Noria Takaki Jr.

Noria Takaki Jr.

With the current state of economic development in many cities, eradicating street picking is not socially viable or economically feasible. And it does not have to be eradicated, in most cities. What ideally would have to be eradicated is the stigma associated with the activity.

2008 Urban Fellow

Research Topic: Industrial Environmental Management

Faculty Advisor: Michael Dove

The Political Economy of Recycling in Brasília

The Federal District, home to Brasília, the capital of Brazil, is taking measures to implement an integrated solid waste management program that aims to promote, among other things, recycling at the source (households, business, government agencies) and support for the work of trash pickers through the creation of cooperatives. This paper focuses on advances and challenges Brasília faces in its efforts to establish a socially inclusive, integrated model of solid waste management. Through historical examination, comparison of waste management practices with another Brazilian city, and review of recent research on the subject, I will examine the potential of cooperatives to serve as mechanisms for social inclusion of trash pickers. The number of people living in urban environments throughout the world has increased dramatically in the past century. According to the United Nation Population Fund, about half of the world’s population now lives in cities. The trend is particularly remarkable in less developed countries, where rural poverty, exacerbated by the mechanization of agriculture, has led to widespread unemployment – a major push factor toward cities. It is estimated that in less than thirty years, sixty percent of humanity will be made up of urbanites, and the majority of them will live in less developed countries. While that figure might not be cause for concern in developed nations, it raises many questions about the capacity of countries with weak economies and histories of social inequality to support such high urban population densities materially and institutionally. If the current global economic downturn is any indication of what lies ahead, one can expect to see urban poverty and its attendant maladies continue to be a reality for quite a while. A handful of middle income countries where the proportion of the urban population surpasses that of developed nations already face a tremendous challenge to provide for the basic needs of their poor urban citizens. South America, with its 81% urban population (the most urbanized region of the world) is a case in point. Uruguay leads the group with 94% of its population living in cities, followed by Argentina (91%), Venezuela (88%), Chile (87%), and Brazil (83%). Although these figures may not be too impressive for a nation as small as Uruguay, with its 3.3 million inhabitants, they become quite noticeable in a country the size of Brazil, which by itself holds roughly half of the population of South America with 195 million people. Especially worthy of attention in the case of Brazil is that, despite its relative economic prosperity in terms of national GDP and other economic indicators, over 58% of its work force earn their living from the so-called ‘informal sector” (Gaiger, 238). Of those, 60% earn between one and three minimum salaries, which puts in evidence the limitations of the country’s current model of economic development in creating jobs, while demonstrating the ingeniousness of the masses in their capacity for self-provisioning. Brazil is not unique in this regard, however. There seems to be a distinct trend in rapidly urbanizing countries of South America towards the formation of production guilds (cooperatives, associations), many of which emerge as alternatives to absolute destitution. Street scavenging is one area around which many people have organized. Despite having existed since time immemorial, the number of people resorting to this activity for survival has increased dramatically as a result of the current paradigm (and paradox) of economic development. In Buenos Aires, for instance, the number of cartoneros (cardboard pickers) that roam the streets collecting recyclables ranges from twenty-five to forty thousand (Medina, p. 174), and if one includes children, wives, and other dependants, somewhere around one hundred thousand people depend on waste collecting for their survival. While the primary causes of the expansion of informal work are evident, there is still much to be learned about how, if, and in which form such activities will persist, particularly amongst the more economically fragile occupations. Street scavenging, for example, which is generally shunned by government and the upper classes, may be forced out of existence. In Brazil indirect pressure to rid the streets of scavengers has already taken soft legal form. Presidential decree 5940, for example, which was enacted in 2006, mandates that all federal agencies separate their waste and donate it to legally established cooperatives of trash pickers. While the incentives being provided and legislation being implemented to support a transition from informality to the semi-formality of cooperatives is praiseworthy, there is some evidence that the model currently being employed in some Brazilian cities does not contribute to changing historical patterns of class inequality. Whether or not this is due to inadequate implementation of the principles that govern cooperative enterprises (as a result of historical/cultural/institutional barriers) or simply a case of socio-economic Utopia is a matter that will be discussed in more detail below. In addition, contradictions exist that nullify some of the positive effects of pro-catadores policies, such as the reluctance of the government of the Federal District in granting land-use rights to newly formed cooperatives. Some of them, despite being legally constituted, operate on illegally occupied land or in residential areas. And while federal funding has been earmarked for the construction of infrastructure, disbursement awaits designation of sites. Recent developments in recycling solid waste, propelled by popular interest and NGO campaigning, were part of the impetus behind Presidential decree 5940. Recycling cooperatives offer street scavengers an option to work within the legal and social system. While under certain conditions working in a cooperative may be more lucrative, some scavengers are reluctant to join for a number of reasons. From the standpoint of some street scavengers, working the streets gives them more freedom and possible better earnings than being the member of a co-op. Furthermore, it does not seem physically or economically feasible to place all of the current numbers into cooperative centers. There are too many people and not enough resources or facilities to accommodate everyone. Careful judgment needs to be exercised as to what values and objectives are at the heart of the current discourse, what the assumptions are regarding the effectiveness of the proposed course of action, and whether or not, given the extant examples, the model satisfies the propounded objectives. If planners are aiming for “cleaner” streets, that is, streets without horse drawn carriages and poor people in rags rummaging through waste bins, then the proposal to place everyone inside built structures is consistent with that objective. Whether it is economically feasible and/or socially beneficial is a different story.