As A Massive Garbage Dump Closes In Brazil, Trash-Pickers Face An Uncertain Future

Jan 20, 2018
Originally published on January 21, 2018 5:02 am

When the city of Brasilia was inaugurated nearly six decades ago, it was celebrated as a dazzling example of modernist architecture and as evidence of a young South American nation on the rise.

But Brazil's utopian capital has since acquired another feature on its landscape that's come to be viewed as a national disgrace and an embarrassing eyesore.

A few miles from architect Oscar Niemeyer's world-renowned buildings stands a toxic mountain of trash that has been steadily growing and now is more than 300 acres, roughly the size of 250 football fields.

"It is the second-largest open garbage dump in the world," says Paulo Celso dos Reis, who leads a 25-member team of experts recruited by Brasilia's federal district government to help close down the dump.

Brasilia's mega-dump evolved because back in the 1950s, city planners failed to factor in proper facilities for trash disposal. Garbage was simply tossed onto open ground, 12 miles from the presidential place, in an area bordering a national park that's populated by deer, tropical birds and other wildlife.

"I can tell you, we inaugurated Brasilia without knowing what to do with our waste," says Dos Reis.

He describes the dump as a "very, very dangerous place" that's created complex "social, economic and environmental problems."

"I was born in Brasilia," he says. "I am not proud of this. We have to close it!"

In 2011, a court ruled that the dump was illegal and ordered its immediate closure. After many bureaucratic and legal delays, the dump is finally being shut down this month.

Some 2,000 trash-pickers — known as catadores — survive by fishing out plastics, metal, cardboard and other recyclables from the dump to sell to middlemen. More than half the trash-pickers are women — often single mothers in need of cash to feed their families.
Philip Reeves / NPR

There is, however, considerable uncertainty and unease about the social consequences.

Some 2,000 trash-pickers — known as catadores — survive by fishing out plastics, metal, cardboard and other recyclables from the dump to sell to middlemen. More than half the trash-pickers are women — often single mothers in need of cash to feed their families. The federal district government estimates that 150 children are among the catadores.

They work in appalling conditions.

On a recent visit, NPR saw catadores rummaging through detritus, calf-deep in reeking mud, watched by hundreds of vultures nearby. There were rats, wild dogs, cockroaches, mosquitoes and huge clouds of flies.

Some people had wrapped their faces in cloth to keep out the ghastly smell. Many wore baseball caps and gloves. No one appeared to have custom-made protective clothing. Some worked in flip-flops.

The garbage mountain is punctured by squat concrete chimneys, spewing out gusts of toxic methane gas brewed by the trash below. The methane sometimes causes trash to catch fire.

According to government statistics, an average of two catadores have died every year in accidents at the dump, including by being mown down by the bulldozers and garbage trucks. The risk is particularly high at night, when the pickers are hard to see in the gloom, despite their headlamps.

Miriam Ribeiro Araujo, a 37-year-old single mother, says she's suffered many injuries since starting work at the dump two decades ago to raise money to feed her son. Some of her injuries were caused by syringe needles concealed in trash bags, she says.

She shows her hands. They are crisscrossed with cuts — caused, she says, by broken glass.

Yet the prospect of the dump's closure worries her deeply.

"How are we going to survive?" she asks. She waves away government plans to arrange alternative work for the catadores as "promises, promises, promises."

Distrust in government runs deep at the dump.

"We are all very suspicious, because the government lies a lot," says Gilberto Ferreira Alves, clad in a mud-spattered brown velvet hat and rummaging around for plastic bottles.

The authorities are urging the catadores to join collectives that are being contracted to sort through trash at five new recycling depots. This will provide them with a roof, protective equipment, bathrooms and drinking water, and enrollment in the government social security program.

But their wages will be about $200 a month less. Hundreds of the pickers have yet to sign onto the plan.

"I would rather stay here than find another job," says Alves. "Here you can work whenever you want. There is no one bossing you."

He says he's grown so used to the conditions that he considers the vultures to be harmless "workmates."

The only aspect of the dump that appears to unsettle him are the corpses. He says catadores find a body roughly once a month — usually the remains of an aborted baby.

Alves says criminals also occasionally carry out murders at the dump, knowing the police rarely venture there.

Gardivania Teixeira Lima, a single mother, works at the dump to support her seven children. Her son, now 19, started working there at the age of 8. She says she'd rather have an eye on him than risk him falling into crime on the street.

She says the dump's closure is "awful" because "everybody will be jobless."

Gardivania Teixeira Lima, a single mother, works at the dump to support her seven children.
Philip Reeves / NPR

Brasilia's trash-pickers have specific financial reasons to prefer to stay in this dismal place. Officials say on average, a catador at the dump earned $620 a month — more than twice Brazil's minimum wage — although only by working 12-hour days, six days a week.

The city now has a big new out-of-town landfill. Trash that can't be recycled will go there.

Yet there are other complex unsolved issues: Brasilia's government hasn't decided what to do with the 44 million tons of trash that comprise the garbage mountain and are polluting the soil and water below. The dump is located on real estate with potentially enormous value.

No one knows what will be the economic impact on the 40,000 people who live in the shantytown that's sprouted beside the dump, where many rely on trash for a living.

"It's worrying, worrying," says resident Jose Maria Vasconcelos, 54, who's in the recycling business.

Whether most of Brasilia's 3 million people care about these issues is moot. The city enjoys the highest per-capita income in Brazil. Residents weren't much interested in what happened to their trash when the capital was created back in 1960.

It seems many still aren't.

After years of helping the government figure out how to shut down the dump, Dos Reis remarks: "It's unbelievable. The majority of people in Brasilia do not know the dump exists!"

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We turn now to Brazil and its modern capital Brasilia. That city was conceived and planned as a kind of utopia, yet its mastermind, the world-renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer, and his fellow planners forgot something critical, which left the city with a dirty secret. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.




UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Brazil's capital, Brasilia, is celebrating its inauguration in a blaze of optimism.


REEVES: The world watches on TV, dazzled by the modernist architecture and plans for stately parks and promenades. The new city seemed so orderly. No one expected back then that today, there'd be this.


REEVES: This is the second-largest open garbage dump in the world. Brasilia was created without a purpose-built landfill. Its trash wound up being tossed here, on open ground some 20 minutes' drive from the presidential palace. The dump now occupies as much space as 250 football fields and is as close to resembling hell as anywhere you'll likely find.


REEVES: There are vultures everywhere. There are swarms of flies. There are piles and piles of black garbage bags which are broken open and are spewing their contents out into the sea of mud. There are people all over this, picking through it, looking for bottles, looking for bits of plastic, bits of metal, anything that they can sell to a middleman.


REEVES: A garbage truck arrives...


REEVES: ...And disgorges a load of dripping trash bags.


REEVES: The trash-pickers start punching holes in the bags even before they hit the ground and pulling out plastic bottles for recycling. There are kids in their early teens. Quite a few of the pickers are women, including many single moms who struggle to get regular jobs because they've been in trouble with the authorities. Sometimes, they find corpses.


REEVES: Miriam Ribeiro Araujo has been in and out of prison.

MIRIAM RIBEIRO ARAUJO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: She says she comes here to earn cash to buy food for her son. The garbage and the methane gas it creates damages the skin, eyes and lungs. Yet some trash-pickers - catadores, as they're called here - wade around the mud in flip-flops.

ARAUJO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Araujo shows her hands crisscrossed with cuts.


REEVES: Trash-pickers work day and night. After dark, they're sometimes hit and killed by trucks and bulldozers.

PAULO CELSO DOS REIS: We have to close it. It's not possible to stay in the 21st century with that open. It's an environmental problem, a social problem, an economic problem.

REEVES: Paulo Celso dos Reis heads a team recruited by Brasilia's federal district government to shut the dump. Dos Reis says for decades, the city didn't care what happened to the garbage so long as it was out of sight. Even now, a lot of people don't know about the dump and, it seems, don't want to know.

DOS REIS: It's unbelievable. I can tell you the majority of people who lives in Brazil does not know it exists. I have friends of mine that do not believe. No, it's not true. I have to show pictures and films of dirt that - that they can believe.

REEVES: In 2011, a Brazilian court declared the dump illegal and ordered it closed. The shutdown was delayed by arguments over where to locate a new landfill to take the city's trash. That landfill is now open out of town. The dump is closing. Yet the authorities haven't decided what to do with the dump's 44-million-ton mountain of toxic garbage that's polluting the ground water. Nor is there a plan for this place, a shanty town that's grown up over the years near the dump. Forty thousand people live here. One way or another, at least half make a living from trash.

JOSE MARIA VASCONCELOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Jose Maria Vasconcelos is in the recycling business.

VASCONCELOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He's worried he'll be destitute.

VASCONCELOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Inside the dump, trash-pickers are also worried. They're being offered jobs at new recycling depots, working in collectives, sorting garbage on conveyor belts. They'll earn quite a bit less than their $620 monthly average. But they'll have a roof, protective equipment and health insurance.

GILBERTO FERREIRA ALVES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Gilberto Ferreira Alves has been picking trash out dumped for a quarter of a century. He says he's used to the awful conditions.

ALVES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: The vultures are like work mates, he says. Yet a lifetime on this Brazilian dump has given Alves a profound distrust of government and its promises.

ALVES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "We're all very suspicious," he says. Until he's sure his life will improve, he'd rather stay here in hell. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Brasilia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.