FEATURE: Colombia – How waste pickers have fought for their rights and cleaned cities during COVID-19
In Colombia, despite the nationwide lockdown, waste pickers have successfully advocated for their rights to continue collecting wastes from the streets to keep cities clean. Federico Parra interviews three waste pickers from different unions and collectives. This is the twenty-second in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.
Waste pickers in Colombia, as in many cities around the world, are men and women who walk the streets recovering potentially recyclable wastes (cardboard, glass, paper, and metals) from public spaces, and sell them.
In this way, they recover recyclable materials, reintroduce them into the recycling value chain, and provide industry with recovered raw materials. Sometimes they are self-organised into groups that coordinate this activity. Their work reduces the need for industries to extract virgin raw materials, at a greater environmental price. It makes an important contribution to the public waste collection system, and increases the useful life of the landfills.
Despite these important benefits, for decades waste pickers in Colombia were victims of discrimination by society at large and government policies that criminalised their work. Thanks to the legal advocacy strategy of waste pickers organisations led by the Bogotá Waste Pickers Association (ARB), the Colombian Constitutional Court now recognises the rights of recyclers. It has brought formal recognition for the waste pickers as public service providers – and remuneration has followed suit.
Poster (below) – “Containing COVID-19 is in your hands” – Colombian public service announcement
In mid-March, when the pandemic was declared and the first positive case of COVID-19 was reported in Colombia, confusion spread among the waste pickers as they didn’t know how to tackle the situation.
“We had already started taking some measures, for example, we sent over 60 waste pickers home as a preventive measure. No one had told us that it was an obligation, we did it on our own,” says Martha, a waster picker at Planeta Verde, a waste pickers’ cooperative.
Realising that staying at home wouldn’t be an effective survival strategy, a significant number of waste picker organisations, most of which are members of National Association of Waste Pickers (ANR), started organising themselves and advocating for recognition as essential service providers. It allowed them to have an organisational platform to have a common voice to call for clear rights, as well as a clear sectoral response to the new threat.
Finally on March 22nd, the first national decree was issued recognising their work as an essential service. The national government established the safety protocols that the organisations should follow. As a result, waste picker organisations that followed these protocols were able to move on the streets for limited hours, even during the lockdown.
The recognition as public service providers and formal remuneration have bolstered the financial resilience and stability of waste pickers’ livelihoods in the face of COVID-19 and future uncertainties.
Maintaining mandatory safety protocols
Although the national decree made it mandatory for waste pickers to maintain essential safety protocols, in return, the resources provided by the government to do so were absolutely minimal. “Initially, we were only provided with two small food packages, no personal protective equipment were given to us by the local government” says Maryuri Cordoba, a waste picker at the Association of Waste Pickers Recovering Hope (ARRE).
But the organisations took further measures of their own. They obtained relevant information through regional and international networks of waste pickers, and through support entities, in order to establish hygiene protocols for waste pickers to work on streets, and in warehouses and landfills.
They designed mechanisms to ensure access to hand washing devices and sanitisers, acquired anti-flow suits, protective masks, and gloves. They also installed disinfectant spray booths at the entrance of the warehouses, established rigorous protocols for working in the warehouses, and trained their members accordingly.
“ANR has provided us with protection kits, trained us on how to make liquid disinfectant sprays and offered safety suits for comrades who had to go to high-risk areas such as clinics and hospitals” Maryuri adds.
Based on the knowledge of how long the virus lives on different materials, they set minimum quarantine periods of up to four days on recyclable wastes they had collected. They also made a great effort to raise awareness among citizens to make sure that waste from infected households was properly separated from others.
“The waste from infected households had a special management-the owners were instructed to tie a “double knot” on the trash bag so that these materials do not go to the landfill directly and waste pickers don’t have any contact with them,” Maryuri shares.
Protecting the most vulnerable
In addition to following these standards and making a living for themselves, waste pickers also made sure the vulnerable elderly waste pickers remained at home. The principles of solidarity and cooperation of the associations have enabled the other members to support their elders.
“In order to keep the elderly safe and without hampering the work, we had to do double cycles of collection journeys. Those days were very extensive and hard but we had to do it not only to cover our own but also for elderly members” says Nohra Padilla, a waste picker working for the National Association of Waste Pickers.
Though the waste pickers have been able to successfully operate during the lockdown without being infected, there were challenges which often made the journey difficult for them. For example, it was difficult to make sure all the waste pickers are maintaining essential safety protocols. Furthermore, private garbage collection companies were taking advantage of the crisis to compete with the waste pickers for recycling, depriving many of them from their only source of livelihood.
In addition, most of the municipal governments did not provide cash transfer to the waste pickers, making the organisations pay to continue their work. As a result, their operation cost increased in the face of declining income. Due to the stalling of the global economy, the price of recyclable materials also dropped, which put the overall sustainability of the business in jeopardy.
Despite these barriers, the three women waste picker leaders are very proud of the way they had dealt with the pandemic. “The pandemic has once again taught us the power of union. Without our union, we would not have been able to continue working and protect our most vulnerable colleagues” they conclude.
It took the waste pickers twenty years to receive formal recognition from the government in exchange for the essential service they provide. The pandemic has allowed recyclers’ organisations to position themselves even more prominently as essential public service providers. It has enabled them to improve their relationship with citizens and change public perceptions of waste pickers and their work. Waste pickers have demonstrated that they are resilient and capable of helping to protect communities : they are more than just trash collectors. By effectively managing solid waste, they are creating a healthier urban environment in the face of future challenges such as climate change.
About the interviewer
Federico Parra is the Latin American coordinator of the recyclers’ program at WIEGO. He provides technical accompaniment to the organisations of waste pickers that are members of the National Association of Waste Pickers of Colombia. By training, he is an Urban Anthropologist, an Ethnographer with Master’s in Social Anthropology and PhD in Political Studies and International Relations.
About the interviewees
Marta Elena Iglesias is a waste picker in the RIONEGRO municipality of Colombia. She works for a waste pickers organisation called Planeta Verde and is also affiliated with the Association of Waste Pickers of Antioquia, the regional chapter of National Association of Waste Pickers of Colombia.
Maryuri Cordoba is a waste picker in the Cartago municipality of Columbia. She works at the Association of Waste Pickers Recovering Hope (ARRE).
Nohra Padilla is based at Bogota and works for National Association of Waste Pickers (ANR)
Read more Voices from the Frontline
Read the whole ‘Voices from the Frontline’ series from communities across the world.