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Recycling solid materials and people


In Brasilia, Brazil, the 12th Festival of Garbage and Citizenship: Recycling for a Better World was celebrated from October 28th to 30th. There were more than one thousand collectors of recyclable materials taken from city garbage dumps, who had come from all corners of the country. I could participate emotionally, because for many years I have accompanied those who recycle materials taken from the great garbage dump of Petropolis.

Seeing the multitude that filled an immense room, embracing and meeting each other for the first time or finding each other again, happy and festive, in simple clothing, the great majority Afro-descendants, I asked myself: Who are they? Where do the come from? And it seemed that I could listen to an inner voice, like the one in the book of the Apocalypse, chapter 7,13 that said: “These are those who come from the great tribulation”, the survivors of the hard struggle for life, honored because, valiant and victorious, they often confront arduous struggles alone, to earn sustenance for their families and themselves.

In Brazil there are between eight hundred thousand and one million men and women who recycle recyclable solid materials. The increased consumption produces many recyclable residues of all types, organics and solids, such as cardboard, plastics, aluminum and glass. It is estimated that each Brazilian produces one kilogram of garbage every day, especially in the urban centers. According to the IBGE of 2008, 50% of municipalities (5507) have open space garbage dumps. There, thousands of persons, from children to the elderly, gather and select what they can, including food. That activity is extremely dangerous, because many infectious-contagious diseases can be contracted. I have seen people competing with pigs and vultures, in scenes of great inhumanity.  They are the result of the society of consumerism and waste, that has not learned to live by the four “rs”: reduce, refuse, repair and recycle.

The worst inhumanity is not being garbage recyclers and to have to live on what others throw away, but the stigma attached to these workers, who are often considered beggars and vagabonds.

At first they were totally invisible. Nobody looked at them, nor were given the slightest consideration. Later on, with the growth of their awareness, they introduced themselves as workers, who, by collecting thousands of kilograms of garbage, performed an important function: keeping the cities clean and preventing street flooding. Finally, they started organizing themselves into cooperatives and associations, and saw themselves as citizens and agents of social and environmental transformation. They gained visibility and recognition. From June 4th to 6th, 2001, they realized in Brasilia the 1st National Congress of Women and Men Recyclers, with the participation of 1600 persons. There was launched The Letter from Brasilia, where they established their identity and asserted important rights.

There was a noteworthy March in Brasilia in 2006, of 1200 people, who occupied the Square of the Three Powers, demanding their rights and public policies respecting their labors. These were won in 2009 with the Cataforte Program, that was funded on July 31, 2013, with 200 million reales set aside for the work of collecting recyclable materials, with large storehouses and transport trucks. Such measures, along with pressure on governmental entities, are in large part due to the personal interest of the Minister of the General Secretary of the Presidency, Gilberto Carvalho, who always supported the recyclers’ cause. In Brasilia, on October 30, 2013, on the occasion of the 12th Garbage and Citizenship Festival, in his name and in the name of President Dilma Rousseff, he renewed the commitment to strengthening the recyclers’ cooperatives and associations that had been and would be formed.

The 4th Festival, which took place from September 5th to 9th, 2005, was well noted, with the presence of President Lula and Danielle Mitterand, the widow of the deceased French President. The emphasis was on their basic human rights, and providing the necessary resources for the decent and secure gathering and selecting of the garbage.  An electric vehicle for recyclers, which could transport up to three tons of material for eight hours a day, was introduced there by the Itaipu Binational.

The great struggle of these workers is to keep the large enterprises, that have discovered that gathering garbage is a highly profitable business, from colluding with the public authorities to take over the services the recyclers offer, thus robbing them of their sustenance and sending them back into insecurity. The enterprises can only legitimize themselves by integrating the recyclers, without taking away the values that characterize them, such as solidarian coexistence and the bonds that come from the common belonging they have developed.

Yes, they come from the great Brazilian tribulation. They recycle not only solid materials, but people, to the extent that together they build their autonomy, rescue their dignity, and insert themselves into society as true “prophets of ecology,” and as citizens who think, debate their problems, decide their common struggles and make themselves indispensable within the type of society we have created. They deserve respect, appreciation and our full support.

Free translation from the Spanish sent by
Melina Alfaro,,

3 Comentários leave one →
  1. 18/11/2013 0:44

    Você é meu Deus?!

    “reduce, refuse, repair and recycle” – God
    increase, accept, keep” – Eu

  2. Maria Luiza Tonelli permalink
    18/11/2013 17:51

    Por favor, Leonardo Boff,  Precisamos do seu e-mail urgente. Denise Paraná está precisando de sua ajuda. Assunto referente ao Genoino. Se puder mandar o telefone, melhor.

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