Whatever Happened to … the Garbage Pickers from Waste Land?

Artist Vik Muniz at Jardim Gramacho

What could be more embarrassing than hosting the UN Conference on Sustainable Development with the world’s largest dump festering in your backyard? That’s why the Rio +20 conference (June 20-22) prompted Rio de Janeiro to close its Jardim Gramacho landfill, which had been oozing toxic waste into sensitive marshland for 34 years. While it is good news on the surface, anyone who watched the Independent Lens documentary Waste Land will ask: What’s happening to the garbage pickers?

In the Oscar-nominated documentary, Jardim Gramacho pickers (catadores), who separate recyclables from waste and live in a settlement near the landfill, are invited to transform their trash into art. Along the way, they also transform themselves into proud pickers. The artist who guides their projects, Vik Muniz, wonders if their creative experiences in his studio will incite them to quit their back-breaking labor: “They think, ‘I don’t want to go back to Gramacho,’” Muniz says. “Is that something bad one way or another? Isn’t this good? Maybe they will go, and they’ll have to think of another plan to get out of there.”

Luckily, some of the pickers have come up with plans outside of Gramacho. With the help of Tião dos Santos, featured in the doc and the president of the pickers’ cooperative ACAMJG (the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho), the city will payout the more than 1,700 pickers in a lump sum of about $7,500 each now that the landfill is closed. In addition, ACAMJG has picked up contracts to process recyclables at the World Cup 2014 and secured government contracts to work at new recycling plants opening in the city.

Tião dos Santos posed as Marat for Vik Muniz’s camera in the film Waste Land.

In 2010, Brazil enacted its first federal waste management law that will fund recycling plants and legally recognize garbage pickers, including the more than 800,000 members of the Movimento Nacional dos Catadores de Materiais Recicláveis (National Movement of Collectors of Recyclable Materials), where Tião has become one of the leaders. The garbage from Jardim Gramacho will be sent to the high-tech Seropedica dump, which is already up and running.

Waste Land filmmaker Lucy Walker offers tempered optimism: “I’m excited that the recycling laws are changing and the new landfill will have modern techniques,” she said. “There will be jobs in recycling in Brazil, and they’ll be safer than before. Tião is hoping the workers will continue to work in recycling in these new and safer jobs. I don’t think we can cling to the past — we have to embrace progress.”

Waste Land Director Lucy Walker

At the same time, she recognizes that change is challenging for those without a safety net. “But the association has been incredible about getting them skills, training, and financial support to allow people to have a choice.” In the film, pickers say they are proud to not to stoop to prostitution or drug dealing. The Jardim Gramacho pickers cooperative is working to keep it that way. The cooperative, with the help of “Zumbi” Jose Carlos da Silva Bala Lopes and other characters in the film, has started a library with more than 7,000 books and teaching courses from IT to environmental management.

What’s more? Tião was invited as one of four Brazilian citizens to carry the Olympic torch for the 2012 Games. “I didn’t carry the torch alone,” Tião told InfoSur Hoy. “I was there representing thousands upon thousands of trash collectors, an invisible people.”

For more updates on the other pickers featured in the documentary, check out the Waste Land website.

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  • Kimberly Hogan

    The government paid out the residents yes but they are no looking out for them. How do you teach people that have never seen $7500 in their life what to do with that money? I was there in June 2013 and these people are suffering, if you saw this movie and you didn’t think life could get worse for these people well… it has. Majority of the population did not spend that so called “generous sum” on a new home (not that they could find one for that amount) nor on an education and definitely not on food (because I am not sure they would know what to buy since they have lived off of the garbage for so long) but instead they spent it on cars, phones, and TV’s (the things they see on the soap operas). You can not expect people to know how to live in comfort and abundance when all they have known is survival and poverty. These people need real help and I say this not out of blame or disrespect but out of reality and because I care deeply about them. Imagine if someone said to you one day “Hey, so you are destroying the land you are living on and we are going to have to conserve it, therefore you need to move and oh yeah, your fired – here is $7500 to get you and your 10 children going.” Lets look at the facts: majority of the families there have 10+ people, most children do not know their fathers, many children are orphaned and raised by the community and no one has any where to go. As I said I went there in June and the only people that are helping this community are the churches and a wonderful couple who has spent 3 years trying to find a solution and a better life for these people. This article makes it seem like things worked out so well for these people, and that is not true, which upsets me, it is just not the case, the Jardim Gramacho needs us more than ever right now.

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  • Tonja K Conley

    I loved this Doc when I first saw it at our film festival in vancouver VIFF. I met the director briefly and thought, this is what filmmaking is for me-an avenue for change ….I loved how the artist worked with a community of people and was humbled by them…but i’m sure with change-closing this landfill-comes hardship…as Kimberly has noted.