In 1950s Columbia, during the 10-year Civil War known as “La Violencia,” masses of people were fleeing violence in the countryside in favor of cities. Many of these rural refugees fled to the capital city of Bogota, sitting on a plateau in the center of Columbia.
With no other way of sustaining themselves, many migrants began to roam the rolling hills of trash in open-air landfills. These waste pickers in Bogota would collect bottles, cans and metal that they could sell to recycling warehouses. Scavenging the dumpsites with bulging bags of recyclables slung over their shoulders, these migrants worked long and hard hours to make a meager living, keeping themselves from absolute poverty.
The Waste Picker’s Struggle
For decades, these waste pickers in Bogota, known as “recicladores,” collected, sorted, packaged and recycled the city’s waste as informal workers. Aside from the job being extremely difficult, it was also dangerous, with risks of infection or sickness from the waste they collected.
Recicladores also faced discrimination and hindrance from policy structures. Waste collection and management became privatized in Bogota in the 80s, and people were beginning to see landfills as a health concern. As a result, the open-air dumpsites that had been their livelihoods closed in favor of new sanitation facilities. The city did not consider how these changes would affect the waste-picking population, as recicladores had to leave the homes they had built in the wastelands and descended further into poverty.
The discrimination they faced stood in opposition to the good they do for the city. Today, waste pickers in Bogota prevent 1,200 tons of waste from going to landfills per day. They organize the waste into recyclables, which also provide a valuable service to local businesses. Despite their value to the community, the average waste picker in Bogota makes only $3.41 per day.
The Fight for Rights and Recognition
However, waste pickers in Bogota refused to accept poverty as their reality. Bogota’s waste pickers are distinct in their predilection for strong, centralized worker organizations. In particular, the Asociación Cooperativa de Recicladores de Bogotá (ARB) represents roughly 1,800 waste pickers in the city and has been fighting for their rights for decades.
Since its inception, ARB and the communities it represents have experienced success on many levels. In 2011, Columbia’s Constitutional Court ruled that waste pickers had a special protection status by the state. Therefore, state authorities had an obligation to protect them as well as help them overcome the poverty and sicknesses that they are susceptible to. The Constitutional Court ruling also ensured that waste pickers have safe access to the recyclable waste material essential to their work.
However, their success didn’t end there. In 2016, the government passed a legal framework for fully formalizing the work of waste pickers. That same year, workers were able to secure additional compensation from the city in the form of payments between $50 and $170 per month – doubling or even tripling their normal wage.
Columbia is the only country in Latin America that has formally recognized the rights of its waste pickers. This was a direct result of the advocacy that waste pickers did for themselves, which led to the protection and improvement of their livelihoods.
– Grace Ramsey