In São Paulo, many catadores have taken steps to improve their lot by joining forces in co-operatives and associations, which generally range in size from 20 to 40 members. Gutberlet and her partners want to help develop and reinforce these groups, both for the benefits they offer individual recyclers and for the role they can play in tackling urban environmental problems. The team members work with eight co-operatives in Santo André, Ribeirão Pires and Diadema and about 30 in São Paulo. They are also conducting appraisals and surveys to try to determine how many autonomous recyclers are operating within the four municipalities, which have a combined population of about 12 million people.
“If recyclers commercialize their materials together, they get much better prices than if they sell individually to the middlemen,” says Gutberlet. “We are helping them organize so they can sell collectively to industries.” To this end, the project offers training to the co-op members on technical aspects of collecting and sorting recyclables, gender awareness, small business and co-operative development, micro-credit, group dynamics and participatory methodologies. Equally important, is education to raise awareness of health hazards and promote safe work habits.
Indeed, support for a participatory approach to waste management has come from the highest level of government. Last December, Brazilian president Lula Ignacio da Silva enthusiastically endorsed a recycling pilot project launched in Diadema. Under this scheme, the co-operatives have taken responsibility for collecting recyclables in different districts. The municipality pays for their services with money that otherwise would have been spent on garbage pick-up, and the recyclers earn additional revenue by selling the salvaged materials.
In many regards, the Diadema experiment resembles our own blue box program. The big difference, says Gutberlet, is that the work is not performed by a private firm or public employees. The involvement of the co-operatives makes it an inclusive venture that accommodates those living on society’s margins. “Our project is committed to this kind of approach,” she says. “We have been actively working on the design and implementation of this (public) policy.”
Besides working with the recyclers and government agencies, the team also plans to engage the wider community in discussions about responsible consumption, waste generation and how to effectively participate in recycling programs. While there may be some resistance, potential benefits include a less polluted urban environment, more sustainable use of resources and a decrease in poverty-driven crime.
By the time the CIDA-funded project wraps up in 2011, Gutberlet and her partners anticipate having strengthened the skills, knowledge and opportunities of at least 1,000 members of collective recycling organizations in São Paulo. They also share their experiences and findings with other municipalities in Brazil and beyond, including Canada.
“There are similar problems of social exclusion and poverty in Canada, especially in the big cities like Vancouver,” says Gutberlet. “Governments everywhere should be looking for creative solutions.” With the international perspective that comes of having lived, studied and worked in half a dozen countries, she is well aware that those solutions might be found anywhere in the world. It’s just a matter of seeking them with an open mind and an open heart.
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