Whatever Happened to … the Garbage Pickers from Waste Land?

June 15, 2012 by Rebecca Huval in Where Are They Now?

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.

Rebecca Huval