Out Of The Underworld

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COMMUNITY ACTION [image, unknown] On the garbage tips

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Out of the underworld
The underworld of garbage disposal in Third cities is peopled by a desperate species of scavenger. Shackled to the rubbish dumps by filth, poverty and illiteracy, rubbish rummagers are often in the hands of the mafia as well. The Co-operative de los Basuriegos de Rioverde set out to break these chains and in the last five years has given a new dignity to the rubbish pickers of Rioverde. Jon Vogler reports.

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Retrieving useful items from garbarge provides an important source of income in the Third World.
Photo: Jon Volger

L00K AT one of those detailed, horrific paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, showing hell and all its torments, peopled by throngs of the damned, and you will have an image of Las Palmiras, the municipal refuse dump of one of the huge capital cities of Latin America. Every minute of the day a huge truck discharges tons of fetid refuse into the vast disused quarry. Within seconds it is surrounded by twenty or thirty people: tiny, tough, mobile Indians who swarm around it like insects, snatching, pulling, lifting, carrying, as if spurred on by some vicious devil with a pitchfork. They are of all ages: children, not skylarking and mischievous but working, dogged and weary; adults with faces blank and emotionless, the softness of the women’s features replaced by the hard angularity of premature age. They do not just pick an object here and there, they toil at it with desperate determination. Systematically, they create not mere piles but small mountains of dirty bottles; canyons of bones, each covered with a tribe of feeding flies; hills of sodden newspapers; tin cans in heaps. When it rains, nobody rushes for shelter, they toil on, feet bare, trousers rolled up, thigh deep in oily, refuse-smelling mud, shirt stuck to the back, circles of dirty sweat under each armpit.

One man stands out, he does not work, only watches. Pablo Santos is a big man in creased white trousers, shoes miraculously free from the mud, bright red cravat, matching handkerchief and white sombrero. For Senor Santos calls himself ’Jefe de la Sociedad de Basuriegos de Las Palmiras’ — Chief of the Society of Garbage Pickers of Las Palmiras. To the toilers he is known just as El cacique — The boss.

The mafia controls all municipal activities in the city. To get a street light repaired, the road resurfaced or your dustbin emptied regularly you give a small regular sum of money and all is well. The man who collects it duly passes it on and knows that his job is safe. Cross the mafia however and you may end up buried under ten metres of refuse at the bottom of Las Palmiras, (which the police, by arrangement with local political bosses, who depend on the mafia for re-election) never enter.

The garbage pickers sell to the cacique all the materials they recover, he in turn sells them, for about three times the price, to outside merchants and industrialists. With the proceeds he pays the henchmen who maintain order within the dump and the brigade of politicians who prevent outside interference from police, health inspectors, reformers or even the President himself. Many of the scavengers were bom and have spent all their lives within the fence that encircles the dump. Their physical wants are provided for — by a supermarket (guess who runs it), a clinic, a beer garden and a brothel — all built within the settlement of rickety wooden shanties that house six thousand people on a foundation of a million tons of refuse. Violence, drug taking, incest and acute alcoholism are rampant the cacique ensures that the scavengers spend freely and can never pay their way to independence.

There is no school: the children first play then work among the refuse, as their parents did and as their own children will do. They grow up illiterate, stunted and bent in spirit. One psychologist who studied their behaviour reported endemic bed-wetting and dreams full of horror, up to the neck in water, rising slowly higher, while hands are pinioned to the sides, unable to struggle or escape.

The average expectation of life in the country as a whole is above sixty years. For those on the dump it is around thirty. There seems to be no hope, no possibility of escape until you meet Manuel Garcia and the basuriegos (garbage pickers) of Rioverde.

In a medium-sized provincial town, far from the capital however, a courageous group have broken the power of the mafia and, with quiet trepidation, shown the way up into the light. This story was told to me by Manuel himself. He is unremarkable in appearance, talkative and evidently self-taught Before he ‘adopted’ the scavengers he was a well known figure in local politics; never in power but constantly featured in the local press, exposing corruption and inefficiency in local and state government That he survived can only be attributed to his electric personality and the powerful friends it has made him.

‘A year before we formed the co-operative, a study showed that half the 232 people who regularly worked the dump were illiterate. The rest could read and write but only laboriously. Most came from the rural areas and about fifty had worked and lived on the dump for over twenty years. The children were growing up in the same pattern; even those who had been enrolled in school only attended sporadically. Their parents needed them on the dump, to earn enough to feed the younger ones and most left school before finishing the second year of Primary.’

‘For twenty-one years, the concession for salvage from the dump was held by the mafia for which they paid a monthly sum to the mayor. The scavengers could only hand over their pickings to the boss in return for a miserable sum, usually about six dollars a week. Then at the beginning of March 1975 the mafia boss told the scavengers that from then on he could only buy paper and cardboard, no other materials. Their earnings would be halted. Faced with starvation the scavengers approached Manuel. With his assistance they challenged the legality of the municipal concession in open court and in a courageous and astonishing edict the judge ruled that it should be set aside — on condition that the scavengers formed themselves into a co-operative. On 6th April COBARIO — Co-operative de los Basuriegos de Rioverde was formed and the Mayor signed an order giving COBARIO exclusive rights to the garbage, in return for a monthly payment of 3,000 dollars to the municipal treasury.

COBARIO began its operations with two elderly lorries and a borrowed typewriter. Within a few weeks it had sold several hundred tons of waste paper, cardboard, cartons, glass and metals and, in its first six months of existence, managed to buy two weighing scales, a hand-operated baling press, a typewriter, a calculator, a couple of desks and eleven elderly lorries. These purchases were made through a misery of self-denial by the scavengers. But grumblings grew. Manuel and others set out to find other markets for the materials, better process and improved ways of sorting so that they could persuade customers that they were selling not just refuse but genuine recycled materials.

Today, after five years of hard work, COBARIO owns 25 lorries and other equipment worth over 50,000 dollars. The average income per family has increased from about four dollars to around 40 dollars a week. The co-operative also runs an education programme that covers literacy, maths, principles of co-operatives, marketing, production organization and business administration. There is a medical programme for the adults who suffer from the accumulated effects of years of malnutrition and unhealthy working conditions. Many of the women still show premature ageing and the children have not fully recovered from early vitamin deficiency. COBARIO employs a full time health worker who tests for cervical cancer and runs a family planning service. Many of the men are uneasy about this but most of the women support the idea and are slowly winning even the most macho of their men to the idea of small, planned families.

COBARIO still has many problems. The worst come from the constant tensions between the co-operative members. Many of them are quick-tempered and violent and some are greedy after years of deprivation. They are short-sighted and think that they can do better on their own than by remaining in the co-operative. So they might, for a while, but soon things would slide and the mafia would reappear. They still need better markets for their materials so that members can earn a little more and not need their children to work on the dump, releasing them for schooling and the true prospect of freedom.

How is it that Manuel and the other members have escaped when the people of Las Palmiras continue to suffer feudal oppression and exploitation? Is it just the personality of Manuel himself? Is it that Rio-verde is a provincial backwater, outside the constant political attention that is received by events in the capital city? Is it the wisdom of the state judge, insisting on a co-operative?

Elsewhere in Latin America co-operatives constantly struggle and fail and scavengers are notorious individualists. Finally, is it something about waste itself, as a medium of employment? It costs nothing to pick up, and poor people without capital can work hard and earn substantial sums — but only if fair markets are open to them.

It is important these questions should be answered. Success stories like that of Rio-verde are rare among the thousands, perhaps millions of people who earn a pathetic livelihood by scavenging, in every town and city in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. If the magic ingredients can be identified and transferred, perhaps they too might find a path out of hell.

An engineer who started Oxfam’s Wastesaver project, Jon Vogler now works on employment projects recycling metals and plastics in Kenya and Jamaica. Aiming to mount programmes that help scavengers, he has found that the risks are so great that funding is difficult to find. His book ‘Work from Waste’ will be published by Intermediate Technology, January 1982.

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New Internationalist issue 106 magazine cover This article is from the December 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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