The COVID crisis has made clear how essential waste workers and waste pickers are to maintaining healthy cities. As we recover, GAIA’s network members will play a key role in rebuilding their communities. This blog series, Voices of Resilience, features stories of some of the waste pickers and waste workers at the frontlines of this pandemic, who are fighting to provide essential services for their communities in spite of local governments that have failed to give them adequate safety equipment and worker protections. Thanks to the support of the GAIA community through our Emergency Solidarity Fund, we were able to support members during this critical time. While the problems of our time seem ever greater, the solutions are happening locally, through the determination of community leaders working together in solidarity across borders. These are their stories.
WASTE PICKERS IN LATIN AMERICA: POPULAR ECOLOGISTS FOR THE POST- COVID-19 WORLD
Fernanda Solíz is a specialist in Public Health, professor at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, member of Acción Ecológica and author of several books. Although only waste pickers can speak directly about their occupation, Fernanda has rescued their voices and has worked in solidarity with waste pickers associations fighting to achieve material and social recognition.
Co-author of the book, “The Right to Health in Recycling. Community Actions Against Covid-19”, she points out in one of the chapters that many diseases, such as Covid-19, are the result of a “bad development” model: a vision of development that places the accumulation of capital above the ethics of life (p.46).
She begins this conversation by stating that even before the pandemic, waste pickers have been part of the most vulnerable and excluded groups of the global economy. They are kept on the peripheries of “informality”, with precarious employment and many exposures that result from governments’ refusal to formally recognize their work.
What are the threats of waste pickers during this pandemic?
Waste pickers have been facing two threats. First, the concerns of contamination of the virus in recycling material has made the stigma associated with their work grow, which instead of strengthening grassroots recycling, strengthens sanitary measures, which I call “neo-hygienisation“. Municipalities are increasingly choosing to bury, incinerate or “disappear waste” -although we know waste does not disappear- leaving waste pickers without the opportunity to recover inorganic material.
On the other hand, there are isolation measures with the slogan “Stay at Home”, which is discriminatory because it does not see beyond the nuclear family, hetero parental and more affluent demographics, the conditions that make it possible to be inphysical isolation. In the case of waste pickers there are different structures, especially in Ecuador, where they often live in marginal and peripheral neighborhoods with a community structure in which raising children, cooking and cohabitation is not determined by the nuclear family unit, but by the neighborhood. These communal structures serve to optimize resources and because overcrowded conditions do not allow them to have more space. Thus, “Stay at Home” has exposed them to severe financial straits.
What kind of help have recyclers in Ecuador received? Do these support efforts have a long-term vision?
Although there has been solidarity from the civil society, from some State programs and from the private sector–which paradoxically is responsible for the greatest generation of inorganic waste–these have been small measures. They help to alleviate essential needs and food supply, but they have not been enough. For the long term, waste pickers have increasingly promoted the legitimate right to employment and access to education and training programs.
What are those education and training programs about?
Along with the book “The Right to Health in Recycling. Community Actions Against Covid-19,” a massive training process was carried out in Ecuador and Colombia. Waste pickers received training to learn how to work under conditions that do not expose them to the vulnerabilities that often come with the job.
What did the training programs include?
In coordination with the National Network of Waste Pickers of Ecuador (RENAREC), AVINA, fundación Alianza para el desarrollo and Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, 380 waste pickers from 59 associations attended 21 sessions via Zoom. During the training they learned how to guarantee the right to health in contexts of social and ecological inequities and government neglect.
Along with the training process, protective equipment was provided with the GAIA Emergency Solidarity Fund, which consisted of personal protective equipment and food baskets for waste pickers from Quito, Cuenca, Manta and Portoviejo. Although we know they are temporary measures that do not solve structural problems, they did make the difference between eating or not for some families.
Considering 380 participants in 21 sessions, it’s clear that Covid-19 has not stopped the movement of waste pickers in Ecuador.
That’s right. The process was beautiful because for the first time we saw that the technological gap was narrowing and although it still exists, in the past we would not have had enough funds to run sessions of that magnitude. Waste pickers are people who live in very precarious conditions, so seeing them online, taking notes and then coming up with solutions was a very nice experience.
How have you seen the situation of waste pickers during the pandemic?
Unfortunately, those who have the highest rate of infection from the virus are the groups that experience social and ecological inequalities, such as waste pickers. The poorest social classes, the indigenous groups living in bad conditions, are those who have the highest levels of infection.
There are inequities even in the ways of dying. For example, depending on the place where you catch the virus, your chances of dying range from 8% to 80%. This is not a roulette that determines who lives or dies – we do not have the same possibilities. Waste pickers have been particularly vulnerable to the virus, especially in Amazonian territories and the coast. Besides, Latin America has a major problem. Between 60% and 70% of our recyclers are women, many of them elderly women, who have been recycling for 4 or 5 decades, conditions that make them especially vulnerable.
Is the Covid-19 crisis also a waste crisis in Ecuador? How could it affect the work of waste pickers?
One of the threats that now exists is that the amount of waste in Ecuador has increased creating a bigger problem than the one we already had. Ecuador has a serious crisis with its final disposal systems. In fact, several landfills have collapsed, leading decision-makers to consider false solutions like mechanical biological treatment plants, co-processing and incineration.
In addition, the composition of waste has also changed. Now there is lower quality waste, such as expanded polystyrene packaging, large quantities of biohazard materials like disposable masks and gloves and packaging of toxic chemicals such as quaternary ammonium. With the phobia of biological contamination and the widespread and irrational tendency to use toxic chemicals, what are recyclers going to do with all that non-recyclable toxic waste?
How do you think the post Covid-19 context will affect the movement for inclusive recycling in Ecuador?
In Ecuador, awareness of the role of waste pickers has made some progress, now there is greater sensitivity and it is very different from what it was 10 years ago. So we do see that their organizational processes have improved. We hope that the post-pandemic context allows them to strengthen their organizations, especially with the new threats that will continue to arise.