Waste collectors and environmentalism in Brazil
Welcome! In this section I will keep you up-to-date about my fieldwork in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The research will be conducted on informal waste collectors, catadores in Portuguese.
I will focus on the way they collect and recycle precious materials such as paper and plastic, with the constraints they encounter in their job every day. I will look at the way waste collectors present themselves to the producers of waste, especially to middle-class citizens, and I will try to understand the role environmentalism and sustainability play in this intricate relationship. I am looking forward to share many anecdotes from the field with you,
and hopefully we will enjoy it together!
Posted on May 1, 2014
Belo Horizonte – Sao Paulo – Madrid – Rome. Back home for a few days, pampering myself in the jet lag. I eat at nights, I am always tired, I can’t sleep, but most of all (and best of all) I am disoriented. Two days later I am back in Amsterdam. As I finally look at the brownish-grey landscape from my window and feel the wind that bites my skin, I have to realize that I left Brazil, my house, my friends, my routine, and the field. I feel like I have not said goodbye properly, and that prevented me from being emotional. But it is never too late.
Thank you Brazil, your colors that inspire joy and make me feel alive as nowhere else. Thank you for making me feel at home in the blink of an eye.
Thank you Belo Horizonte, you chaotic mess, for showing me your grotesque landscapes and then for filling them up with sweet portraits of unique beauty. You huge village of caring parents, weird uncles, and gossipy neighbors.
I thank you all, my old and new friends, as you made me feel like I had been living there all my life. You encouraged me to conduct my research without fear, to talk to my first and last informants, and to explore scary environments. You taught me to be part of the struggles that before I was only observing. Your faithful presence sometimes made me forget how tough fieldwork was supposed to be.
I am so thankful for all the amazing people I encountered in the field. Those who were there to show me around their conquests, their work environment, and their city. ‘A Italiana’, this unusual presence who showed up to ask questions, to take pictures. You have been and will be an example of strength and a positive attitude.
I often found myself thinking about the many paradoxes you have to deal with. Your job is probably not a dream job for many, as you have to deal with an often unresponsive or hostile environment while doing an heavy physical task. Yet your foresight makes you fight for the recognition you deserve, even if it means that you have to educate a whole city to rethink the meaning of ‘lixo‘, of waste.
There is so much to be done, so many rights to be guaranteed, many obstacles to overcome. You are not alone, as you inspire many people with your honesty and determination.
Continuamos na luta.
Blog: Organizing catadores in Belo Horizonte
Posted on April 21, 2014
Waste collectors, in Portuguese ‘catadores’, are easy to spot in the streets of the hyper center of Belo Horizonte, carrying their wagons down the packed streets. They are often organized in cooperatives or associations, which take care of different areas of the city and, if organized enough, receive also the collected recyclables from the municipal waste collection company, the KTM. Others work as independent waste pickers, usually aside another occupation or just few days a week, especially during street markets, events, or in the weekends in squares, outside bars or everywhere people consume beer (in cans).
In the attempt to understand how waste collectors work and how they engage with the large society I decided to follow the ASMARE, the biggest and most organized cooperative of catadores of Belo Horizonte (BH), and at the same time to meet some less organized waste collectors, especially those working at the ‘feira hippie’, the Sunday street market located right in front of the municipal park, in the hearth of the city center.
The ASMARE, (association of catadores of recyclable materials), is the oldest and most organized cooperative of the whole state of Minas Gerais. The first social mobilizations as a cooperative go back to the ’80s. The history of waste collection and recycling in BH is consistently shaped by the history of this association. It was lead by a mythical strong woman, a catadora herself, ‘dona’ Geralda, which started the struggle to get recognition for their work and for better working conditions. Even though I initially wanted to do research with a smaller, less researched association, I soon ended up collecting the many signs of creative mobilization. These are aimed at attracting the middle class and helping the whole city to get more sustainable.
A beautiful example of their creativity is the exhibition at the “espaço do conhecimento”, an educative space of the UFMG, the federal university of Minas Gerais, located in the Museum square, “Praça da Liberdade”. A three story exhibition was dedicated to the three mayor questions of humanity (where do we come from, who are we and where are we going), with a contribution from professors of many different areas in the attempt to answer part of these questions. In the section dedicated to the future of humanity the problem of sustainability was addressed, mainly referring to air, water and soil pollution. In the words of an informant however, it was a ‘soulless’ section: there was no interesting debate was emerging from the section, only a mere acknowledgement of the ‘unsustainability’ of development. The exhibition was then extended to a part dedicated to waste collectors of the ASMARE, their struggles for socio-economic rights and their role in the urban waste management. I was amazed to find out that the idea and development of the section on waste collectors had been a joint project with the ASMARE itself. There had been collaboration with the director of audio-visual arts, but also with the catadores who participated in order to give the public a realistic image of what it means to be a catador, both in terms of sustainability and in terms of working conditions. Waste collectors shaped the exhibition with some great ideas in order to sensitize the audience to a social group often considered as part of the urban landscape or a traffic obstacle. A ‘key’ object exposed in the museum was the ‘carrinho’, a wagon (filled for a third) which the public could (try to) carry and could physically have an idea of what it means for a man or a woman to carry it around the traffic jams or the streets.
With the help of a quasi-volunteer who is a figurative artist, the ASMARE is also actively engaged in getting the attention of the larger society in terms of right claims. Due to political decisions the ASMARE was not contracted to take care of the (sustainable) waste management of the Carnival parade of 2014. As a reaction to this decision, the cooperative participated in the event as a ‘bloco’, a group playing and dancing under the flag of the ASMARE. With the motto of ‘evento sustentavel’ (sustainable event), catadores have drawn attention to the association and their struggles for social recognition. The public was as happy to watch them play as with the other groups, and danced to their music and took pictures with them. All under the proud and determined look of dona Geralda.
Catadores who work with the ASMARE do not work in order to create a clean environment or to reduce waste, but rather they clearly do it as income strategy. They are nonetheless aware of their impact and proud to be environmental professionals. The public actions never fail to remind the urban citizens how their profession is sustainable both environmentally and socially.
FEIRA HIPPIE (Sunday market)
Every Sunday though, in the very same street where the Carnival parade took place, another category of waste pickers was at work. Every Sunday morning on the Alfonso Pena Av., right in front of the Municipal Park, the Feira Hippie takes place. The Sunday artisanal fair is organized in sectors, which vary from shoes to baby’s clothes, from wooden furniture to paintings. At the two edges of the fair and in the center, in front of the main gate of the park, there are three ‘praças de alimentaçao’, the ‘eating squares’: barbecues, acarajé (a fried bread made from bones’ flour and filled with shrimps and delicious hot sauces, typical of the state of Bahia), and of course a lot of beer. Every Sunday morning, those bar stands attract many people from the city, and very often more or less improvised bands play samba and gather a joyful and drinking public.
Waste pickers are also a faithful presence of the Sunday fair. From the first hours of market in the morning until a few hours after closure, many people collect aluminum cans, plastic bottles, cardboards, almost anything that can be recycled. There is quite some concurrence, as those people don’t know each other, and hierarchies of ‘seniority’ determine who can collect the cans from the clients of bar stands and who has to go even into the park to pick them.
Unlike catadores from the ASMARE, waste pickers who work at the market are not organized in cooperatives or associations, and many of them consider it just an additional activity to earn some extra money. In fact, the stories of those waste pickers are quite sad. They are mainly homeless people, who ‘were taught from their parents not to steal from anyone’, so any chance to make some money is welcome. Other ones are old people, both men and women, neatly dressed up for a day at the market. The stories that come forth are of being not retired yet because of years of contributes left. These are people who always worked in the informal sector, and they end up in their eighties without having rights to pension. Other ones simply do not manage to survive with only the retirement money, especially if they need extra medicines or treatments, which is not unusual for elderly people.
The stories of informal waste pickers in the feira hippie are stories of poverty and humility, but without environmental awareness or professional pride. They make it clear that they do it as one of their survival strategies, they are not proud of having to collect other people’s trash and they don’t see their job as strategic and sustainable in the waste management chain. Some of them do not even consider it a profession.
One Sunday morning, during my observations and informal chats with waste pickers, I tried to ask a catadora if there were cooperatives working in the market, if she was part of an association or if she had thought of being part of an association. The reaction I got was that she could not answer to that question. She was there for herself, she said, and I should have asked someone else. This was clearly a negative answer. I could not ask further as she was very busy, and she left quickly. She did not want to talk about the topic. Of course this makes me very curios. There can be many possible explanations. Maybe I was too direct and she found me rude. Maybe she thought I was working for someone like the municipal government or an association, and felt threatened. Maybe it was for personal reasons or simply a bad day to ask her questions. But it could also be that she did not want to see herself as a waste collector, not a stable one, and she was considering that job as a temporary occupation.
This rejection raised many issues unanswered questions, and left me with more curiosity than other polite answers I got. In my experience, while catadores in associations and cooperatives are always willing to share their story with the pride of one who is doing a tough yet important job, informal and independent waste pickers tend to minimize their occupation and are ashamed or defensive when they get attention. I am happy to be collecting both experiences.
Blog: Invisible Barriers
Posted on February 7, 2014
Belo Horizonte is an egg, they say. It’s a huge city, yet everyone seems to know each other and happen to meet in the strangest situations, so that living here seems more like living in a huge village instead of in a city. As I arrived here, friendship ties left two years ago at an embryonic stage flourished as if it was ‘normal’. I found my current house by greeting a familiar face on the street, with the two of us not really knowing who the other was and why we knew each other. This city is full of beautiful, casual encounters.
So I ask myself why, in a city of 2.5 million people, ‘everyone’ seems to meet known people all the time, instead of giving the impression of being lost and surrounded by strangers all the time.
I got the idea that there are many invisible walls among citizens. Those barriers have the power of making the people on the other side invisible, and leave only familiar faces walking the streets, drinking at the bars, going to cinema’s and events, ‘spending time’ in shopping malls.
The wall especially functions ‘top-down’: there is a whole group of people working in the ‘hypercentre’ of the city which is invisible to the middle class. The ‘unnoticed’ are beggars and homeless people living on the sidewalk and systematically ignored by pedestrians, but there is also a whole category of working class people rather invisible to the average citizen’s eye. Waste pickers, which would otherwise be pretty visible with their ‘monumental’ wagons, end up being invisible to the chaotic majority, with cars only actually acknowledging their presence by honking.
The invisible wall exists not only in the streets, but also in ‘middle-class’ houses, between house-owners and ‘faxineiras‘, or cleaning ladies. Old buildings and old apartments are distinctly divided between the ‘social area’ and the ‘service area’. The communicating space is usually the kitchen. Workers are used to entering from a ‘service elevator’ in the back of the building, and enter through a separate door which opens into the separate space in the house, where the lavatory, a secluded bathroom, a small bedroom and of course the kitchen are located. This separation, a heritage of the slave state, has far from disappeared. Even student houses, the so-called ‘republicas‘, have cleaning service, usually once a week. When I ask ”why don’t you clean your own house?” the responses are something like, ”but it’s so cheap” or, “then I would have to fire the woman.”
The class segregation is still alive in society, and when we talk about social exclusion and empowerment of waste collectors, we have to keep in mind that even in the most progressive middle-class citizen the separation is likely to be naturalized and taken for granted. For individuals, it is hard to break those walls. Middle-class people don’t talk to lower class people unless it is necessary. And lower class people also mostly abide by this unspoken rule.
In Belo Horizonte I am part of the (upper) middle class for many reasons. First of all, I am European, which means I traveled all the way down here, which means I can afford it. Then I am a student, which means, in Brazilian society, that I either had a good, expensive, private primary education, or that I can afford an expensive, private secondary education. And then of course because I hang out with ‘middle-class locals’, I am part of it. So the barrier exists also for me, even if I did not want it to just because I am identifiable in one of those two major groups.
The step of talking to a stranger would not be so difficult here if it wasn’t for this wall. And that is why it took me a lot of effort to get closer to the wagon and say hello to a ‘catador‘ for the first time. But that is another story…