That day of 2008, in the outskirts of Bogota, the joyful applause of the 600 participants from more than 34 countries fused with the sounds of the rain that fell to accompany this historic moment for all waste pickers. It was us, waste pickers, who defined that we deserved to celebrate a world day whereby all continents would come together for the blistered hands and broken-down backs caused by the work performed to recycle the materials that society discard.
United in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of the waste picking profession – 160 delegates from the 17 member countries of RED LACRE and RED NICA along with four countries representing 40 supporters – we have had had the opportunity to assemble with the purpose of dialoguing, debating, and sharing:
The village of Gouy-Gui burned Thursday, January 19 and almost 70 waste pickers have lost their possessions. Our partners came to us and even the Minister of Public Health came to see the site of the fire.
In the 1990s the Tshwane municipality in South Africa engaged in a number of failed projects with waste pickers. These included a project that hired waste pickers to make crafts out of recyclable material. It also included at a private company with interests in waste management helping waste pickers to set up cooperatives and run buy-back centres for the cooperatives. However the positive that came out of these failures was that waste pickers formed committees on dumps and this provided the base for independent organizing. But what lessons and openings for organisation emerged in this period?
A meeting in Dakar included delegates from countries across Africa such as Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal, Niger, Rwanda, Congo, Togo, Burkina Faso and Chad. Participants discussed key problems such as child labour, waste pickers paying to collect waste instead of being paid, lack of knowledge of rights, lack of local government capacity to manage waste, and the privatization of waste collection.
Quite simply waste pickers want to see real, immediate, concrete improvements in their lives. They also want to feel a sense of their own power. In experiencing this power, waste pickers will find they change important power relationships. Every waste picker knows what they need to fight for and what would make a difference in their lives. So there are many reasons to organize but how to go about this? The first step is to build and maintain a democratic organization.