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The estimated 4 million waste-pickers in Latin America are responsible for most of the recycling that goes on in the region. Yet they are often socially excluded and economically vulnerable, the precarious bottom rung of a globalised recycling ladder. In recent years, important steps have been taken to improve the situation of waste-pickers in a host of countries, through the formation of cooperatives, the provision of state subsidies, and access to social security. Many of these improvements have come about after pressure from waste-pickers themselves, organised in social movements like the Movimento Nacional dos Catadores de Materiais Recicláveis (MNCR) in Brazil, and trade unions like the Unión de Clasificadores de Residuos Sólidos Urbanos (UCRUS) in Uruguay. At a regional level, many of these organisations are active in the Latin American Recyclers Network (Red Lacre) and work alongside allies such as the Avina Foundation and its ‘Regional Initiative for Inclusive Recycling’(IRR).

The arrival of COVID-19 in Latin America has brought new challenges and threatened some of the achievements that waste-pickers have obtained in recent years. Alex Cardoso participates in Red Lacre as member of the National Coordinating Team of the MNCR and has been investigating the effect of the virus on waste-pickers as part of the COVID-19 Humanities Network, a collaboration between different Brazilian universities and public health bodies. He tells me that in Latin America, the COVID-19 situation for waste-pickers is “practically the same everywhere”. “The first challenge was to bring to the fore the position in which waste-pickers are inserted, which is of extreme vulnerability and social exclusion”, he continued, “they are the main actor in the recycling industry but also those who suffer most”.

Despite the structural similarities in terms of the economic and social position of waste-pickers, there are differences between Latin American countries, and indeed within countries, with regard to whether or not they have been allowed to work during the COVID outbreak, and under what conditions. As Cardoso explained, on the one hand “there was a need to avoid the propagation of the virus through the circulation of objects, which would have been a grave error”, while on the other hand “halting recycling activity would mean that waste-pickers would lose the income they need to survive ”. Neither does the COVID health crisis, for Cardoso, offset the wider ecological crisis, and there is a concern that the current suspension of recycling and waste separation  might roll back the hard-won progress of recent years.

Some countries, such as Argentina, have declared recycling an essential service, just as waste collection has been deemed essential in the UK. Yet as Santiago Sorroche, social anthropologist and current recycling director in the Greater Buenos Aires municipality of Lomas de Zamora tells me, this does not mean that it is business as usual for the city’s more than 10,000 waste-pickers, known as cartoneros. In his municipality, for instance, only around a quarter of organised waste-pickers have continued working, with the rest surviving on emergency government subsidies, which, Sorroche estimated, only amounted to around half of what cartoneros were earning prior to the crisis.

During the global pandemic, we have heard much about the human quarantine policies that have been selectively rolled out across different countries. The quarantine of objects has garnered much less attention, yet has been key to enabling some waste-pickers to continue working. In Lomas de Zamora, for instance, recyclate is collected and then left in waste-picker cooperatives for four days before being separated by cartoneros. In the cooperative with whom Cardoso works in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, recyclable waste and its pickers undergo alternate weeks of quarantine. These measures are combined with the provision of gloves, facemasks, and hand-sanitiser stations. The IRR, meanwhile has released a guide for safe working practices for waste-pickers in the current predicament. Even when waste-pickers are working however, the price of many materials has plummeted, falling up to 80% in some Central American countries and 40% in Brazil, according to Cardoso.

In many countries and cities, however, recycling plants have closed and remain so for the time being. This is the case of Glicério, a recycling cooperative in the Brazilian metropolis of Sao Paulo which has been shut since late march. Unlike the blasé attitude to the virus taken by far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, authorities in Sao Paulo have maintained a relatively strict lock-down in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus in a country that now has the second highest death toll after the United States. Sao Paulo’s quarantine measures are supported by Glicério president Maria Dias, who laments the national government as “a joke” and whose Facebook profile is emblazoned with the words “fique em casa [stay at home]”. Having lost family to the virus, Maria told me that she was scared and only left the house when absolutely necessary. Yet the emergency funds provided by the Brazilian government amount to less than a third of what she and other workers were earning prior to the crisis and they have had to turn to fundraising in an attempt to cover the cooperative’s costs.

Other countries have been more generous, such as Uruguay, lauded for its handling of the pandemic that until now has claimed only 25 lives there. The recycling plant where I conducted doctoral research has  been closed since mid-March. Yet according to one of its workers, Pablo Santo, government support has amounted to around 75% of previous earnings, and workers are about to return to  full pay, even if they cannot yet return to work. Pablo told me that he was able to supplement his earnings by buying and selling things at market, an economic activity that has starting to pick up again. The debate over if and when Uruguayan recycling plant workers might be able to start working again has centred on the provision of protective equipment – an issue that brought the UCRUS onto the streets in protest. Eventually, Pablo explained, the local government had stepped forward after the Uruguayan Chamber of Commerce, a key partner in the plants, refused to finance PPE.

Formal recycling plants in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay only cover a certain percentage of waste-pickers. As in the Jamaican case discussed by Huon Wardle, access to Latin American and Caribbean COVID state benefits may in some instances depend on formal labour status, or at the least an ability to navigate often complex social security bureaucracies. As Maria told me, not everyone was able to “stay at home”: some informal waste-pickers in the continent have been forced to continue working on the streets, often risking fines or arrest. In Uruguay, the government only implemented a limited quarantine and informal waste-pickers at Montevideo’s Felipe Cardoso landfill (cantera) have carried on working on a council-approved site. Yet, as Marco Borges, a third- generation cantera waste-picker and friend told me, “everything is down”: “The amount of trucks entering is down, the amount of material arriving is down, and the prices are down”. Things had recently been picking up again but Marco and his colleagues are faced with a perpetual insecurity, as he tells me that “at any moment, things could get blocked again”. On the other hand, if the Uruguayan dictatorship, police repression, private security and barbed wire fences were unable to prevent so-called “crawlers” (gateadores) from accessing what they called the “mother dump” (madre cantera) to provide for their families, it is unlikely that COVID and its consequences will keep them out for long. They are fortunate that the pandemic has barely registered in Uruguay: other Latin American waste-pickers have not been so lucky.

Interview with Alex Cardoso, National Coordinating Team, National Movement of Catatadores of Recyclable Materials (MNCR)/ Brazil COVID-19 Humanities Network Researcher)

PO: What are the consequences of COVID-19 for waste-pickers in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and more widely in Latin America?

AC: I was recently in a meeting with the Latin American Waste-picker Network and the situation is practically the same everywhere, even if some countries are providing more support than others. The first challenge was to bring to the fore the situation in which waste-pickers are inserted, which is of extreme vulnerability and social exclusion. They are the main actors in the recycling business but those who suffer most. They work but don’t get the profits from their work, which are concentrated in the hands of industry. In this context [COVID-19], one of the biggest problems that waste-pickers had to deal with was the immediate drop in the price of materials. In some Central American countries, the price dropped 80%, while in Brazil the fall was around 40%. So on the one hand the amount of work and energy needed to offset these losses increased. In some countries, waste-pickers have been infected by coronavirus, such as in Panama, and in Brazil this has happened in a few places, like Brasilia and Londrina. But I think that the biggest challenge has been to highlight the vulnerability of waste-pickers, who work but don’t control the value of their labour. Waste-pickers might be organised in cooperatives [and] national and regional movements but the prices are still dictated by industry.

PO: How have you and the cooperative where you work been affected by the virus?

AC: In the waste-picker cooperative here we implemented a system of quarantine. For a week, the waste-pickers stay isolated, in quarantine in their homes. One waste-picker goes to collect the recyclables that have been separated domestically and our trucks bring materials to the warehouse while workers are at home. The following week we don’t receive materials but people go in to separate and work the recyclables that arrived the previous week. In this way, the materials undergo a sort of quarantine and we decrease the risk that the materials might pose to people. On top of this, we have implemented internal systems of work, like various stations where people can wash their hands with soap and alcohol, the obligatory use of gloves and face masks, and some colleagues use face protectors too. Incomes have dropped because we are working one week on, one week off, and the price of materials has fallen. This has been complemented with fundraising campaigns for money, food, and so on. That’s how we’ve been trying to survive.

PO: Do you think that the crisis generates opportunities for political organising as waste-pickers and against Bolsonaro?

I don’t think that the crisis necessarily generates opportunities for political struggle because the virus brings us in close proximity to death. So the crisis isn’t being used as a political tool: it’s more a case of mourning (luto) than struggle (luta). Bolsonaro’s government isn’t only bad because of its handling of the crisis, but due to a whole series of policies. Opportunities for popular participation have been closed off and social services have been cut: it’s a government that doesn’t work with the concept of rights. It’s a bad government that has got worse during the crisis. And the crisis has had an effect of increasing feelings of solidarity and shared humanity between people. Solidarity offers a potential way out of the crisis. So it’s less of a political and more of a humanitarian issue.

AC: What are the demands of the MNCR in the current context?

The MNCR’s demands centre around a defence of waste-pickers. Recycled materials are shared objects that come out of people’s hands, and then travel in trucks to peripheral areas of cities where recycling cooperatives are situated. Take the example of a city that has a single cooperative: everyone’s objects will be going to a single point. This is the kind of problem that we discussed at the beginning and which led us to the conclusion that the separation of recyclable waste should be suspended. At the same time, the health crisis doesn’t really change the ecological crisis that we are living through, and if we halt recycling activity, then the “environmental pandemic” will get worse. And halting recycling activity would mean that waste-pickers would lose the income they need to survive. So we emphasised that recycling should be considered an essential activity, while also stressing the need for protection, antibacterial gel and changes in the organisation of work to better protect waste-pickers. There was a need to avoid the propagation of the virus through the circulation of objects, which would have been a grave error. So we argued that municipal governments should be responsible for waste-pickers, should continue to pay salaries and contracts, and should provide funds to buy protective equipment so that they could continue working, but protected. Another demand involves wider social protection, urging people not to place gloves and masks into the recycling stream and to place all waste from households that might be infected into the sanitary waste stream. And then we have the question of rights. The virus highlights the social and economic exclusion of waste-pickers and their fragility, in spite of the valuable work that they carry out. So one of our main demands was for municipalities to recognise the essential nature of waste-pickers’ work and to continue to pay them for it, given the social and moral debt that society owes to waste-pickers.

PO: Is there anything that you would like to add, that you think it is important that we hear about?

AC: I think that COVID shows that we are living in a global system. Our problems are globalised even if our riches aren’t. As human beings we have weaknesses, and some of these we are able to overcome. One way to overcome them is to protect human beings and protect the environment. There are practical things that help to protect human life and one of the most important is to have free, quality, public healthcare. Because there are cases such as a woman who recovered from COVID in a private hospital but was then presented with a bill for 5.5 million reais (US$1 million), a clear example of the marketisation of health. I think COVID highlights that health should be a collective good, a public good, a quality good for all humanity, regardless of their nationality or the colour of their skin. We shouldn’t gamble with health, and healthcare should be universally available, whether one is rich or poor, in the northern or southern hemisphere, African, Latin American or European. All humanity has a right to life, protection, and health.

Patrick O’Hare (University of St Andrews)

With Alex Cardoso (Movimento Nacional dos Catadores de Materiais Recicláveis/ COVID-19 Humanities Network)

COVID Catadores by Patrick O’Hare and Alex Cardoso