their materials, and also collecting in hospitals to collect the non medical waste.

Now they have 6 cooperatives with legal recognition and 600 women waste pickers working and the contracts are on the name of those cooperatives and not SMS. Sushila explained how they start working with biogas, where they put organic waste into a tank and they create electricity through that. The plans they use are appropiate for women that are not literate, so the training is very technical and not need to be academics to do that. Some women want also to come OUT of waste…so they started a cantain in Tata Institute of Social Scienc where 18 women can work. They also collect tetra pack and send those to a place where they get notebooks done from them. They are going to the business people to get funded to collect those kind of materials. They gave them materials for the value of 100 U$D so they get 40U$D for their own costs and they give them back recycled notebooks for 60 U$D. Descentralizad waste management is the ONLY solution for waste, so you can take that from different places and handle it entirely and only 10% is real waste. They have started a medical center facility for wps to be there in order not to spend lot of $ in expensive places. SMS is working in 4 cities now, and this medical facility allows all women to be seen.

Silvio wanted to know how men work with them or without them, and Jyoti explain the cultural situation where the husband keeps drinking or not supporting etc etc. And because SMS is a women feminist group, many husbands got/get scared.

Eduardo wants to know about the sustainability of their plan, how they managed to get enough income for eg through tetra pack recycling? Is it enough to survive? In Uruguay (he compares) that things didnt work out properly even with the same tetra pack as there is no market there. SMS replied only with 3 T of tetra pack and because it was not far away from where they work, and they finally managed to get paid for that work and they don’t need to feel shy.

They started a very interesting discussion about tetra pack recycling and scalability of these kind of entreprise recycling schemes.

David asked them about relationship with authorities and how they handle them. Jyoti explained they love and hate each other at same time, there is lot of corroption etc. the national law is good but the municipality doesnt implement it actually. Municipality gives them trucks to collect waste but their truck pass after the municipal one so they dont get anything. The family problems they have are also with husband because when women are start going to meetings they are always suspicious so they also have men consultancy to explain them that. Jyoti explained that they combine both aspects, the environment and the social/wps not because of the wps only but for the city, for the city to be clean and nice, and not because now is fancy and climate change is an issue, they have been doing that for a long time. She explained as well that in India they have a caste system where the lowest cast is normally waste pickers, but Jyoti is from the high caste etc, so some people critice her because they assume waste pickers dont want to remain waste pickers but in fact they do because there is a lot of $ there. Something else she wants to add is that in even situation the technology is handle by men and they get displaced because of that! So the technologies they use are women friendly.

Jyoti explained about the fact that they need to ensure contracts/payments from the work they are doing, before the waste/recyclables get so much value than people don’t give them to them but sell them directly.

Silvio requests that they need to learn form the zero waste models from india where they are handling organic waste as well and they need to learn from that and how they can do that.

Jyoti explained that they have everything there but in english so far, they are training mostly indian wps because of language issues. But they need to do this as part of the project they have and they are already starting translating materials into spanish, portugues, french. They have build a training center/school that will be ready by october, its a 3 floor building, huge, and all wps are welcome there to be training there from all technologies you want to apply adaptated to each group/context.

She is very happy to have been able to talk about this here as she knows Silvio for a long time but she never managed to interact to this level of deeper knowledge of the situation their children are facing, their women etc etc.

She is aware for example when she sees Nohra on her computer and when she sees Sushila and she get confused. Silvio explained that for example there is a difference, Silvio and Uriel went through 5th grade only, Eduardo 1st grade, Felipe bachelor’s degree, David ?. So the formal education they have reached mostly/only to primary school so most of what they have now is self-taught, they didn’t take computer courses etc they just started learning themselves in their daily life. Nohra is an exception because she went to the university and studied management/environmental studies and reached higher levels of education since she got older.

Jyoti explained that women in India have no time to study a lot because they work everyday and then they need to take care of their children etc. They give them training and capacity building to help them but can’t do miracles.

Most of Nicaraguan waste pickers are illiterate, especially those at the dumpsites. David started working when he was 6 as he lost his father, and now he needs to work to support his family etc.

Jyoti wants to know if they are currently working as waste pickers now, or if they are doing some other course at night for another profession etc. Do they want to remain in the profession?

Eduardo explained that they ended up all being self-taught as they re-create themselves in both work and life, they need to learn how to use email address, how to use a computer, etc etc, none trained them “officially”.

Silvio explained that for them in Colombia and ARB in particular they understand waste pickers is a profession that needs to be recognized and properly formalized, but they pretend and want their children to have the access to the education for them to decide what they want to do.

Maybe if the working conditions get better, said Jyoti, the children will want to remain or be waste pickers as their parents, so it will happen one day maybe that it becomes like architecture or medicine.

Eduardo pointed out for them is also a freedom issue that some or most waste pickers in Latin America don’t want to have bosses.

Jyoti wants to know if like in Cairo, there are religion differences that makes you become a waste picker. Silvio explained that let’s say in Latin America we can think of the Indian casts or the Cairo religion as classes (economic and social) differences, that can also be rigid so if you are poor, your options are very few and you need to either recycle or clean or work as a prostitute or other survival jobs that are part of informal economy. But there are also migration issues like in Central America where Haitian waste pickers are migrating to the Dominican Republic for work or rural-urban migration makes the rural workers arriving in the city start doing recycling as a way of living. So it’s a mix of both a class issue and a migration issue but for sure no religion. They explained the problem of Bangladesh waste pickers in India and Haitian waste pickers in the Dominican Republic and how this situation is the same.

Eduardo explained that even internal migration and seasonal workers can migrate internally within the same country.