Jutta Gutberlet leads an international effort to help the catadores of São Paulo find dignity and an economic foothold in the South American metropolis.
WHOEVER FIRST SAID THAT ONE MAN'S GARBAGE is another man’s treasure, probably wasn’t thinking about environmental sustainability or fighting poverty. But that’s the new spin Jutta Gutberlet is putting on the old truism, through her work with people who eke out a living by extracting valuables from their more affluent neighbours’ rubbish. Motivated by a desire “to build a more just and more sustainable world,” the University of Victoria social geographer leads a six-year international development project in São Paulo, Brazil that aims to generate and redistribute income for the city’s most economically disadvantaged residents, while cleaning up city streets and reducing the waste of precious resources.
São Paulo, South America’s largest city, is familiar territory for Gutberlet, who moved there from Germany with her parents at age 12. However, it was not until the mid-1990s, when she was conducting research in marginal squatter settlements on São Paulo’s periphery, that she first encountered the city’s catadores, or collectors, roaming the streets with their carts or horse-drawn wagons and retrieving marketable items from curbside trash piles.
Gutberlet’s response to this sight came from both her head and her heart. “My intellectual reaction [was] how wasteful and consumption-oriented our society is and what an important service these people are doing in separating at least some of the resources,” she recalls. “My emotional reaction [was that] these people are more than just poor. They are socially excluded and something needs to be done to recover their citizenship.”
When Gutberlet joined the UVic Geography Department in 2000, the catadores were still on her mind and she was soon at work on a project proposal in collaboration with colleagues at the Centro Universitário Fundação Santo André and other Brazilian partners. Last May, they received a $1-million funding commitment from a Canadian International Development Agency program for partnerships between universities in Canada and developing countries.
Gutberlet’s community-based recycling project focuses on four municipalities—São Paulo, Diadema, Santo André and Ribeirão Pires—within greater metropolitan São Paulo. As in many mega-cities, especially in poorer countries, the number of São Paulo residents who support themselves by salvaging from garbage has grown dramatically in recent years, for several reasons.
“First of all, there is a lot of poverty and unemployment and also unskilled people,” explains Gutberlet. “For many people it’s the last option to make a livelihood.” There is also the increase in consumerism that comes with urbanization. “It is proven that with the switch from a rural to an urban lifestyle, people generate more disposable waste.”
The rise of informal recycling is a natural response to the widening gap between haves and have-nots in a throw-away society, but it doesn’t adequately address either environmental or poverty issues. Vast quantities of recyclable materials remain unrecovered—officially, up to 90 percent of the total waste in the project’s target municipalities ends up in landfills. And the unofficial status of the waste pickers leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by middlemen and businesses that buy from them, and unprotected against occupational health risks, such as exposure to microbes and chemicals or injuries from handling sharp metal and broken glass.
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