Trash and Contemporary Brazil: Modernization and Consumption in Brazil’s Megacities
By: Asa Richard Laws
Mentor: Dr. Rex Nielson, Spanish and Portuguese
Over the past 50 years the growing difference between trash collection capacity and consumption has produced new cultural developments concerning the collection, reuse, and criminalization of trash in Brazil. The thin legal framework that surrounds lixões [pronounced li-õẽs] (open air garbage dumps) in Brazil has, in many ways, resulted in the rise of public trash and recycling collection in lixões that can be found in Brazilian megacities. According to my research, few statutes in either Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo exist to govern the treatment of trash collection by marginalized populations living near or on lixões. What laws that do exist are more recent, occurring within the last twenty years, and these have been bi-polar in their consideration of catadores (the marginalized individuals who live in lixões), treating them both as undervalued citizens who require reintegration, as well as illegal workers (current federal law treats them as both). Despite these legal discrepancies, the implementation of these laws has been very slow, perpetuating the rise of a marginalized society, now the subject of several major documentaries and films over the last 20 years.
Executive Summary: Findings
The city of São Paulo garbage service is divided into two zones, each zone is cared for by contracted private companies (Loga and Ecourbis for the north and south, respectively). Both companies currently no longer operate lixões within or near the city; all trash is disposed in sanitary refuses after being processed in transbordos (facilities where some materials are separated). Lixões still exist commonly throughout the state and garbage is shipped from São Paulo to nearby lixões when local sanitary refuses cannot keep up with collection volume. This treatment of garbage differs from São Paulo. Because São Paulo has modernized more quickly in recent years, lixão (singular of lixões, pronounced li-ɐ̃w̃) colonies are not found in city proper limits. Thus, documentaries have been more focused on lixões found near Rio.
Rio de Janeiro uses a publicly owned and operated company, Comlurb, to collect and dispose of trash as well as to care for city-wide cleaning and litter collection. Rio’s legal history surrounding lixões and catadores has been complex and bi-polor. The municipal legislature first addresses them in 2003, (Law No. 4191, dated 30 September 2003), with a bill outlining programs to protect catadores, calling for incentive programs to legitimize their work and move them and their families to cleaner areas. This never happens. In 2008, according to Law No 4.969, dated 3 December 2008, catadores are officially banned from any trash facilities run by Comlurb, making it illegal for the public to collect recycled materials from open area dumps.
Federal Law;, until recently, has been equally quiet on issue. Until 1998, the federal government had no law in place that governed the treatment of waste across the country. Law No. 9.605, dated 12 February 1998, makes no reference to lixões or catadores. Rather, it largely covers the federal penalties for littering or destruction/pollution of the environment. This law was substituted by Law No. 12.305, dated 2 August 2010. This major legislation has been the most impactful on city governments of Brazil and the lives of catadores. The bill speaks considerably on trash, collection, and catadores, delineating statutes which ban lixões across the entire country by 2014, requiring all states and municipalities to submit reduction, elimination, and transition plans by 2012 (this was hardly met, as more than half of Brazil’s cities failed to meet this goal). As of 2016, the federal senate voted to extend the deadline from 2014 to 2021. More importantly, federal law from 2010 prohibits the collection of materials at all new facilities (closed sanitary refuses), effectively displacing hundreds of thousands of catadores. This was not unnoticed by lawmakers, who repeatedly stated in the law that cities have the added responsibility to reintegrate catadores back into their cities, socially and economically; it makes no specifications, however, as to how or when that must take place.
By 1950, São Paulo proper became the largest city in South America with over two million residents. Over the next 50 years, it’s population then grew 5.5 times larger to over 11 million. This sustained, intense growth also occurred in Rio and was a major cause of favela expansion in both cities. Equal growth in human waste occurred over the same time period. By 1990 lixões became commonplace and Nora Goulart’s short film Ilha das Flores (1990) highlights the backward culture that exists surrounding catadores living in lixões (specifically showing how a tomato, thrown away by humans and rejected as food for livestock is collected by starving women and children who live in the garbage). The film became a national and global sensation. It is important also to note that the legal picture of Brazil during this period was turbulent, going through a democratically elected fascist republic (the leader, Getúlio Vargas, would commit suicide in 1954), a democratic republic, a military dictatorship, indirect military elections, a new constitution, and then the first democratic election since the 60s in 1989. This unsettled political situation possibly explains the lack of federal or state oversight of trash disposal during Brazil’s megacity boom.
The Real Plan, implemented in 1994 by Itamar Franco, stabilized the economy and hyperinflation that had plagued the country since the 1960s. From then until 2012, Brazil enjoyed its first stable sustained economic growth period of the modern era, creating a new, consumer middle class. As such, São Paulo now produces 20 thousand tons of trash each day. The city of Rio de Janeiro alone collected 900 thousand tons during carnival 2016. During this recent period of immense growth and consumption, three documentaries have been released detailing the lives of these catadores: Marcos Prado’s Estamira (2004), Eduardo Coutinho’s Boca de Lixo (2010), and Lucy Walker’s Lixo Extraordinário (2011); the latter two were released after Rio’s municipal government, as well as the federal congress, ban refuse collection by catadores and lixões.
Citizenship and Catação: Moving Forward
Leila Lehnen, in her book Citizen and Crisis in Contemporary Brazilian Literature (2013), proposes that citizenship consists of two parts: 1) formal, or legally obligated rights, and 2) substantive, the implementation of said rights. Considering this idea, my project has grown from the contextualization of the legal framework surrounding recent documentaries on trash culture to a critical comparison of those formal rights and their actual correlated substantive outcomes. That discrepancy, in turn, affects the culture citizenship (personal identity and happiness as a member of a state) felt by catadores and among other marginalized members of Brazilian megacities.
Because of this shift, Dr. Nielson and I have altered our original timeline and plan to move forward developing our research and article into this new direction. We plan to submit an article for publication in the summer of 2017.