Earth Calling #7: Waste Pickers VS. Trash Giants – A Hero’s Fight For Justice

Produced by Camille Duran / Published by Eleen Murphy / Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran / Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.

Planet Earth has been a little too quiet lately. Maybe this story is what she needs to hear. It’s about Nohra Padilla – a brave and dedicated fighter for social and environmental justice. She spent her life working to change the fate of waste pickers in her city of Bogotá, Colombia. And around the world.

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Transcript from the Episode

Camille Duran [CD]: Hey I’m worried

Eleen Murphy [EM]: About what?

CD: Planet Earth, she hasn’t called in 3 weeks. Something is wrong. Where is she?

EM: Well obviously she’s here, we’re standing on her as we talk.

CD: You think our stories are too extreme?

EM: Our stories are appropriate I think, they’re always based on positive change, I don’t think that’s the problem.

CD: Mmh.

EM: I’m sure she’s fine. She might just be busy watching TED videos.

CD: I should try to call her. Just to check in, it’s weird

EM: Yeah, give her a call…

CD: Thing is I don’t know how to dial her number, there is no country code

EM: have you tried?

CD: No … Okay… I am going to give it a shot. straight numbers no country code. Do we have a story to tell her?

EM: Yes, let me think, oh, you can tell her the story of Nohra Padilla. It’s a good one. Here it is. I’m sure she’ll love listening to it, and appreciate the gesture.

CD: Let’s see… Hey Eleen – Thanks for being the best, You always have good advice.

[VOICE MAIL]: “Please leave a message for “Planet Earth” after the beep”.

CD: Hey… it’s Camille…. I’m worried, you haven’t called in three weeks so I thought I would check in, you don’t answer my text messages, is there anything wrong? Actually I even have a story I want to tell you.

It’s a bit weird to do this via voicemail but this way you can listen to it whenever you want. I hope you like it.

Okay… let me get into the storytelling mood…

It’s the story of a little girl from Bogota called Nohra. She is 7 years old.  Her family came to the capital after fleeing violence in the rural areas of the country. Now they spend most of their time picking up garbage at the foot of this huge municipal landfill where tons and tons of waste are dumped every day. That’s how they make a living.

Actually they are not picking up garbage – that’s not how they see it. They are treasure hunting. They sift through mountains of trash looking for the most valuable materials they can find. Either for themselves, or to sell. There are not the only ones of course.

Thousands of people in extreme poverty are treasure hunting as well.

It’s a tough job, physically, mentally, it’s dangerous, and it provides very little money at the end of the month.

One day, the local government prohibited the access to the landfill. No treasure hunting anymore. So people started taking waste picking to the streets. And that brought other kinds of problems. Daily discrimination was one of them.

The community of waste pickers was marginalised to the point where it became forbidden to “pick up trash” as they said. We are talking about the livelihood of tens of thousands people in the city that was taken away by this law.

At this point the little Nohra had grown up. We are in 1991. Nohra had now become a well respected waste picker. She had developed an extensive knowledge of material identification, was able to organise and optimise operations, and she had a solid hard-working reputation. Most importantly, she had a dream.

In her dream, informal waste pickers became recognised as environmental stewards. They were paid correct wages by the city. They were organised, respected. Social justice. In her dream, waste pickers were a true competitive force against the trash multinationals who promote infrastructure intensive solutions that are nothing else than expensive and centralised power structures.

She had a dream. And she knew that everything is possible.

So in 1991, Nohra and her team started organising the waste pickers in cooperatives. That was a huge piece of work. They started from nothing. They had to get people educated, to recognise their own value, they had to organise processes, teams, secure space, and go through all the legal matters that would give the cooperatives a legal right to operate. They had to be able to bid for governmental contracts.

No one could believe they were taking this on.

Little by little, they were getting ready, and once they started going after those contracts, they had to face other kinds of problems. They were being robbed, they were humiliated as well. Nohra was receiving death threats so she requested State protection – which was denied.

All this was a sign that they were starting to drive real change in the system. The trash multinationals could see the storm coming. But it was a long long battle. We sometimes feel good things can happen overnight but they usually don’t.

We are now in 2013 – 22 years after the first efforts to organise cooperatives. 22 years. That year, Nohra and the cooperatives won a landmark court battle.

As a result of this victory in court,  Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro issued a decree mandating recycling throughout the city, stating that recyclers are to be paid for their services and establishing a system whereby recyclers can sort through material before it goes to a landfill.

In other words, the once informal waste pickers became official personnel of sanitation of the city.

As you can imagine, it was a ground breaking victory. They did build a system that can handle, sort and process 1500 tons of waste per day. Grassroot baby.

Through this work Nohra created the perfect bridge between social justice and environmental goals.

Waste pickers typically lived in extreme poverty with little to no employment rights. But in recent years many of them have seen their earnings double or triple. And everyone is now aware of the role they play for the city.

Nohra Padilla created a model. She showed it is possible. And She now represents the country’s recyclers association – and beyond her dream coming true in her home country… Nohra’s model is inspiring communities of waste pickers all around the world. Her international union counts more than 1million and a half waste pickers from 5 continents. 1 million and a half. The little seven year-old girl learning waste picking at the foot of the Bogota landfill turned into an international hero.

I like this story very much. Another one showing everything is possible as you told me the other day. Okay well, that’s it, I hope everything is ok and that you’ll  call back soon. We miss talking to you.

EM: She’s going to like this.

CD: Yes, I hope so. Maybe we are approaching this all wrong…

EM: What do you mean?

CD: Maybe we are not giving her exactly what she needs.

EM: Ah, I wouldn’t worry too much about all this. Hey we’re late, we need to get going…



CD: Where to?

EM: We have the kick-off meeting for the new series about Oceans!

CD: Ah that’s right. Talking about the Blue Planet… I’m coming.

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