Hunger and human degradation

Piçarreira landfill, municipality of Pinheiro, Maranhão. Photo by João Paulo Guimarães.


The struggle of garbage collectors for more dignified living conditions

“No plague is as lethal and, at the same time, as preventable as hunger” (Martín Caparrós, The hunger, P. 11).

As is known, Brazil is one of the most unequal countries on the planet, the concentration of wealth and income has increased significantly, even in a pandemic scenario, while the situation of poverty and extreme poverty are omnipresent and do not stop expanding in the territory of the country. country. According to IBGE data, 52 million Brazilians are in this situation, they are unemployed or underemployed men and women, surviving in unhealthy places and precarious housing, without access to basic Health and Education services, without Social Assistance, made invisible by the State and society. and in a situation of serious food insecurity, a true “museum of human exploitation”, as well defined by Mike Davis in his Planet Favela. This population contingent is mostly composed of black and brown people (73%), a painful portrait of a society that still has strong marks of slavery.

The modern slave quarters, a product of the dispossession caused by the accumulation system, are represented by the slums, ghettos and stilt houses. This mass of the dispossessed also gathers around dumps, “in the filth of the courtyard, picking up food among the debris”, and composes a desolate landscape, full of vultures, rats and cockroaches, something common in different places in Brazil, especially in states such as Maranhão, which still suffers from the worst socioeconomic and environmental indices among the 27 states of the federation. Thus, it is possible to identify thousands of people who survive in and from landfills. A true contingent of starving people in the most varied municipalities of Maranhão.

Human rights violations are very serious. It is scandalous and revolting, even today, the maintenance of areas intended for the accumulation of garbage in the open air in Brazil and Maranhão. Remembering that in 2010 Law 12.305 was enacted, which instituted the National Solid Waste Policy. Among its objectives was the forecast of stimulating the reduction and reuse of waste, as well as banning landfills in Brazil by 2014, something that the vast majority of Brazilian municipalities have not fulfilled, due to the absolute lack of social responsibility and political will of mayors, councilors , deputies and governors, who allege difficulties in allocating financial resources.

The fact is that in recent years Brazil has greatly increased its waste generation, going from 66,7 million tons in 2010 to almost 80 million tons in 2019, according to data from the Overview of Solid Waste in Brazil 2020. Municipalities such as Pinheiro, the largest in Maranhão, due to the approval of the New Basic Sanitation Framework (Law nº 14.026/2020), have until the end of 2023 to extinguish their dump and municipalities with less than 50 thousand inhabitants have until December 2024 to deactivate these aberrations.

The well-known “garbage collector” is part of a perverse economic cycle. This invisible worker goes in search of aluminum, iron and copper, in addition to plastic bags and pet bottles, which are sold to warehouse owners, with the recycling industry as their final destination, that is, the search is for materials that can be recycled and reused.

There are two types of scavengers, those from the streets and those from the dump. Those who collect in the landfill do not wear any type of footwear for protection. There are numerous reports of burns caused by ash and sparks because they set fire to make iron, copper and aluminum visible. In Pinheiro, recyclable materials are collected in the streets, at the fair, close to the market and where there is intense production of waste.

At the Piçarreira landfill, in the municipality of Pinheiro-MA, men, women, the elderly and children risk their lives without any safety equipment, accidents at work are frequent. To avoid sunburn, they wear long-sleeved shirts during the day and many work at night to avoid heatstroke. The work starts early, it's strenuous, but if the collector manages to gather enough material, he doesn't need to work very hard the rest of the day.

The Public Defender's Office in Pinheiro visited the landfill and witnessed shocking situations there. Children compete for scraps of food with vultures and dogs. The scavengers don't just focus on the products, as killing hunger is more urgent, so they often don't immediately wait for the sale to the warehouses.

The point of greatest flow is when a truck from a large supermarket chain in the city goes to dump its garbage, around 13:30 pm. Everyone rushes to fight over the waste, including all sorts of individuals: children, the elderly and pregnant women, for example. From this, the public defender took up the fight for the creation of an association of collectors, in view of the lack of equipment, working conditions, knowledge to carry out the collection, selection of materials and financial support for the infrastructure.

In a public hearing promoted by the public defender's office, an association of collectors was formed and the municipal government immediately instituted a minimum monthly income and the provision of basic food baskets for each collector. Thanks to the defender's work, which has also shown and denounced this situation to important sectors of the progressive media, around 300 people in a situation of extreme social vulnerability are being benefited, which means that this group is no longer invisible to the public authorities and for the society. And the struggle for these people to have more dignified living conditions is far from over.

* Luiz Eduardo Neves dos Santos, geographer, is a professor at the Federal University of Maranhão, Campus Pinheiro.

*Fernando Eurico Lopes Arruda Filho is a public defender for the state of Maranhão.


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