Waste management is a problem faced by virtually every favela in Rio de Janeiro. Most communities suffer inadequate or non-existent waste collection services because public agencies miscount the local population and provide inadequate services, or because waste collection can be challenging on narrow favela streets if using traditional collection vehicles. These are the sorts of reasons given by the municipal Waste Management Company, Comlurb, to not respond to the waste management needs of many communities. As a result, uncollected trash can be a source of disease, pests, and low standards of living for residents.
Lifelong resident and community activist Iara Oliveira remembers growing up in Cidade de Deus (City of God, or CDD to its residents) when it had no waste collection services at all. She says the community “has always been completely abandoned in terms of public services,” but residents learned how to fight for their rights to services. First, she says, they fought for water. Then electricity. And eventually they demanded waste collection services. Today some parts of CDD receive waste pickup every day, but the community still does not have recyclable materials pickup services. This and concerns about the level of pollution in the river running through the community have mobilized a group of passionate residents to improve environmental conditions through education, awareness, and encouraging residents to change their habits.
Eco Rede (Eco Network), coordinated by Oliveira, was formed in 2010 as a program within the the non-profit education organization Alfazendo. Alfazendo has been providing literacy classes, college prep courses, and other forms of education to members of the CDD community since 1998. The Eco Rede program uses the same participatory methodologies Alfazendo has developed, and focuses on finding collective solutions to the environmental problems faced by the community. Using the same methodology, another chapter of the organization opened in Complexo da Maré and functions similarly.
Eco Rede has five objectives: environmental education, communication, continuing education, professionalization of catadores (waste pickers who work around the city collecting recyclable materials), and local development. All are meant to improve the local environment, the levels of public health, and quality of life in Cidade de Deus.
Many of these goals are met by training young people to visit local schools to teach students about the environment, empowering them to change how they view their community. Each year, seven or eight students are selected and become members of a team that creates its own lesson plans and yearly goals. One of the main objectives of Alfazendo as well as Eco Rede is to encourage students to stay and contribute to improving their community, instead of moving away. This means asking them to value their community and protect it from further damage. As local university student and Eco Rede facilitator Lidiane Santos Barbosa explained, “We hear a lot about protecting the Amazon forest, why not try to preserve the place where you are living?”
Eco Rede also hopes that by teaching young children they will impact their families’ lifestyles. In addition to providing multi-disciplinary training for students, Eco Rede also works with teachers to keep the conversation going after the training ends. Outside the classroom, Eco Rede planted five school gardens and raised awareness about recycling by helping students make creative toys out of reused materials. One of the main goals of the school gardens is to demonstrate how students can have healthy diets.
The organization’s most visible objective is the professionalization of catadores, who collect recyclable materials on the street and sell them to private companies. The team at Eco Rede considers them an important link to recycling, since they fill the gap by sorting and collecting materials which would otherwise end up in the landfill. Despite their importance, catadores have been a historically isolated and disadvantaged social group. As the individuals most intimately involved in waste management, the team at Eco Rede felt it important to engage with and empower them to continue to improve the environmental conditions in CCD in a safer and healthier manner. Eco Rede also hope to change attitudes towards catadores by the general public.
The first step was counting and registering catadores so as to work with them later on. Then Eco Rede provided training to 48 of the catadores, on their rights and how to gain access to public services. Following this step, the network taught residents to sort recyclable materials into separate bags and set them aside on the curb. As Oliveira explained, separating recyclable materials can achieve more than one goal. When households set their separated materials outside their homes, catadores no longer have to dig through wet, mixed waste. Their working conditions improve dramatically, while individual households only have to make small changes in their habits. This has been a convincing argument in CDD, walking down the street one can see bags of separated materials waiting outside homes for catadores to pick up.
More formally, Eco Rede has built 14 “Eco Points” around Cidade de Deus for people to drop off recyclable materials for the catadores to collect. By doing this, attitudes have begun to change towards them. Schools that once refused to let catadores go through their trash are now welcoming them into their classrooms to discuss recycling. Oliveira hopes to someday have an Eco Point on every major street corner, and in every public space and school in the community.
In other neighborhoods, catadores have organized into cooperatives to gain more bargaining power in sales and to provide a safe space to sort waste. This has yet to happen in CDD, which is why it is one of Eco Rede’s long-term goals to find the necessary funding to create a space for a cooperative.
Improving the environment in Cidade de Deus is part of the much larger goal for local development. Oliveira said her dream for the community is for its young people to invest in staying there. She said: “Young people are using their energies outside the community, instead of inside it… they have been educated to want to leave it.” She hopes that with Alfazendo and Eco Rede more young people will remain and help the community in which they grew up.
For more information on Eco Rede, you can visit their Facebook page or Alfazendo’s page. You can also see their video on environmental education in schools here. If you would like to help them achieve their goals with Eco Points, in-school education, or creating a cooperative for catadores, consider donating your time or resources by reaching out to the Eco Rede on their Facebook page.