2011 Report

Below is a copy of the comparative analysis on waste pickers in Delhi, Dakar Senegal and Buenos Aires, Argentina that I wrote while studying abroad. I realize that there are some issues I do not address, and that some suggestions work on small scales in some places but would not be transferable to other places (although social stigmas have been successfully reduced, though not eliminated, in Buenos Aires, it is more difficult in Delhi because of the still pervasive caste system). Nonetheless, the report gives an idea of my background and experience with the issue and is the basis for which I’m approaching the film.

Recycler´s Rights:

How Forms and Levels of Power Effect Spaces to Participate in Claiming Rights and Where to Intervene.

Julia Waterhous

IHP Cities Spring 2011

May 13th, 2011

           “Waste picker”, “bujuman”, “cartonero”, “recuperado urbano”. Before traveling to Delhi, Dakar and Buenos Aires I had never heard these terms, and if I had I would not have understood their full context. These expressions refer to the thousands of people in each country who go through curbside trash bags, landfills and clandestine dumps, searching for bottles, clean paper, cardboard, and other recyclables to sell with the hope of making enough money to survive. This is not a livelihood that is chosen, it is a way for people to try and scrape by in environments that have stripped them of power and robbed them of dignity, leaving them nowhere to turn. The number of people allowed to slip into such extreme poverty represents massive government failures to provide for the needs of their peoples. At the same time, it is not only visible political forces that keep recyclers from accessing rights, but hidden global and invisible social forces too.

In order to better understand access to rights, we must first understand the concept of power. John Gaventa created a ‘power cube’ to help conceptualize how forms, spaces and levels of power interact. “If we want to change power relationships, e.g. to make them more inclusive, just, or pro-poor, we must understand more about where and how to engage” (Gaventa, 23). By conceiving of levels of power as, “how and by whom spaces for participation are shaped,” and forms of power as those that, “shape inclusiveness of participation within places and spaces,” I have tried to understand what spaces, or opportunities, recyclers have for claiming rights (Gaventa 27, 29). I have somewhat adapted Gaventa´s power  cube and will refer to spaces as either closed, partially open or open, depending on recycler´s recognized rights and their ability to participate in claiming these rights.

Through observations, interviews of citizens and experts, and articles in journals and local newspapers I have come to conclude that not only is a legal framework needed to provide a basis for recycler’s rights, but measures to eradicate social stigmas and change the definition of ´world class city´ must also be taken before recyclers can fully claim rights and advocate for themselves on local, national and global levels. Recognizing the role of social forces, or invisible power, on local levels and hidden forms of power that, “set the political agendas” on global levels is critical to fight not only for rights of recyclers but for any marginalized group of people (Gaventa, 29).

Recyclers in Delhi, Dakar and Buenos Aires currently have different established rights and access to these rights. Specific political, social and economic histories of each country shape the current status and rights of recyclers, and understanding context is critical in crafting solutions to meet the specific needs of recyclers in each place. By comparing methods to establish rights, and using the power cube to analyze how levels, forms and spaces for power influence access to rights in each country, I have tried to localize problems and propose solutions that meet the differing needs of recyclers in each place. Throughout this paper I have been and will continue to use the term ‘recycler’. Although different terms are used in each country (as noted in the introduction), and I may refer to them occasionally, ‘recycler’ seems to be the most neutral and comprehensive term that accurately describes their work.

The concept of an urban recycler was first introduced to me in Delhi. Although I had read that the recyclers in India are, “largely ignored by society, waste management experts and authorities,” I did not fully understand this statement until I visited the Bhaupur Basti, an informal recycler settlement, and Ghazipur landfill (Medina, 209). On the bus to the Basti, I wondered why I hadn’t seen many recyclers in Delhi, if, as I had read, India had the second largest population of recyclers in the world. As the scene outside the bus window changed from built city to barren land, I realized the recyclers we were visiting had literally been made invisible.

When the bus arrived at the Basti, a police officer rode up behind us on a motorcycle, idled for a few minutes, and rode away. We had started talking with the recyclers in the Basti when suddenly our facilitator, Kalyani Menon-Sen, silenced us and approaching us individually whispered, “It is not safe to talk here. There are plain-clothed police nearby and we don’t want to cause trouble for these people” (Menon-Sen).

The following day Kalyani informed us that the police had approached the recyclers and demanded to know who we were and why they were talking to us. “They are constantly on edge because they are always being watched. Keeping a group in an insecure state is an excellent means for controlling them,” (Menon-Sen). The recyclers were not just ignored by the government, they were controlled by them.

Although taking recyclables is illegal in Delhi because waste is municipally owned, the government has not only refused to legally acknowledge the recycler’s work, but with their recent decision to privatize door-to-door waste collection, has further denied them their livelihoods. If spaces for power are understood as, “opportunities, moments and channels where citizens can act to potentially affect policies, discourses, decisions and relationships that affect their lives and interests,” then government refusal to acknowledge recyclers robs them of any space to participate in claiming rights (Gaventa, 26). Even though SWACHH: The Alliance of Waste Pickers in India was created in March 2005 to fight for legal rights, the organization has made little progress since the majority of recyclers are live in illegal settlements and are not allowed citizenship (Medina).

Invisible forms of power that, “shape meaning and what is acceptable…by shaping people’s beliefs, sense of self and acceptance of status quo,” also hinder recycler’s ability to claim rights not only in Delhi, but in Dakar and Buenos Aires too (Gaventa, 29). Invisible power is evident locally in the language used to talk about recyclers, and globally as cities strive to become globally competitive.

Locally, the recyclers in Delhi are criminalized based on caste and class assumptions, which legitimizes societal apathy towards them (Agarwal). On a national level, the discourse in the Delhi court system changed from sympathizing with the poor in the 80’s to marginalizing them at the turn of the century when globalization increased pressure to be seen as a world-class-city (Bhan, 134). Instead of focusing on poverty reduction and social aid, the Delhi courts and government began a period of slum clearance and mass evictions in order to appear more attractive to international investors (Bhan, 135). Global pressures act as hidden forms of power that, “set the political agenda” on national levels, prioritizing capital accumulation instead of representation (Gaventa, 29). As a result, 40 percent of India´s population, including recyclers, lives in poverty, leaving no space to claim rights (Medina).

In Dakar, recyclers are recognized in national legislation, giving them more space for power than recyclers in Delhi. When the Dakar local government development agency decided to close and rehabilitate the current landfill as part of the nation-wide Cadak-Car agreement, they developed a resettlement action plan for the 800 recyclers who work on the landfill (Diouf). Unlike Delhi where the government ignored the work of recyclers in favor of selling their livelihoods to private companies, the Dakar government plans to support recyclers by using a highway project to finance a social plan, and recruit an NGO for further help (Diouf). With these visible forms of power as a base, the Dakar recyclers have been able to form a strong organization that has helped them network and manage funds for the last six years.

At the landfill in Dakar, a tourist center at the entrance showed the recycler’s legality and permanence.  Yet recyclers used their bare hands to pull bottles and electronics from heaps of waste covered with the white powder of industrial chemicals, while small methane fires filled the air with dense, black smoke. If these are the conditions legally won, there are clearly many rights to fight for. Besides obviously inadequate health and safety conditions, recyclers do not make a wage other than the money they get from selling recyclables.

Social stigmas evident in discourse continue to obstruct recycler´s ability to claim rights in Dakar. Sofietou Mandiang, a university student in Dakar in her 20’s, said many people consider recyclers “aggressive and dirty,” (Mandiang). These terms, similar to those used in Delhi courts, influence societal thinking and excuse indifference towards marginalization. In order to open spaces for recyclers to participate in claiming rights to safe and sanitary working conditions, invisible forms of power, or ingrained social stigmas, must be addressed to stop an “internalization of powerlessness,” and give recyclers the ability to advocate for themselves (Gaventa, 29).

Recyclers cooperatives in Buenos Aires have started challenging local invisible forms of power by focusing on community integration.  Cooperativa El Alamo, a recycler´s cooperative, encourages use of the term, “recuperadores urbanos” (urban recyclers) to refer to recyclers instead of the stigmatized term “cartonero”. By using a phrase that describes their work, the cooperative hopes to reform the recycler´s social image. To facilitate societal acceptance, the coop also requires recyclers to sign a contract pledging to abstain from drugs and alcohol and keep public spaces clean.

Although cooperatives help challenge invisible forms of power in social perceptions, hidden forms of power at the global level block further rights for recyclers.  Neoliberalisation in the 90´s under the presidency of Carlos Menem changed the focus of the Buenos Aires government from worker´s rights to international investment (Chronopoulos, 173). The new policies culminated in Argentina´s 2001 economic crisis, leaving thousands jobless. With nowhere to turn many people took up recycling to survive (Chronopoulos, 167). Recyclers are still prevalent throughout the city, especially at night, pulling heavy wooden carts down sidewalks and stopping at corners to sort through trash bags and extract recyclables. The city passed Law 92 de recuperadores urbanizos’ in 2002 to regulate the work of recyclers, but since the focus was still on capital instead of rights, the law went unenforced and unrecognized (Moyano).

It wasn´t until Cooperativa El Alamo partnered with the unemployed worker´s movement (MTE) that recyclers gained legal recognition through Law 636, passed by the city government in 2009, which formally put recyclers in charge of dry waste collection (Moyano). Recyclers can now register with the government and receive uniforms, gloves, ID cards and transportation material, as well as 650 pesos per month in addition to the money from selling recyclables (Moyano). By focusing first on legal rights and visible forms of power at the national level, then shifting to social integration to address invisible forms of power, El Alamo has helped recyclers in Buenos Aires create more open spaces for claiming rights; but the aspiration to compete globally still hinders recycler´s from further accessing rights by placing government priority on attracting investors instead of on worker´s rights.

In Delhi, Dakar and Buenos Aires, social perceptions and global pressures act as invisible and hidden forms of power to obstruct recycler´s full participation in claiming rights. Before Delhi recyclers can challenge invisible and hidden forms of power, they need legal recognition as citizens, which would give them leverage to advocate for further rights. Dakar recyclers may be legally recognized but still need social legitimacy to have the power to fight for safe and sanitary working conditions as well as a minimum wage. With Buenos Aires´ unique history of political activism as a result of cycles of political and economic instability, it has been possible for recyclers to gain legal rights and some social legitimacy too. Locally, challenging invisible power through social integration will further open spaces for participation for recyclers in Buenos Aires. Globally, the term “world class city” needs to be re-defined as a city that meets the needs of its people with job creation and services, instead of one that attracts the most investments so that governments prioritize the people instead of investors.

There is currently an association for recyclers in Latin America, Asia and Africa that provides networking opportunities and is fighting for the rights of recyclers globally. In order to effectively advocate for rights, members must first understand how context-specific forms and levels for power create varying spaces to understand what forces obstruct rights and where to intervene to claim them.

Works Cited

Agarwal, Ravi. Telephone interview. 3-8-2011

Bhan, Gautam. 2009. “This is no longer the city I once knew. Evictions, the urban poor and the right to the city in millennial Delhi.” Environment and Urbanization, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 127-142

Chronopoulos, Themis. 2006. “Neo-liberal Reform and Urban Space, The Cartoneros of Buenos Aires, 2001-2005.” City, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 167-182.

Diouf, Pape. Lecture. 4-6-2011.

Gaventa, John. 2006. “Finding the Spaces for Change: a Power Analysis.” IDS Bulletin, Vol. 37, No. 6 pp. 23-31.

Menon, Kalyani. Lecture. 3-1-2011

Medina, Martin. “Case Study: India.” The World´s Scavengers. Ch. 10 pp. 198-210

Moyano, Alicia. Interview. 5-5-2011.


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