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Filming the Catadores: What I learned from Brazil’s Waste Pickers

Anna Sowa | November 18, 2014

It was last October as a 2013 Laureate Global Fellow that I first set foot in Brazil. During the fellowship retreat, Dr. James Toole helped Fellows navigate our entrepreneurial journeys and plan strategically for the future. Many of his words continue to inspire me today, but one of his maxims had particular impact. “Your organization is moving in the direction of the questions you ask.” Fortunately, a few months earlier, my husband Remi and I—co-founders of Chouette Films—had begun asking how to make the most of my time in Brazil and the new contacts we had made through the YouthActionNet program.

As filmmakers, we’re always hungry for new stories, stories written by life itself where the extraordinary is found in the ordinary. This is exactly what 2013 Laureate Global Fellow Kellen Ribas, co-founder of Cicla Brasil, sees on a daily basis in her work with the Catadores. It was thanks to Kellen and 2012 Laureate Global Fellow Rafael Henrique Rodrigues, founder of SOS Sustainability, that Remi and I had the privilege of working with and filming the experts on recyclable material in Brazil—the Catadores.

About one million people in Brazil earn a meager living by sieving through rubbish and collecting, sorting and selling it to the country’s recycling industry. Through their work, Catadores  (Portuguese for ‘pickers’) do more than sustain their livelihoods—they prevent recyclable materials from ending up in landfills, protect natural resources from use in production, and reduce the cost of solid waste management for municipalities. Although they continue to face myriad challenges, in many ways, the Brazilian Catadores are a success story. They are people who together raised their voices, formed cooperatives and, in some cases, won inclusion for their group in the municipal waste system.

A decade ago, Brazil was the first country to designate waste picking as an official profession. In 2010, Brazil’s National Solid Waste Policy introduced reverse logistics, a new set of laws based on the 'polluter pays' principle, which outlined options for producers to work with reverse logistics service providers and local government to manage the flow of waste and practice recycling and clean disposal practices. The introduction of this policy granted waste pickers a new importance in the system as potential service providers.

In this respect, Brazil can be considered a recycling system pioneer and an example to other developing countries worldwide. This is the theme of the film that our production company, Chouette Films, is producing in collaboration with Cicla Brasil and SOS Sustainability. Catadores: the Trailblazers  focuses on the story of individuals who, despite being somewhat invisible to society, are strong and capable entrepreneurs who are using their own initiative to improve the world they live in. The story depicted in the film is not unique—in fact we were quite surprised by the sheer scale of waste picker cooperatives which emerged naturally within the Catadores community. Today, these local cooperatives are essential to the national waste system.

Now more than ever, organizations like Kellen’s and Rafael’s are crucial. They help the wastepickers’ organizations to have their voices heard by key stakeholders including large private companies and government municipalities. They provide technical support, guidance on infrastructure and political mobilization. These organizations advocate that waste picker cooperatives not only offer solutions to environmental problems, they contribute significantly in the areas of social inclusion and job generation as well.

As we spent time with the Catadores, our initial shock at the putrid smell of rubbish and feelings of sympathy for the conditions of their work was quickly forgotten. We were struck by their determination, technical precision, and ‘can do’ attitude. Their spirit of solidarity shone through them—in the way they were organized, their focus and commitment to hard work, and how they socialized during and after work with relentless optimism and dignity. They are the masters of taking action against all odds—doing work others stray from, and doing it well.

Coming from the film industry which is extremely energy-consuming and wasteful (95% of all props end up in landfills!), we were particularly challenged by the way the Catadores not only recycle but personally reuse any materials possible. This ranged from mending, fixing, and selling the more valuable items in a second-hand shop managed by the cooperative to organizing a fashion show for the Catadores’ children where the most creative fairy dresses and costumes were made of plastic cups, cardboard and bottle corks.

Thanks to the Catadores, we were challenged in our own work to begin asking questions about the way we use our resources. We were truly inspired by the spirit of entrepreneurship coming from one of the most stigmatized groups in society. We returned from Brazil with new ideas on how we can make the most of our resources, whether that means reusing old equipment or recycling it in most ethical way.

Inspired by the Catadores of São Paulo—25,000 ‘invisible’ people that take care of 20,000 tons of the city’s waste daily, Chouette Films has become a green film production company. As the eyes of the world continue to be on Brazil during the preparations for the 2016 Olympics, it is a time of a great opportunity for the message of the Catadores—pioneers not only in the recycling industry but sustainability as whole—to set a trend in other industries worldwide.

Anna Sowa is a 2013 Laureate Global Fellow and Co-founder of Chouette Films, an award-winning production company comitted to using film as a tool for social change. Follow Chouette Films on Facebook and Twitter for exciting updates and film release dates, and watch the teaser for  Catadores: The Trailblazers below.

CATADORES - THE TRAILBLAZERS from Chouette Films on Vimeo.

Blog photos by S.O.S. Sustainability

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Anna Sowa