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Brazil’s Human Scavengers Finally Get a Break

Brazil's trash picker For the fifth successive Christmas, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visited an association of rubbish collectors, many of whom live in the streets. If you walk or drive around Brazil’s larger cities you will be familiar with these “catadores,” as they are known, filling plastic bags or pulling rickety wooden carts packed with rubbish, mainly paper and scrap metal.

There are reckoned to be around 300,000 of these human scavengers nationwide. There is nothing new about poor people combing through rubbish in search of something they can salvage but, as society is starting to realize the importance of recycling, they are now beginning to gain a higher status.

In recognition of this, parts of the private sector in Brazil are now joining the public authorities to help bring the catadores into the formal economy. This is laudable not only because it will encourage recycling in Brazil, which is scandalously behind other countries in this area, but also create a sustainable income for these people.

A sign of progress is the fact that catadores are now being offered loans, an idea which would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

It should be stated immediately that catadores are not idealists or urban greens interested in protecting the environment. Some are vagrants who spend the proceeds on drink and can be seen sprawled out under their carts sleeping off the effects.

Others are the breadwinners for their families who spend 10 or 12 hours a day pulling a cart through dense traffic, dragging it uphill and being dragged downhill by it, often in dangerous situations, sorting through other people’s trash by hand in search of empty cans or plastic bottles. People do not undertake gruelling work like this to save the planet.

It would be impossible to offer loans to such people since they have no collateral and are unreliable. However, in recent years cooperatives and associations of catadores have been formed and made great breakthroughs.

There is a national movement which models itself on the landless peasant movement, the MST, and has a strong political agenda. The National Movement of Catadores (MDC) has a flag which resembles the MST, a site showing pictures of leftist heroes like Che Guevara and a Declaration of Principles full of references to “class solidarity” and “direct action”. 

This movement has held regular meetings with Lula and members of his government and was one of the organizers of the Christmas visit. Despite its militant language, the MDC has cooperated with private companies and NGOs. 

There are an estimated 84 cooperatives in São Paulo state and they handle around 700 tons of scrap a month. A big paper manufacturer, a private bank and two NGOs have set up a fund with seed money of 360,000 Brazilian reais (about US$ 170,000) to provide resources for five cooperatives in the Greater São Paulo region. The money will be used to buy equipment, such as metal presses, weighing machines and shredders, and as working capital.

One of the cooperatives, Cooper Viva Bem in the Vila Leopoldina district of the city, is using its share of the fund – 39,000 reais (US$ 22,133) – to buy two presses to compact the 120 tons of refuse it receives every month. These presses are essential in boosting the catadores’ income because they receive a higher price if they can deliver the recyclable metal in a compact form rather handing over than millions of individual cans.

As part of its social responsibility operations, one of Brazil’s largest brewers has donated presses to cooperatives in Rio de Janeiro. Lula was shown a model of an electrically-powered cart, complete with brakes and lights. He was told that although the cost, 3,800 reais (US$ 2,156), was prohibitive for individuals it could be reduced to 2,000 reais (US$ 1,1350 by gains of scale.

The chairman of the Cooper Viva Bem cooperative, Tereza Montenegro, said it had 63 members who had an average monthly income of 620 reais (US$ 352). This might not seem a lot but it is well above the minimum wage of 380 reais (US$ 216).

I spoke to two catadores (both women incidentally) and they told me they also gained much more than the minimum wage. One sold her cans for 2.30 reais (US$ 1.30) a kilo (around 60 cans) and the other for 2.50 reais (US$ 1.42).

Paper collectors only receive around seven centavos (four cents) per kilo and need a cart to store their bulky produce. The chairman of the association said many of the members were prisoners who were at conditional liberty while others were vagrants who had no chance of finding employment elsewhere.

It should be pointed out that these resources are not donations but bona-fide loans and need to be repaid over 24 months. The cooperatives are not being charged commercial interest rates but the money has to be paid back with restatement i.e. plus the rate of inflation for the loan period.

The repaid loans will, in turn, be recycled and loaned out to other cooperatives. The public sector has also helped through lines of credit from the state development bank, the BNDES, and the Banco do Brasil Foundation.  Government programs have also been created to train the catadores and create leaders.

As always, Lula could not resist using the occasion to make a speech and show the catadores that, although he wears the presidential sash, deep down he is one of them. Not only did he say that he used to collect scrap metal when he was a boy and sell it to buy cinema tickets but he had a predicable go at those he does not like. 

“There are people who think they are better than you but they are the ones who throw litter in the street and don’t recycle properly. If there were no litter louts like them around, there would be no need for catadores,” he said.

Nice words but I also cannot resist making a cheap jibe and saying they could have been directed at many of the catadores themselves who, although they dispose of other people’s rubbish, are pretty good at creating their own.

For proof of this, check out the mess they make of places where they congregate like the Montserrat church area in Pinheiros in São Paulo.
Note: More on the National Movement of Catadores can be found at www.movimentodoscatadores.org.br/.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2007



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