I came to Colombia, first, to visit a friend. I say it this way because I had no concern or specific intention to explore Colombia's solid waste management situation or to see if there was waste picker presence occurring at landfills. Yet, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to photograph and study how Colombia handles their own environment and their methods of informal to formal waste sorting.
What I learned is something I wish would occur in many other countries that could use a lesson in this field: I needed to really search for a waste picker with limited information. The first and best big step is having the government enforce complete civilian restriction to all landfills. That may seem obvious to many, but there are hundreds of countries that have non-regulated or semi-regulated open landfills that attract communities to live amongst them. This is very dangerous for these desperate people and makes it very difficult for them to become independent again once a generation has begun to live in that type of environment.
In Colombia, not also was I unable to find a landfill that allowed anyone to legally enter, but in major cities, most notably Bogota, there were large efforts to recognize the once informal waste sector of the city as a public service. This not only created jobs that made their effort official, respected, and recognizable by the government, but they also receive pay and an assortment of opportunities to work for an organization that offers salaries and benefits.
When we discovered where these materials were being brought in, I slowly approached a man sitting against a wall on a pillow made from plastic stuffed with shredded paper. He was surrounded by papers. Though covered in dirt, he seemed approachable and soon I was surrounded by many similar to him. We started a conversation with a man named Alex. He is 42 years old, coated in dirt and has been sorting through materials in the garbage for many years. We explained our reason for being there and he graciously offered to act as our tour guide and security. The curious crowd around use started to break up as I took out my camera. I kneeled down to photograph the man I first saw sitting against the wall, as he happily encouraged me to photograph him. As I did so I noticed he was smoking crack. After a few shots our tour started to move on. Alex, who possessed a bit of a lisp due to many missing front teeth explained that we are in a very dangerous place with thieves and drug addicts who could be plotting a way to take my camera. However, under his guidance he assured us we would l be safe, but we had to move fast and in one direction, the direction of leaving.
Alex explained how they work as a team and can make between 60000-70000 pesos or $30-$35 dollars a day. They work everyday, all day. Unfortunately, their cart had been stolen recently, and that set the team back a little until they could afford or obtain a new cart.
I bought everyone water and photographed them sorting through trash. Alex swiftly kept the tour moving as eyes and grins were directed at my camera. He showed me a filthy canal that runs next to the market that may potentially have a connection to the local private landfill one block away. It was my suspicion that this canal probably has leachate, even if it didn’t, it was clearly polluted.
As Alex walked me to the landfill that was guarded all around by a huge cement wall and barbed wire, I became mesmerized by a broken structure outside of it. I curiously photographed and approached the structure as I walked over trash, animal bones and parts. Once I reached the inner area of the crumbed structure I noticed people were hiding out under shelter made from trash. As strange as it seemed to me, two woman appeared to be caring after a plastic doll inside their tent.
To the right, a small hut made of metal and wood drew my attention. I found a man disguising himself with his shirt and motioned for me to not photograph him. I explained that his identity is safe and it wouldn't make any difference if I photographed him because I didn't care to reveal his identity. He proceeded to pose for the camera. He seemed relaxed about the situation as he continued to sample crack and pose. His name is Rick and he is known to be the most dangerous thief in that area of La Bavaria. He took off his disguise for me and smiled. We shook hands, I thanked him and I moved on. As I walked away I noticed dirty feet hanging outside another little tent with alcohol pads laying around. This made me suspect that heroin may have been present as well.
I gathered that a good part of this group recycled to survive with bare necessities, but more did so to support a drug habit. Poorer families in this area seemed to be self-sufficient and did not need to recycle to make a living. I recall seeing very few children roaming around La Bavaria. In fact, from my brief interactions, I sensed a bit more contentment and ease from the poor I encountered in Colombia, than in other countries I have visited.
We moved on to find where these people go to sell their recyclables. That brought us to a small place not far from the market area. Jimmie owns a recycling shop called, Ferrería Michelle. He accepts metal, paper, cardboard and plastic at 4000 pesos ($2) per 1 kilo or 2.2 lbs. All materials are sold at the same rate. Combining this information with Alex's, this would mean that an individual would bring in about 17lbs of trash in a day. The metal is reused at the metal shop next door, the plastic and cardboard are shipped to a larger seller.
We went Bogota and met Alejandro Rodriguez Gaviria. His situation is similar, but he must work much harder to earn his livelihood for he has to look after his family as well. Alejandro, age 40, lives in El Bronx, which consists of one street. It is the most dangerous street in all Bogota with thieves, drug dealers, addicts, illegal firearms, etc. It is blocked off for the public's safety and you can only enter if you are a resident of this street. However, Alejandro did not appear fit any of these profiles. Instead he humbly stood next to his wheel cart popping rice that he just found in the garbage rapidly into his mouth, as if was popcorn and kindly took the time to answer my questions. He travels throughout the entire city for many miles all day and all night collecting anything and everything. He explains that he has been doing this for 6 years and would gladly take a real job if he could obtain one. He supports his wife and two small children who attend a public school. He rents one room for this family just days at a time because that is all he can afford. He has no health insurance or any help from the government but he does have a El Bronx resident card that provides him some food and a place to shower from time to time. He recalls tooling through the trash in El Bronx and discovering body parts. He walks many miles pulling his heavy cart in the busy Bogota streets to sift through trash in the nicer areas of the city.
Informal waste pickers like these scavenge throughout the city because they are either in bad situations or have chronic problems that are too severe for them to overcome. Possibly they just need to realize some of the options they have available to them. Such options include transforming from an informal waste picker into a formal recycler. This option has been made possible through the efforts of organizations like WIEGO, Basura Cero and ARB. Lucia Fernandez and Fredericio Parras from WIEGO (Woman's Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) pushed and helped pass a bill of rights that made the city of Bogota recognize waste pickers as providing a true public service to the city. These organizations created opportunities for individuals to be employed as part of a protected alliance and this civil rights movement has had a positive impact on both the people and the city. WIEGO also fights for waste pickers civil rights on a global level.
Basura Cero is run by the local mayor, Bogota Humana. Their goal is to employ people to pick up 100% of the trash throughout the entire city of Bogota until there is zero waste left. Jose Leonardo Tellez is among this community. Now that he is a formal recycler, he is content with the upgrade and can afford the things that he needs.
Another highly noble organization is called ARB (Asociacion de Recicladores Bogotoa). Marta Padilla, who is the Technical Advisor, explained to me how their operation works. First, they have 18 hubs throughout Bogota where waste is brought to and sorted. They started out with horses and carts but were able to move up to having trucks throughout the city to collect trash. She does not refer to the people working for them as employees but rather associates and notes that they all were once informally picking from trash. Now they receive a salary and benefits. There are around 35 associates at each of the 18 locations. They also buy trash from the remaining informal waste pickers. They sell their paper to Papeles Familia. It is not easy to find a buyer for plastic because no one recycles that locally. Usually plastic will pile up for awhile before a buyer is found. The organization and all their associates are self-sustaining through the profit they make with recycling.
Angela Ramirez has significantly improved her life through her recycling work. She has been working for the Bogota Humana for 1.5 years and left her house cleaning job to clean and recycle for the city because she received better pay, has health care, benefits and is now working on her pension. She is clean, enjoys her job and is quite content.
In conclusion, the first step that national governmentsneed to take is to protect the citizens from entering into any landfill or trash dump, both in major cities and in small towns. This will prevent the development of dumpsite shanty towns andkeep familiesfrom raising children amongst these places. This would also dissuade those interested in picking trash, from doing it in the streets before the solid waste vehicles collect it. That is something we see everywhere, especially major cities and is handled differently from place to place, but usually it is an informal job. However, Bogota’smodel of recognizing these individuals as being a true public service and creating official jobs, employment identification and opportunity for those who seek it out is a model to be followed. It appears that fighting under the civil right jurisdiction is a convincing and effective way to help people and the environment. It seems to be the obvious solution but the local and national governments must be open to this change.