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Revolution in the Garbage Dump: The Political and Economic Foundations of the Colombian Recycler Movement, 1986-2011

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Flouting 150 years of reports on their political impotence, millions of informal workers have recently begun mobilizing for labor rights. What provoked this unexpected development? This article analyzes the Colombian informal recycler movement - a "least likely" case for successful mobilization due to the recyclers' extreme marginality and the Colombian state's violent repression of labor movements. The article argues that the rise of neoliberalism and the consolidation of democracy created political opportunities that conventional perspectives on the informal economy would not lead us to expect. Three specific links connected these macro-level transformations to increases in the recyclers' collective organizing capacity. First, technical, financial, and symbolic backing from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) enabled recyclers to develop innovative organizing models. Second, new human rights provisions contained in the Constitution of 1991 created an opening to challenge state policy. Third, the privatization of waste management spurred recyclers to action by leaving them with two clear-cut possibilities: waste corporations might permanently displace them, or recyclers might collectively organize to protect and improve their livelihoods. © 2016 The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. All rights reserved.
Revolution in the Garbage Dump: The
Political and Economic Foundations of the
Colombian Recycler Movement, 1986-2011
Manuel Rosaldo
University of California, Berkeley
ABSTRACT
Flouting 150 years of reports on their political impotence, millions of informal workers
have recently begun mobilizing for labor rights. What provoked this unexpected develop-
ment? This article analyzes the Colombian informal recycler movement—a “least likely” case
for successful mobilization due to the recyclers’ extreme marginality and the Colombian
state’s violent repression of labor movements. The article argues that the rise of neoliberalism
and the consolidation of democracy created political opportunities that conventional perspec-
tives on the informal economy would not lead us to expect. Three specific links connected
these macro-level transformations to increases in the recyclers’ collective organizing capacity.
First, technical, financial, and symbolic backing from non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) enabled recyclers to develop innovative organizing models. Second, new human
rights provisions contained in the Constitution of 1991 created an opening to challenge state
policy. Third, the privatization of waste management spurred recyclers to action by leaving
them with two clear-cut possibilities: waste corporations might permanently displace them, or
recyclers might collectively organize to protect and improve their livelihoods.
KEYWORDS: informal workers; labor movements; economic development; recyclers;
neoliberalism.
Once seen as a transitory phenomenon soon to be erased by economic development (e.g., Rostow
1960), the informal economy today employs most workers in developing countries and increasing
numbers in many industrialized countries (Chen 2012). Labor scholars have long dismissed informal
workers—whose work is not recognized nor protected by the state
1
—as too weak and fragmented to
organize as a class (e.g., Arandarenko 2001;Bairoch 1973;Geertz 1963,Kurtz 2004;Marx [1852]
The author thanks ENDA Colombia, WIEGO, CIVISOL, and DeJusticia for their critical assistance with this research, as well as the
many recycler activists who shared their struggles and insights with me. Valuable comments on earlier versions of this article were
provided by Peter Evans, Laura Enriquez, Kim Voss, the UC Berkeley Latin American and Labor Workshops, and the Social Problems
reviewers. Direct correspondence to: Manuel Rosaldo, 410 Barrows Hall, Department of Sociology, University of California,
Berkeley, CA 94720. E-mail: mrosaldo@berkeley.edu.
1 This definitional approach was first proposed by Castells and Portes (1989) and later widely adopted. One advantage of this def-
inition is that it defines informality in relation to state policy, thereby creating ostensibly clear lines of demarcation (Collier and
Palmer-Rubin 2011:5). In practice such lines often become muddled, but they still provide the potential for a sharper conceptual
framework than definitions that highlight the precarious nature of informal work or the lack of bureaucratic sophistication of
informal enterprises.
V
CThe Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of Social Problems.
All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com
1
Social Problems, 2016, 0, 1–22
doi: 10.1093/socpro/spw015
Article
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1978;Veltmeyer 1997). In one of the first scholarly accounts of an informal worker organizing drive,
Chris Birkbeck (1978) analyzed the labor struggles of families who subsisted by salvaging paper, alu-
minum, and plastic from a dump in Cali, Colombia. Birkbeck found that while the recyclers at times
organized on an ad hoc basis to protect their access to the dump from local authorities who saw
them as a source of crime and disease, they lacked the legal protections, bargaining counterparts,
time, and money needed to build enduring organizations. The recyclers’ desperate poverty and illu-
sion of “self-employment” undermined their sense of class solidarity, a problem exacerbated by the
piecemeal earning structure that pitted recycler against recycler. Moreover, Birkbeck (1978) found
that the price of recyclables was too low to underwrite decent jobs, leading him to conclude that,
“the revolution will be a long time coming to the garbage dump” (p. 1181).
Thirty-eight years later, the revolution does not appear as far off. Thousands of Colombia’s informal
recyclers
2
—who today more commonly work on streets than in dumps—have self-organized into co-
operatives. They have boosted earnings by collectively processing and selling goods and by negotiating
direct service provision contracts with building managers and public officials. They have also won seven
landmark victories in Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which affirmed and reaffirmed their right to be
remunerated by the state for their labor (Parra and Fernandez 2013). Widely recognized as the world’s
first recycler movement (Medina 2005), the Colombians have served as inspiration for parallel move-
ments in dozens of countries. They helped build transnational networks to connect these movements,
and in 2008 hosted the first World Conference (and third Latin American Conference) of Waste
Pickers, which convened recyclers from over 30 countries. All of this was achieved from 1986-2011, a
period of violent repression of labor rights in Colombia during which over 4,000 unionists were
murdered—a greater death toll than the rest of the world combined (Kuehnert 2008).
Though this article focuses on the historic foundations of the recycler movement, a series of recent
developments illustrate its contemporary force. In December 2012, Bogota’s leftist mayor, Gustavo
Petro, responded to court rulings in the recyclers’ favor by bringing the majority of waste collection—
previously run by an oligopoly of private waste corporations—under direct city control. Petro imple-
mented a “zero waste” plan that aimed to contract recycler organizations to provide citywide recycling
services, which would eventually wholly supersede the “waste collection and burial” model (Alcaldıa
Mayor de Bogota2012). On December 9, 2013, however, Colombia’s inspector general removed Petro
from office and banned him from political activity for 15 years on the grounds that Petro had violated
the free market rights of private waste contractors and triggered a sanitary crisis during the transition to
the public system (The New York Times 2013). Four months later, following mass protests spearheaded
by recyclers and an injunction by the Inter-American Human Rights Court, the Superior Tribunal of
Bogota reinstated Petro, who continued to implement his Zero Waste Plan.
By the end of his term in December 2015, Petro’s administration had identified 14,000 recyclers
through a multiyear census process, provided 18,000 city uniforms to registered recyclers, delivered
pickup trucks to nearly 3,000 recyclers who previously worked by horse-and-buggy, established
monthly participatory forums on recycler policy in each of the city’s 19 boroughs, campaigned for
residents and businesses to hand over materials directly to recyclers, and—most groundbreakingly—
made bimonthly payments to 13,000 recyclers in recognition of their public service (UAESP 2015).
The city paid recyclers via text messages with codes that were redeemable for cash at ATMs based on
the quantity of goods that they had sold to registered scrap dealers. To be sure, these policies were
neither flawless nor comprehensive, and at times proved controversial even among recyclers (Parra
2015). Nonetheless, they represented a paradigm shift for a city that historically treated recyclers as
criminals, and an astonishing victory for a group of workers recently dismissed as powerless to con-
test policies that impact their lives.
2 Many terms are used to refer to recyclers including binner, dumpster diver, informal resource recoverer, poacher, rag picker, re-
claimer, salvager, scavenger, and waste picker. Following the example of Rodrıguez-Garavito (2006), I use the term “recycler”—a
translation of the Spanish term “reciclador.”
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What political and economic opportunities emerged since the time of Birkbeck’s writing to enable
this unlikely development? And what strategies did recyclers and their allies build to exploit these
opportunities? In the first section of this article, I review historical arguments about informal workers’
lack of power and unity. In the next, I provide background on the Colombian recycler movement. I
then argue that two broad economic and political shifts—the ascendance of neoliberalism
3
and con-
solidation of democratic rights—created threats and opportunities that galvanized the emergence of
the Colombian recycler movement. I conclude by reflecting on how this case challenges conventional
assumptions about neoliberalism and sheds light on the causes and potentials of the recent global up-
surge of informal worker organizing. Importantly, I do not seek to negate the crippling impacts that
neoliberalism has had on global labor movements, but rather to highlight how, as Peter Evans (2008)
argues, “Every system of domination generates its own distinctive set of opportunities for challenge
and transformation, and neo-liberal globalization is no exception” (p. 298).
UNORGANIZABLE” WORKERS
Writing at the dawn of industrial capitalism, Karl Marx ([1852] 1978) first popularized the idea that
workers who would come to be known as “informal” were too weak, fragmented, and capricious to
organize as a class. He categorized “rag pickers” (recyclers), “organ grinders” (street musicians),
“knife grinders” (knife sharpeners), “tinkers” (iterant tin smiths), and “porters” (carriers) as “lumpen-
proletariat,” an underclass of outcasts and criminals who lacked the solidarity and structural power to
collectively challenge capital (p. 46). Ironically, some of Marx’s fiercest right-wing critics, the modern-
ization theorists of the 1950s and ‘60s, helped entrench pessimism about informal worker mobiliza-
tion. W. W. Rostow’s (1960) “The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto,”
proposed a linear theory of development, in which capitalism gradually led to widespread prosperity
and security. By this logic, there was no need to contemplate the revolutionary potential of informal
workers, as they were merely precapitalist relics, soon to be absorbed into the modern economy.
Both the Marxist and Modernist traditions share what Rina Agarwala (2013) calls the “problem-
atic assumption” that informal workers are “temporarily operating on the margins of the central
labor-capital relationship” (p. 8). This assumption lives on in some labor and policy circles, but has
largely been debunked in scholarship over the past 35 years by a formidable and rapidly expanding
body of literature on formal-informal sector linkages.
4
Nonetheless, scholars continue to point to
structural barriers that appear to hamstring informal workers’ capacity for collective action, which
Ruth Berins Collier and Brian Palmer-Rubin (2011) summarize as “an unclear target of grievance
(e.g., common employer), small networks for collective action, and minimal or uncertain flows of
time and money available to devote to problem solving” (p. 28). Such pessimism is in part an artifact
of the “industrial unionism” model that has dominated the past 75 years of labor organizing. This
model assumes that workers are joined together by a common formal employment relation that
allows them to bargain with employers, whose profits depend on production in fixed locales. This
premise is no longer a good starting point even for many manufacturing workers with formal jobs,
but makes no sense at all for most of the world’s workers.
Organizing the “Unorganizable”
Flouting 150 years of reports on their political impotence, millions of informal workers have recently
begun mobilizing to make their voices heard by governments, employers, and transnational
3Evans and Sewell (2013) claim that neoliberalism is an “essentially contested” concept, which may refer to an economic theory,
political ideology, or policy paradigm (p. 38). I discuss neoliberalism primarily in the latter sense—as a set of market-oriented re-
forms including privatization of state-owned enterprises, roll back of social programs, market deregulation, and structural adjust-
ment conditionalities.
4 For an excellent review of 200 recent works on formal-informal linkages, see Meagher (2013).
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organizations.
5
To be sure, organizing informal workers is not a wholly novel phenomenon—at the
beginning of the nineteenth century all workers were informal, and examples abound throughout the
twentieth century of worker groups defying assumptions about their lack of strength and unity.
6
What appears to distinguish the past 25 years, however, is the scale, pace, and sophistication of organ-
izing among workers previously excluded from the labor movement. There have been major break-
throughs in organizing among domestic workers, street vendors, home-based workers, and
recyclers—all of whom have built robust transnational networks to exchange strategies and advocate
to transnational bodies (Bonner and Spooner 2012). In response, the International Labor
Organization has adopted resolutions on the rights of home-based workers (1996), informal workers
(2002), and domestic workers (2011).
This unexpected development is forcing scholars to pay heed. New works shed light on how infor-
mal workers address the three problems highlighted by Collier and Palmer-Rubin (2011:28). First,
many organized informal workers overcome “the unclear target of grievance” problem by making
rights-based demands to the state for legal protections (Bhowmik 2007;Cross 1998), welfare benefits
(Agarwala 2013), and official remuneration (Jacobi and Besen 2011). In this way, ironically, informal
workers often push the state to play a more direct role in ensuring their livelihoods than it does for
formal private sector workers (Agarwala 2013:199). Second, many organized informal workers ap-
proach the “small networks for collective action” problem by organizing in neighborhoods rather
than at worksites (Andrae and Beckman 2013); bringing together scattered workers into cooperatives
and worker centers (Chen et al. 2006;Fine 2006;Rodrıguez-Garavito 2006); and using identity cards
and self-esteem workshops to construct collective identities as workers and citizens (Wittman,
Desmarais, and Wiebe 2010). The latter strategy helps many informal workers forge solidarity across
divisions of gender, race, and class (Quiroz-Becerra 2013). Finally, many informal workers overcome
the “uncertain flows of time and money” problem by mobilizing resources from the state, non-
governmental organizations (NGO)s, development funds, corporations, and universities (Kabeer,
Milward, and Sudarshan 2013).
Though recent works shine light on the innovative strategies of informal worker campaigns, less
attention has been paid to the underlying political and economic structures that facilitate such innov-
ations. Such information is key to addressing the puzzle of why so many informal worker organiza-
tions have emerged globally over the past 30 years, a period when neoliberalism is said to have
eroded workers’ basis of power. Resolving this puzzle is far beyond the scope of this article, which
focuses on a single case study. Nonetheless, recycler movements are a reasonable entry point for this
line of inquiry because, as Martin Medina (2005) notes, recycling “epitomizes the informal sector: it
constitutes a labor-intensive, low-technology, low-paid, unrecorded, and unregulated activity” (p. 64).
Recyclers’ extreme marginality and the Colombian state’s violent repression of labor movements
make this a “least likely” case (Flyvbjerg 2006), in which circumstances appear highly favorable to the
“unorganizable informal worker” hypothesis. The aim of this article is not merely to falsify such con-
ventional wisdom, however, but to identify structural factors that facilitated the emergence of the
Colombian recycler movement, and to challenge conventional assumptions about the impacts of neo-
liberalism and democratization on labor movements.
Throughout this article, I draw on three concepts from social movement theory that shed light
on the dynamic relation between movement contexts, strategies, and outcomes. First, resource
5 Unfortunately, there is little quantitative data on the growth of informal worker movements, which tend to evade traditional met-
rics of collective action such as union density, strikes, and protests. Nonetheless, the Indian government has conducted rigorous
research on this phenomenon and estimates that 8 percent of the country’s informal workforce—some 9 million workers—are
unionized (Agarwala 2013:8).
6 For example, Bonner and Spooner (2012:20-22) provide accounts of how seasonal rice farmers in Northern Italy organized
highly successful strikes and rebellions throughout the first half of the twentieth century, and Bolivian cooks and flower vendors
inspired by anarchist ideologies formed the General Women Worker’s union in 1927.
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mobilization theory posits that social movements emerge when aggrieved groups access resources
such as “legitimacy, money, facilities, and labor” that are typically controlled by elites (McCarthy
and Zald 1977:1220; see also Jenkins and Perrow 1977). Though scholars have criticized this the-
ory for exaggerating movements’ dependence on elites (e.g., McAdam 1999,Piven and Cloward
1979), research suggests that elite support plays a central role for informal workers. For example,
based on analysis of nine informal worker movements in four countries, Naila Kabeer, Kirsty
Milward, and Ratna Sudarshan (2013) find that “spontaneous self-organization among these work-
ers is extremely-low ...organizational impetus has largely come from the efforts of middle-class
actors belonging to NGOs” (p. 14). Second, political opportunity theory highlights the role of per-
ceived vulnerabilities within political systems (e.g., opening of political institutions, elite disputes,
shifts in levels of state repression) in catalyzing popular mobilizations (Eisinger 1973;McAdam
1999;Tilly 1978). Such apertures are key for movements of informal workers, which typically
make demands directly to the state rather than to capital (Agarwala 2013). Finally, frame theory
calls attention to the ways in which movement actors “assign meaning to and interpret, relevant
events and conditions in ways that are intended to mobilize potential adherents and constituents,
to garner bystander support and to demobilize antagonists” (Snow and Benford 1988:198; also
Johnston and Noakes 2005;Snow et al. 1986). Such struggles over meaning loom large in informal
worker movements, which contest and redefine norms about what it means to be a worker and
who has the responsibilities of employer (Chun 2009). In the widely influential tradition of the
political process model (McAdam 1999;Tarrow 2011), I integrate insights from resource mobiliza-
tion, political opportunity, and frame theory.
METHODS
I conducted interviews, participant observation, and archival research in Bogota for four months in
2011 and 2012. I sought to understand the shifting strategies and logics of Colombia’s most politic-
ally influential recycler organization, La Asociacion de Recicladores de Bogota(ARB), as well as those
of other actors in its field. I conducted in-depth interviews with 20 ARB recyclers and 8 recyclers
from two rival organizations, whom I recruited through snowball sampling. About 50 percent of the
interviewees were women, which was representative of the actual demographics of Bogota’s recycler
organizations (Acosta Tautiva and Ortiz Olaya 2013:9). I oversampled leaders, interviewing 13 recyc-
lers who held or had previously held leadership positions, as they had the deepest knowledge of their
organizations’ history. I triangulated leader’s accounts by interviewing 15 rank and file members. To
deepen my understanding of recyclers’ practices and perspectives, I spent ten days collecting, sorting,
and processing materials alongside organized and independent recyclers.
Additionally, I conducted in-depth interviews with ten NGO workers from six NGOs that
worked with recycler organizations, and seven government officials from four government agencies.
I concluded every interview by requesting introductions to other relevant actors in the field, and by
the end of my research I was confident that I had spoken with representatives from the key NGOs
and agencies shaping Bogota’s recycling politics. Many of my original interview contacts were
made during the course of a six-week embedded ethnography with an environmental justice NGO
called Environment and Development Action in the Third World (ENDA). Through this intern-
ship, I gained access to ten internal ARB meetings and five meetings between organized recyclers,
allied NGOs, and government officials. Finally, I conducted archival research on court rulings, mu-
nicipal reports, and newspapers—all of which were available online. Also, the ARB and ENDA
granted me access to internal organizational documents and archives of relevant books, reports,
and newspaper clippings. This archival research helped to corroborate and supplement the histor-
ical account provided in interviews. All interviews were recorded and lasted from 30 to 90 minutes.
For reasons of confidentiality, pseudonyms are used for many recyclers and NGO workers through-
out this article.
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BACKGROUND ON COLOMBIA’S RECYCLER MOVEMENT
Millions of people across the world subsist by collecting, sorting, and selling goods thrown away by
others.
7
Given the absence of state-run recycling programs, this work provides considerable economic
and ecological benefits: reducing waste transportation costs, saving room in landfills, cutting the
quantity of virgin materials needed for production, and mitigating climate change. Unlike other waste
management workers, however, recyclers have not traditionally received state compensation for their
labor. Instead, they eke out a living by selling their goods to middlemen, who in Colombia, pay as lit-
tle as 5 percent of the industry rate for recyclables and sometimes exercise political control over re-
cyclers (Medina 2005:7). Many recyclers work and live in hazardous conditions, which are
aggravated by inadequate safety equipment and medical care. Recyclers’ work is further encumbered
by public scorn and police harassment. Four interview subjects claimed that they were routinely ar-
rested while collecting recyclables in wealthy neighborhoods in northern Bogota during the early
2000s. Two reported that the police had jailed them for 24 hours, burned their pushcarts, and then
forced them to sweep streets. According to Bogota NGO Director, Ricardo Valencia (interview,
2011), “People see the recyclers as a sickness, a bad thing. Recyclers should not be seen, but rather
thrown away in black bags like garbage. They are a lower caste.” Stigma against recyclers is prevalent
around the world (e.g., Gidwani and Reddy 2011), but has manifested in an exceptionally sadistic
form in Colombia: since the late 1980s, fascist-inspired “social cleansing” groups have killed at least
2,000 recyclers, beggars, and prostitutes—to whom they refer as desechables (disposable people)
(Medina 2005).
Seeking to increase their voice and power, thousands of recyclers in small and large cities across
Colombia collectively organized into cooperatives, many of which united into regional networks. The
most politically influential network and the object of analysis of this study, is La Asociacion de
Recicladores de Bogota (ARB), which formed in 1990 when four Bogota-based cooperatives came to-
gether to fight the closure of a landfill. Today, the ARB comprises 17 cooperatives with 1,800 mem-
bers, many of whom are third- and fourth-generation recyclers (Acosta Tautiva and Ortiz Olaya
2013:9). Though most ARB members earn less than Colombia’s minimum wage, they have slightly
higher average incomes than non-cooperative recyclers, and very few are homeless (Aluna 2011).
Most ARB members have not completed primary school, however, and 28 percent are illiterate
(Aluna 2011:12). Women are overrepresented in the ARB, making up 52 percent of cooperative
membership, though they only constitute 30 percent of the city’s recyclers overall (Acosta Tautiva
and Ortiz Olaya 2013:9; UAESP 2015:9). One reason for this may be that cooperatives help mem-
bers negotiate agreements with building managers to access trash at designated hours, thereby evad-
ing dangers of the street.
Though its outsized public profile could give the impression that the ARB represents the vast ma-
jority of Bogota’s recyclers, it in fact counts only 1,800 recyclers among its ranks (Acosta Tautiva and
Ortiz Olaya 2013:9), about 10 percent of the city’s estimated 1,800 full-time recyclers (Schamber,
Suarez, and Valde´s 2007).
8
The rest of the city’s recyclers can be loosely categorized into three
groups. First, several thousand recyclers are members of non-ARB cooperatives, some of which are
engaged in intense conflicts with the ARB. Such rivalries stem from competition for resources such as
membership, political influence, state and NGO support, and service provision contracts, and are at
times exacerbated by ideological differences and accusations of corruption. Second are “independent”
recyclers who work outside the cooperatives, but like most cooperative members they are not
7 A recent study estimates that there are 1.5 million recyclers in India alone (Chaturvedi 2010). There is, however, little reliable
data about the number and demographics of recyclers worldwide. Most academic research on recyclers is qualitative rather than
quantitative. Systematic large-scale data collection is difficult due to the profession’s informal nature, porous borders, seasonally
fluctuating workforce, and widely dispersed and mobile worksites. Thus, the large-scale estimates that do exist are mainly extrapo-
lations based on very small original research samples.
8 A significant population also recycles on a part-time basis to supplement other income sources or on a temporary basis to stay
afloat while in between jobs. Very few studies have been conducted on these groups.
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homeless. Independents earn slightly lower average wages than do cooperative members, but many
of them believe that they can work more efficiently and harmoniously outside of institutional settings
(Aluna 2011). Though independents constitute the majority of Bogota’s recyclers, their atomization
largely thwarts their ability to exercise political power. Finally, the most voiceless and denigrated re-
cyclers are the homeless, who are commonly looked down upon as drug addicts and criminals even
by their housed counterparts. Notably, ARB cofounder Silvio Ruiz-Grisales (interview, 2011) claims
that “the role of our organization is to defend the rights of all recyclers—those who wear our shirts,
those who wear the shirts of other organizations, and, to an even greater extent, those who do not
even know that recycler organizations exist.” To be sure, the ARB’s political and cultural struggles
have yielded benefits for recyclers far beyond the bounds of its own membership, or even its own city
and country. Yet as Andrea Alejandra Betancourt (2010) argues, “Bogota’s waste pickers do not ne-
cessarily share similar needs, objectives or struggles, and they largely differ in the way they work, or-
ganize themselves and relate to waste picking activities” (p. 19).
The ARB Organizing Model
The ARB’s organizing model centers on the pursuit of three mutually reinforcing, overlapping object-
ives. First, ARB members seek to increase their social standing by reframing their work from parasitic
survival activity into a productive profession.
9
One member explains: “What we have done basically is
to take the lowest profession there is and to raise it to a professional level, to demonstrate that recyc-
lers actually help construct our society” (interview, Jose´ Manuel Nieto, 2012). To this end, the ARB
uses performative strategies including professional conduct courses for members, the provision of
uniforms and credentials, media outreach, and presentations at public forums, schools, and fairs.
Second, ARB members pursue political empowerment by contesting norms not only about what it
means to be a worker, but about who has the responsibilities of employer. This is a daunting chal-
lenge due to the recyclers’ befogged structural relations with the many beneficiaries of their labor. As
Ruiz-Grisales (interview, 2011) explains:
You don’t have a visible employer, but you deliver recyclable materials to multinationals. You
don’t have a visible employer, but you are part of the state’s public waste management service.
You don’t have a visible employer, but you are collecting recyclables for citizen consumers. In
fact, you have four or five bosses, but nobody is paying you.
ARB members and allies respond to this quagmire by making rights-based claims to the state, which
holds consumers, multinationals, and waste management contractors accountable for financing inclu-
sive recycling programs. The ARB’s third objective, improved earnings and working conditions, is pur-
sued through entrepreneurial strategies aimed at transforming their position within the market and
accessing state and philanthropic resources. The creation of cooperative enterprises enables recyclers
to pool resources, collectively process and sell goods, negotiate with managers of buildings to directly
access their recyclables, and win contracts to provide official services to the city.
Notably, the ARB occupies only one tier of an elaborate, transnational mobilization structure. At
its base, neighborhood cooperatives focus on entrepreneurial activities such as processing and selling
recyclables. Such work also facilitates political mobilization by serving as a “shop floor” upon which
the previously atomized workers forge social ties and cultures of comradeship. Political mobilization
is primarily organized at the second level by regional associations of cooperatives, the largest and
most influential of which is the ARB. The ARB also bolsters economic enterprises of base-level co-
operatives by funneling financial and technical support to them. On the third level, the National
9 For more on the “classification struggles” of marginalized workers, see Chun’s (2009) analysis of subcontracted service workers
efforts to contest and redefine norms about employer-employee identities. The recyclers’ case also bares parallels to Jenness’s
(1990) analysis of sex worker organizations’ efforts to publically recast sex workers as legitimate workers with rights as such.
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Association of Recyclers (ANR) encompasses 40 cooperatives with some 4,000 recyclers across the
country. Though interregional conflict and concentration of power in Bogota have hampered the
ANR, it continues to serve as a critical space for exchange of collective action frames (Snow et al.
1986) and strategies. At the fourth level, the Latin American and Caribbean Waste Pickers
Network facilitates leadership building, strategy exchange, and solidarity campaigns among recyclers
in 15 countries. Finally, at the fifth level, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and Allies (GAWPA)
connects recycler organizations and allied NGOs in 28 countries, and organizes recycler rights delega-
tions at global summits on climate change, sustainable development, and international labor stand-
ards (Ciplet 2014).
WHAT CHANGED?
Though the earliest known recycler cooperative in Colombia—and indeed the world—was estab-
lished in Medellin in 1962, attempts at collective organizing over the next 25 years were scarce and
largely abortive (Medina 2005). Based on his analysis of two such fruitless efforts at the Cali dump,
Birkbeck (1978) concluded that, “it is ... doubtful that such organizations can ever achieve any rad-
ical changes for the garbage picker” (p. 1184). What has changed in the “political opportunity struc-
ture” (Tarrow 2011) of Colombian recyclers since the time of Birkbeck’s research?
In the following sections, I highlight three mechanisms through which the rise of neoliberalism
and consolidation of democratic rights enabled recyclers to build organizations, forge collective agen-
das, and challenge state policy. First, human rights and development organizations grew exponentially
in Latin America beginning in the 1980s due to the neoliberal rollback of state services, the expansion
of democratic freedoms, and advances in communications and transportation technology. Though,
the merits of the “NGOzation” of social movements are widely debated, the rapid rise of recycler
movements in Colombia would not have been possible without support from domestic and trans-
national civil society organizations. Second, the privatization of waste management raised the incen-
tive for collective organizing both by threatening to usurp much of the role of recycling from
recyclers and hand it to corporations, and by creating a narrow window by which they could protect
and improve their livelihoods through formalization. Third, democratic reform, particularly human
rights protections of the Constitution of 1991, served as a key avenue through which the recyclers
gained leverage over state and private interests.
SHIFT 1—THE EXPANSION OF CIVIL SOCIETY SUPPORT
Many scholars have lamented the so-called “NGOzation” of political struggle in the Global South
(e.g., Alvarez 1999;Biekart 1999;Jenkins 2008;Munck 2006;Pisano 1996;Silliman 1999). Critics
contend that elite sponsors deradicalize popular movements by funding only non-threatening activ-
ities (Haines 1984;Roelofs 2003), by professionalizing grassroots groups (McCarthy 2004), and by
constructing organizational fields that subtly channel organizations towards moderate goals (Bartley
2007). Many detractors view NGOs as being functional to state retrenchment by providing services
previously under state purview, while others paint NGOs as active agents of neoliberalism and im-
perialism (Petras 1997;Petras and Veltmeyer 2005).
10
Though I do not dismiss such arguments
wholesale, I argue that the case of the Colombian recyclers contradicts the NGOzation thesis—at
least in its narrowest form—in three ways. First, rather than displacing a previously autonomous
movement, NGOs enabled the emergence of a new, albeit elite-reliant, one. Second, though elite
sponsorship likely constrained the recyclers’ ability to adopt certain radical stances, it also facilitated
their entry into the perilous field of Colombian labor politics. At critical junctures, recycler leaders
demonstrated agency and fortitude by strategically recruiting NGO allies who would provide them
with legal representation, political protection, and material resources needed to contest the state.
10 Lavalle and Bueno (2011) and Guenther (2011) provide more comprehensive responses to the NGOzation thesis.
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Third, rather than facilitating state retrenchment, the recycler’s NGO allies helped pressure the
Colombian state to radically increase its support for recyclers and zero waste programs.
The Inception of the Colombian Recycler Movement
Birkbeck (1978) knew of only one enduring recycler organization in all of Colombia, about which
he wrote, “it is clear that outside agencies are essential in maintaining this kind of organization”
(p. 1184). Birkbeck’s axiom holds true today
11
—what has changed is the availability of such support.
In Colombia, as in much of the world, civil society organizations proliferated over the past three dec-
ades due to democratic openings, frustration with state-centered development programs, increased
polarization of wealth and resultant philanthropy, and communications technology breakthroughs.
During this period NGOs, foundations, transnational development funds, and individuals provided
Colombian recycler organizations with millions of dollars’ worth of capital donations, loans, and in-
kind services (Aluna 2011). The recyclers and their allies, in turn, leveraged this support to access
even greater resources from the public and private sectors.
A signal moment in this development occurred in 1986 when Manizales, a satellite city of Bogota,
closed a dump where 150 recycler families had worked and lived (Medina 2005). Fundacion Social
(FS), a Colombian foundation created by a Jesuit priest in 1911, began organizing workshops and
discussions with the displaced recyclers oriented around self-esteem, collective identity, social capital,
Figure 1. The Shifting Political Opportunity Structure of the Colombian Recycler Movement
11 Ruiz-Restrepo and Barnes (2010), lawyers who work with the ARB, explain this dependency as follows: “Organization depends
on three resources that are very scarce when living in poverty: time, space and money ... [there] is never enough to invest in
creating and running a business establishment or a civic-solidary organization, whose utility is still an unproven risk” (p. 95).
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and strategies for economic empowerment. At the time, recyclers were commonly referred to as
basuriegos (garbage dwellers), or disparagingly as desechables (disposables) or gallinazos (vultures).
Former FS Project Director, Marıa Eugenia Querubın (interview, 2011), says that the FS worked
with recyclers to coin a new term:
If people can’t be garbage, then they can’t be called basuriegos. So we held some large work-
shops and meetings in Manizales where recyclers talked about their lives and said, “what we do
is transform garbage.” Then one of them, I can’t remember who, suggested the term reciclador
(recycler).
Soon after, FS began providing training, technical advice, moral support, and funding to help the dis-
placed recyclers form and fortify cooperatives. Previously, foundations had only supported such initia-
tives on an ad hoc and small-scale basis. Based on its success in Manizales, however, FS began
furiously promoting the creation of cooperatives across the country and linking them to one another,
creating the networks and strategies that undergird the Colombian recycler movement today.
In his book, The World’s Scavengers (2007), Medina writes, “[FS’s] support for scavengers was un-
precedented in modern times and made Colombia’s the world’s most active scavenger movement dur-
ing the 1990s” (p. 157). Indeed, FS played a role in the creation of some 94 recycler organizations and
40 warehouses for sorting and selling recyclables (Fundacion Social 1995). In 1990, FS sponsored
Colombia’s first national meeting of recyclers, which convened 27 organizations from 20 cities—laying
the groundwork for the creation of the ANR two years later (Fundacion Social 1996).Byitsapexin
1996, FS’s annual budget for recycler programs had grown to US $700,000, and FS helped recyclers ac-
cess an additional US $300,000 in state funding (Aluna 2011:106). That year, however, FS announced
a plan to phase out recycler programming over the next two years due to internal financial problems.
Withdrawal of FS and the ARB’s Political Turn
Though FS created organizations and networks that would engage in large-scale political struggle,
such struggle did not take shape until after FS’s withdrawal in 1996. During the early 1990s, ARB
leaders focused their energies on cooperative development and social service provision. The down-
town headquarters was used as a food kitchen and attention center, where members could receive
free food, education, health, recreation, and child-care services. After FS’s withdrawal, however, ARB
leaders dramatically altered the organization’s programming, shifting focus to policy change, while
continuing to develop revenue-generating projects. Ruiz-Grisales (interview, 2011) explains:
We realized that delivering a few lunches does not solve structural problems. It may calm
today’s hunger, but only by becoming a more politically active organization, more like a labor
union ...more class based, could we fight to win the structural changes that we needed.
Shifts in both the ARB’s external environment and internal composition helped incite the ARB’s pol-
itical turn. Though FS worked with grantees on strategies to diversify revenue streams, many co-
operatives became financially insolvent after it withdrew support. ARB leaders, alternatively, kept the
organization afloat by suspending social services, renting out the lower floor of its headquarters, and
arranging fee-for-service agreements for garbage collection from markets and businesses. The leaders
worked for two years without salary, recycling by night to sustain themselves (interview, Nohra
Padilla, ARB president, 2012). An unintended consequence of this austerity appears to have been the
development of a more politically militant, if smaller, membership. Many ARB members left during
this period due to the reduction in short-term incentives for participation. According to founding
ARB member, Ana Selina Arias (interview, 2012), “Those who left had a more individualistic mental-
ity; they only sought personal benefits. Those who stayed were more committed to the struggle of all
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recyclers and more willing to attend meetings, to participate in trainings, to study laws, to protest.”
Another critical factor that provoked the ARB’s politicization was a series of legal threats to recyclers’
right to pursue their trade, described in the next section.
After FS’s withdrawal, ARB leaders began strategically recruiting supporters who could boost the or-
ganization’s political capacity by building legal strategies, collective action frames, and spaces for local,
national, and transnational organizing. The most pivotal ally in this regard was a small group of well-
connected lawyers, who began providing pro bono services to the ARB in 2002. Among the first gener-
ation of Colombian attorneys to be trained under the Constitution of 1991, these lawyers used innovative
arguments to win six historic victories in the Constitutional Court that affirmed and reaffirmed recyclers’
right to inclusion in formal waste management. Though Bogota’s three mayors from 2003-2011 failed to
fully implement the rulings, they took initial steps in this direction. They conducted an initial recycler cen-
sus, providing uniforms and technical trainings to recyclers, granted them access to waste from within gov-
ernment buildings, and built a facility for recycler cooperatives to collectively sort and sell goods.
In a second key development, the ARB and other Colombian recycler organizations began to pro-
cure support from abroad. Backing from a cadre of high profile international NGOs, foundations, cor-
porations, and development funds helped recycler organizations boost their budgets and perceived
legitimacy.
12
ARB leaders argue these prestigious backers served as a “protective parasol” that helped
to shield them from paramilitary repression (interview, Ruiz-Grisales, 2011). Also, international sup-
porters facilitated the creation of transnational recycler networks, which served as platforms for lead-
ership development, information exchange, solidarity protests, and diffusion of movement frames.
Third, ARB leaders have forged alliances with a host of national and transnational environmental
justice NGOs (e.g., ENDA, GAIA, CEMPRE, the Zero Waste Alliance) to demand policies that pro-
tect both recycler livelihoods and the environment. Together, they have lobbied municipal officials
for zero waste policies and sent recycler delegations to five global climate summits to advocate for re-
source recovery programs as an alternative to waste disposal technologies. David Ciplet (2014) finds
though the transnational delegations have had limited policy success, they have generated “unprece-
dented” media attention for recyclers, increasing their legitimacy in the eyes of domestic and trans-
national funders (p. 88). The ARB’s embrace of the increasingly resonant environmental frame is a
classic example of “frame extension,” that is, the extension of a social movement’s “primary frame-
work so as to encompass interests ... of considerable salience to potential adherents” (Snow et al.
1986:472) While recycler movements in many parts of the globe have portrayed recyclers as environ-
mental champions, this framing may be especially important in the Colombian context as an alterna-
tive to the more perilous “labor rights” frame.
SHIFT 2 —THE PRIVATIZATION OF WASTE MANAGEMENT
A second major shift in the recyclers’ position since the time of Birkbeck’s writing occurred due to
the privatization of waste management, part of Colombia’s aggressive agenda of neoliberal reform
during the 1980s and 1990s. Typically, privatization refers to the outsourcing of government func-
tions to the private sector. The privatization of waste collection services in the developing world,
however, is often accompanied by a second form of privatization: a transfer in the legal status of waste
from a common property resource to private property of waste management companies, which at-
tempt to usurp the role previously played by informal recyclers (Samson 2009a:84). Since the 1980s,
privatization has successively threatened recyclers’ very existence by cutting them off from their three
access points to waste—dumps, streets, and buildings. As ARB President Nohra Padilla explained in
an address to the 2013 International Labor Conference, “Recyclers who are denied access to garbage
are like fishers without fish, or farmers without land. We cannot survive ...”(Bonner and Spooner
12 Key backers include transnational development banks (e.g., the Interamerican Development Bank, the World Bank), founda-
tions (e.g., Ford and Gates), corporate sponsors (e.g., Natura Cosmetics and PepsiCo), and NGOs (e.g., WIEGO, ENDA,
AVINA, GAIA).
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2012). Yet, while privatization is typically presumed to have uniformly erosive effects on labor’s
power, for the recyclers it has also created a narrow aperture to protect and vastly improve their
livelihoods by winning inclusion in formal waste management.
For most of the twentieth century, Bogota had a two-track waste management system in which
the city provided official door-to-door solid waste pickup and final disposal services, while recyclers
salvaged materials from many points along the waste stream (Aluna 2011). The history of official
waste management dates back to 1875 when the town council supervised a band of 100 prisoners
who cleaned the streets daily (Ruiz-Restrepo and Barnes 2010). This soon proved insufficient, so a
business tax was levied to raise funds for a small fleet of drivers, coaches, animals, and—eventually
trucks to collect waste. In 1954, Bogota established EDIS, a state-owned enterprise that ran the city’s
waste pickup and disposal operations. Meanwhile, thousands of farmers migrated to Bogota’s urban
slums fleeing the violence that killed three hundred thousand peasants in the 1950s (Palacios 2003).
Many of them began to search through waste to find food for consumption, scraps to feed animals,
materials for shanties, and fuel for heat in the winter. Soon, they discovered their ability to earn a
living from waste (Medina 2005:55). Most recyclers during this period collected from dumps and riv-
erbeds, but some, known as botelleros bought newspapers, bottles, and jars from residents, while
others known as chatarreros collected scrap metal on the streets. Such activity mushroomed over the
second half of the twentieth century, as the city’s population swelled from 1 to 7 million (Medina
2005:154-6).
Over the past 30 years, Bogota and other Colombian municipalities have attempted to dissolve
the two-track public-informal waste system and replace it with one that is run exclusively by private
corporations (Ruiz-Restrepo and Barnes 2010). Such privatization is driven not only by classic neo-
liberal logics of cutting public expenditures and increasing efficiency, but a related set of material and
symbolic concerns. Developers and city officials see recyclers as impediments to the production of
modern, “green and clean” urban landscapes, blemishes to be removed from view like the trash that
they handle. Also, as waste streams expand due to increased consumption, and the demand for recyc-
lables escalates due to environmental consciousness and industrial growth, waste management has be-
come increasingly lucrative (Medina 2005). Municipal governments raise revenue by granting waste
corporations monopolies on all aspects of waste management including recycling.
Eviction from the Waste Dump
The first major step in this development occurred in the mid-1980s, when cities began to replace
state-owned open dumps with privately run sanitary landfills that prohibited informal recycling. By
2005, when Decree 805 nationally banned public access to dumps, recyclers already had been shut
out of most dumps for many years. Though policy makers justified such regulations based on legitim-
ate concerns about the health and safety of dumpsite recyclers, as Melanie Samson (2009b) observed
in a parallel case in South Africa, “complete loss of income is an even graver threat to the health of
the reclaimers and their families” (p. 15). Loss of access to dumps without alternative employment
provisions pushed thousands of recyclers into the more poorly remunerated and physically arduous
worksite of the streets, where they traveled by foot or horse cart average distances of 20 to 30 kilo-
meters per day (interview, Federico Parra, NGO director, 2011). The new worksite also increased re-
cycler’s public visibility, according to Ruiz-Grisales (interview, 2012):
Recyclers have worked in Colombia for more or less, poorly counted, 100 years. We developed
our trade for the first 60 or 70 years without any apparent problems. Why? Because we were in
the dump where nobody entered. The politicians didn’t go there, the government didn’t go
there, neither did the media. Nobody went there because it simply didn’t exist. Society turned a
blind eye to us. There were a few things moving around in the garbage, but they weren’t human
beings. They were garbage.
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The sudden appearance of thousands of people digging through trash on the streets of middle- and
upper-class neighborhoods amidst the tumult and violence that consumed Colombia in the late
1980s provoked a spectrum of reactions. At one pole, a coalition of foundations, NGOs, universities,
and government agencies helped recyclers build organizations in order to improve their conditions
and incomes. At another, the recyclers faced scorn from many citizens, some of whom formed vigi-
lante “social cleansing” squads to assassinate them and other street dwellers. In 1992, around the
peak of this activity, 11 corpses of murdered recyclers were discovered at a medical school in
Barranquilla. Their organs had been sold for transplants and their bodies used for dissection (Medina
2005).
The attacks created new external sympathy and internal urgency for the recyclers’ cause. The
Barranquilla killings made national headlines and provoked the first large-scale recycler protests in
several Colombian cities. The public outcry also played a major role in pushing the Colombian
Senate to pass law 511 in 1999, which declared March 1 “National Recycler Day” in commemoration
of the killings, and requested that local governments provide recyclers education, housing, and health
benefits. Though such benefits never materialized and the senate has not passed follow up legislation,
the toothless law was an important first step in increasing the legal and public recognition of the recy-
cling trade (Ruiz-Restrepo and Barnes 2010:102). At the First World Conference of Waste Pickers in
2008, March 1 was declared “Global Waste Pickers Day,” which is now celebrated annually by recyc-
ler organizations in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Honduras, Uruguay, India, South Africa,
and—of course—Colombia.
Entry and Exit from Formal Service Provision
While the Colombian state began to evict recyclers from garbage dumps in the 1980s, over the next
two decades it attempted to prohibit them from collecting in streets and buildings as well. And while
the dumpsite evictions prompted recyclers to organize entrepreneurially (see above), the new threats
propelled them into a political struggle for inclusion in the formal waste management system. The
ARB’s first taste of formal service provision came in 1994 when, in the midst of a spate of privatiza-
tions of public utilities, Bogota began to liquidate the state-owned waste enterprise EDIS due to its
inefficiency, low quality services, and financial insolvency (Ruiz-Restrepo and Barnes 2010). The clos-
ure of EDIS threatened the livelihoods of hundreds of municipal workers, who responded by striking.
To avert a sanitary catastrophe, the administration solicited services from the fledgling ARB, which
collected 700 tons of waste daily during the strike (Samson 2009a). Adriana Ruiz-Restrepo and
Shailly Barnes (2010), lawyers who have advocated for the ARB, claim that this decision was made
with the “acquiescence” of the municipal workers union. Samson (2009a:80) argues, however, that
this case fits into a troubling international trend of cities pitting recycler organizations against munici-
pal worker unions.
The strike failed and the municipality disbanded EDIS gradually from 1994-96, during which time
the ARB and FS jointly took a contract to provide 10 percent of the city’s pickup and disposal ser-
vices (Samson 2009a:66). After EDIS was fully dissolved, however, the municipality terminated its
contract with the ARB and began exclusively commissioning to private corporations. The recyclers
were once again relegated to the informal economy, but the experience of working for the city left
them determined to push their way back into formal service provision. Padilla (interview, 2012) says,
“That experience was the basis for our struggle today. We learned that we could be, that we knew how
to be, and that we must be included in formal waste management.” By this point, recyclers in small
municipalities such as La Plata and Chiquinquira had already won official roles as service providers
(Ruiz-Restrepo and Barnes 2010:101).
The privatization of waste management created a prospective avenue through which Colombian co-
operatives could not only compete to win formal service provision contracts, but also expand their
range of operations. Yet winning entry would pit them against well-healed and well-connected rivals,
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private waste and recycling firms. Moreover, just as some recycler cooperatives strived to penetrate the
realm of formal door-to-door waste pickup, the private firms began taking steps towards usurping con-
trol of all aspects of the increasingly profitable field of recycling. Such efforts were abetted by policies
that threatened to shut recyclers out of their two remaining access points to waste, the streets and
buildings. In 2002, Colombia’s president attempted to transform waste’s legal status into the private
property of waste management firms. Meanwhile, beginning in the mid-1990s, the municipal govern-
ments of Bogota and several other cities discussed plans to obligate citizens to separate recyclable from
non-recyclable waste, both of which would be picked up by official service providers. Though such pro-
grams have yet to be widely implemented, municipalities began to sell off exclusive collection rights to
private firms, potentially displacing recyclers who currently collect recyclables from buildings (Samson
2009a:70). Notably, the ARB and other recycler organizations supported the creation of official recy-
cling routes, but argue that they should be run and staffed by recyclers.
SHIFT 3—JURIDICAL EMPOWERMENT
Social movement activists in the Global South are increasingly using the language of human rights
to frame their political objectives, and turning to courts to advance them (Couso, Hunees, and Sieder
2010). Many scholars have criticized this trend as undermining insurgent political projects and paving
the way for imperialism (Douzinas 2007;Feldman 2009;Spivak 2004;Yiftachel 2006). For example,
Wendy Brown (2004) argues that by focusing on negative liberal liberties (freedom from state op-
pression) rather than positive ones (access to food, shelter, and healthcare), the dominant human
rights paradigm fatalistically concedes possibilities for “a more substantive democratization of power”
(p. 462). Moreover, human rights discourse is said to justify imperialist interventions by producing
individualized, decontextualized, and depoliticized subjects who appear to need external assistance
(Brown 2004;Rancie`re 2004;Zizek 2005). Meanwhile, juridical strategies for advancing rights are
seen as legitimizing the status quo by circumscribing the role of mass-based movements and shifting
contestation to sanctioned institutional channels (Munger 2012).
Given these condemnations, why are social movement activists flocking to frame social justice de-
mands in the language of human rights? One response is that reductive critiques of human rights
overlook the diversity of forms in which human rights are created and recreated through local move-
ment struggles (Stammers 2009). As Simin Fadaee (2014) argues, the very concept of “human rights”
may be understood as an empty signifier, “which can only gain meaning if attached to specific con-
texts and practices” (p. 568). In what follows, I argue that while the aforementioned criticisms of
human rights are not unfounded, they do not align with the experiences of Colombian recyclers. The
ARB used human rights strategies to pursue both negative rights (countering laws that would cut off
their access to waste) and positive ones (winning inclusion in the formal waste management system).
Rather than rejecting politics, recyclers pushed the state to expand its role in guaranteeing their liveli-
hoods. And rather than abandoning popular protest in favor of legal advocacy, recyclers used both
strategies in concert. They organized protests first to signify the subjects and directives of rights, and
then to hold policy makers accountable for their implementation. Importantly, legal understandings
were not only generated within the courtroom, but through a gamut of informal subnational and
transnational spaces.
The 2003 Cases: The Right of Cooperatives to Compete in Bogota
In late twentieth-century Latin America, democratic consolidation led to a crop of new constitutions
that expanded social, economic, and cultural rights, and created higher courts with stronger powers
of enforcement. Colombia was a trailblazer in this regard, as significant democratic reforms were car-
ried out throughout the 1980s, culminating in the ratification of the Constitution of 1991—also
known as “The Constitution of Rights.” The new constitution, catalyzed by a student and political
movement called “We Can Still Save Colombia,” definitively adopted the principles of the Universal
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Declaration of Human Rights and created new enforcement mechanisms. Colombia so frequently
falls short of these ideals that it has earned the ignominious distinction of having the hemisphere’s
worst human rights record (Human Rights Watch 2007;Justice for Colombia 2012;Witness for
Peace 2010). Nonetheless, the Constitutional Court, which is charged with defending the integrity
and supremacy of the constitution, has served as a countervailing power to Colombia’s mano dura
13
political leaders and a strategic leverage point for the recyclers. The recyclers have won seven victo-
ries in the Constitutional Court from 2003-2011. In what follows, I describe two of the early cases
that established recyclers’ right to pursue their trade and to be included in privatization and formaliza-
tion processes. Later ones helped specify what these rights meant in practice by reversing national
and municipal policies that threatened the recyclers’ livelihoods.
The first recyclers’ rights case was brought to the Constitutional Court by the ARB and its pro
bono legal aid in 2003. As discussed in the previous section, from 1994-1996, the ARB helped the
city to collect waste during the municipal workers’ unsuccessful strike and the subsequent period in
which the state-owned recycling enterprise was phased out. Once this process was completed, how-
ever, the city terminated its contract with the ARB and handed over rights to all recycling services to
private corporations. Undeterred, ARB leaders prepared to compete for a contract in the subsequent
tendering process in 2003. They procured international partners to provide financial backing, con-
ducted studies of Bogota and Buenos Aires’s waste management systems, and improved their own
operational capacity (interview, Olivia Maza, ARB leader, 2011).
When the ARB and its legal team began to prepare a bid in 2002, however, they ran up against
two barriers to their entry into the competition. First, according to Law 142, only stock-owned com-
panies—not associations of cooperatives such as the ARB—could compete for contracts in large cit-
ies. Second, the city’s narrow terms for the tendering process restricted bidding to companies that
had provided services in cities with at least a half million people for the preceding five years. This
excluded the ARB from competition de facto, without affecting the corporations that had won con-
tracts in the previous tendering process. It also presented a daunting challenge to the ARB’s pro
bono legal team, as human rights law is difficult to apply to highly technical administrative matters
such as a tendering process (interview, Adriana Ruiz-Restrepo, ARB lawyer, 2012). Nonetheless, the
ARB legal team argued that policy that was “technically and formally legal” could still undermine
human rights principles by threatening recyclers’ sole survival niche (Samson 2009a:68). The
Constitutional Court accepted the case, and ruled in the recyclers’ favor, stipulating not only that the
recyclers must be allowed to compete in tendering processes, but that affirmative action clauses
should be implemented on their behalf. However, the municipality expedited the closure of the ten-
dering process and awarded contracts before the ruling was made. The ruling could not be applied
retroactively, thus the recyclers would have to wait another eight years for the next tendering process
for a chance to compete (interview, Javier Francisco Arenas, Constitutional Court clerk, 2011).
In the midst of the Bogota recyclers’ (temporarily) unsuccessful bid for inclusion in the formal
waste management system, President Andre´s Pastrana, on his last day in office, issued a national de-
cree that endangered recyclers’ right to pursue their trade informally as well. Decree 1713 of 2002
stipulated that once garbage was left on the sidewalk in bags or bins, it became the property of the
waste operator for that area, creating the potential that recyclers who collected from the street would
be charged with theft. Due to lobbying by recyclers and their legal support, this decree was nullified
by a subsequent one, Decree 1505 of 2003, which reclassified trash left on curbs as abandoned prop-
erty that could lawfully be appropriated by anyone (Ruiz-Restrepo and Barnes 2010).
The 2008 Case: The Rights of Displaced Recyclers in Cali
In 2008, a second attempt was made to outlaw the practice of collecting recyclables from the street
nationally, this time on environmental grounds. Law 1259 imposed a fine of up to US $500 for
13 Literally “strong handed”—used to describe leaders who are tough on crime, guerillas, and leftist movements.
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opening garbage from bags or cans in public or transporting trash in non-motorized vehicles, once
again threatening most recyclers’ sole survival niche (Samson 2009a:70). The ANR solicited assist-
ance from CIVISOL, a NGO created by lawyers involved in the 2003 cases, which recommended an
ambitious line of attack. Rather than challenging Law 1259 through judicial review, CIVISOL in-
tended to demonstrate to the Constitutional Court that the law fit into a broader pattern of exclu-
sion, then compel the court not only to revoke the law, but to mandate sweeping action towards
protecting and formalizing the recyclers’ trade. Moreover, CIVISOL sought “to obtain clarification,
once and for all, of the scope and breadth of all waste pickers’ rights in Colombia, whether in Cali or
in Bogota, whether surviving through recycling in a waste dump or by street collection” (Ruiz-
Restrepo and Barnes 2010:104). This strategy would require use of the tutela (writ of human
rights)—a special court order created by the Constitution of 1991 that mandated swift state action in
response to human rights crises that could not be addressed through other channels.
CIVISOL soon learned that recyclers in Cali had already filed tutelas to protest their eviction from
the Navarro Dump—ironically, the very site where Birbeck wrote of the recyclers’ political impotence
30 years before. In 2008, the city had replaced the publically owned Navarro Dump with a private land-
fill, the last step in a comprehensive privatization plan for Cali’s waste management system. The city had
promised 600 displaced recycler families compensation for their loss of livelihood, but the assistance
never materialized, provoking the recyclers to occupy a historic church in protest (Samson 2009a).
Additionally, 24 recyclers filed tutelas, which were rejected on the grounds that the city had “no type of
responsibility” to the recyclers because “no contractual or legal relation” linked the two parties.
14
CIVISOL began collaborating with the recyclers to prove a broad pattern of rights violation by
linking the tutelas to the case against Law 1259 (interview, Adriana Ruiz-Restrepo, 2012). The law-
yers argued that though there were legitimate environmental and health rationales for closing the
Navarro Dump, the new arrangement violated the Constitutional Court’s 2003 ruling that recyclers
should be included in all waste procurement processes. Moreover, Law 1259 blocked recyclers’ access
to waste on the street, leaving many with no means of subsistence. The court sided with the recyclers,
overturning the provisions in Law 1259 that affected their livelihoods and ordering the formalization
of all of Cali’s recyclers. The court also declared the right of the recyclers to be formalized as entre-
preneurs, rather than employees of large factories:
It must not be forgotten the fact that the recyclers, although informally, acted as entrepreneurs.
Therefore, an appropriate alternative, rather than converting them into employees of the big
recycling companies, is providing them some space to keep acting as entrepreneurs, promoting
their organizational capacity and strengthening their capacities and opportunities to appropri-
ately carry out the activity that they had developed throughout time.
15
The Court mandated the creation of an ad-hoc committee to design a socially inclusive waste man-
agement program for Cali.
The Role of the Labor Movement
If the recyclers’ key political leverage came through legal victories, what was the purpose of mobiliza-
tion? That is to say, what was the division of labor between the social movement and its lawyers?
One answer is that recycler organizations provided the vision and initiative behind the legal strategy.
As lawyer Ruiz-Restrepo (interview, 2012) explains:
I am a legal, public policy translator of their needs and frustrations. But who had the vision of
saying we need to [compete in the tendering process]? That wasn’t me. I didn’t go looking for
14 Constitutional Court ruling T-291-2009:61l.
15 Constitutional Court ruling T-291-2009:601.
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waste pickers and saying “hey, you have a chance here.” That was [ARB leaders], Nohra
[Padilla] and Silvio [Ruiz-Grisales]. So the initiative is theirs, completely. That’s the social
movement. They had to detect and spot change, they had to understand their environment,
that their environment changed, that the opportunities narrowed, and that in that little tiny
hole—they had to get in. And they had to look for lawyers.
Ruiz-Restrepo credits ARB leaders not only for pivoting focus from social service provision to polit-
ical struggle after the withdrawal of FS, but for collaborating in the creation of legal strategy. For ex-
ample, ARB members found the Cali recyclers who had filed tutelas and helped Ruiz-Restrepo
develop the idea of demanding rights as entrepreneurs.
A second manner by which the recycler movement likely contributed to the legal victories was by
influencing judges and the broader public through displays of what Charles Tilly (1978) terms
“WUNC” (worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment). As Ruiz-Restrepo (interview, 2012)
explains:
These cases would have [hypothetically] been won in the abstract because they are about the
reasonableness, the rationality, and the constitutionality of reform. So your rights are your
rights—it doesn’t matter if you’re 1 or 300,000 people. Now, that is in theory of course. It’s
not the same if you have 300,000 people in front of the court.
Indeed, organized recyclers often show up to public hearings en masse, though their largest turnouts
have numbered in the thousands rather than hundreds of thousands.
16
They also draw upon other
traditional “contentious collective action repertoires” such as demonstrations, media outreach, and
participation in public meetings, as well as solidarity statements and protests from allied domestic
and international recycler organizations (Tilly 1978:42). Importantly, winning the public’s trust to
perform a vital sanitary service requires that the recyclers not only communicate their worthiness and
commitment as protesters, but as workers and managers. To this end, they have created a different
type of symbolic repertoire, ranging from everyday performances of professional identity, to collective
dramatizations of work. For example, to demonstrate their commitment to public service during a
sanitary crisis in December 2012, 120 ARB members volunteered to sweep streets and collect garbage
in the city’s historic center for two weeks, which their NGO allies chronicled and publicized online
through a mini-documentary (WIEGO and ARB 2013).
The third and perhaps most exacting role of the social movement is to hold reluctant policy mak-
ers accountable for implementing the Constitutional Court’s decisions. The need for such outside
political leverage is evidenced by successive municipal administrations’ (2003-2011) resistance to cre-
ating inclusive waste management policy, even after twice being found in contempt of court.
According to a frustrated Ruiz-Restrepo and Barnes (2010):
Seemingly, a case lost by the authorities in front of the Court is believed and felt by the State
as nothing more than a reproach, rather than a binding legal decision. The same attitude applies
with respect to judicial writs, which are interpreted as suggestions (p. 106).
ARB leaders accused municipal administrations during this period not only of flouting the court’s
rulings, but of attempting to undermine the recycler movement as a whole by pitting organizations
against one another and promoting the creation of “false organizations” run by government allies
posing as recyclers. Adversarial relations with municipal policy makers, waste management compa-
nies, and rival recycler organizations have pushed the ARB to rely on displays of WUNC not only
16 Three-hundred-thousand refers to a commonly cited estimate of the total number of recyclers in Colombia (see Hower 1997).
Revolution in the Garbage Dump 17
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to make claims about the rights of recyclers, but to defend its own legitimacy as a representative of
recyclers.
17
CONCLUSION
Labor scholars and organizers have long dismissed informal workers as “unorganizable,” presuming
them to be too weak and fragmented to collectively challenge capital and the state. Undeterred, mil-
lions of “the world’s most vulnerable workers” have begun mobilizing for labor and human rights
over the past quarter century, a period when neoliberalism is said to have crippled workers’ power
(Agarwala 2013:5). What has enabled this unexpected development? I have explored this question
through a case study of the Colombian recycler movement—a “least likely” case for successful mobil-
ization due to the recyclers’ social and economic marginalization and the Colombian state’s violent
repression of labor movements. The rise of neoliberalism and the consolidation of democracy created
political opportunities and threats that galvanized the recycler movement in ways that conventional
perspectives on the informal economy would not lead us to expect. Three specific links connected
these macro-level transformations to increases in the recyclers’ collective organizing capacity. First,
technical, financial, and symbolic backing from NGOs and foundations enabled recyclers to develop
innovative organizing models. Second, human rights provisions contained in the Constitution of
1991 created an opening to challenge state policy. Third, the privatization of waste management—
fueled by structural adjustment pressures and the increased value of recyclables—spurred recyclers to
action by leaving them with two clear-cut possibilities: waste corporations might permanently dis-
place them, or recyclers might collectively organize to protect and improve their livelihoods.
Ruiz-Restrepo (interview, 2012) likens formality to a house and informality to the area surround-
ing it, where “waste pickers were being socially cleansed and running around the pool.” This meta-
phor overstates the informal/formal dichotomy,
18
but is useful in envisioning the power asymmetry
between informal recyclers and waste corporations. Elaborating the metaphor, we might imagine that
for nearly a century house outsiders eked out a living by sorting through a trash can full of waste pri-
marily produced within the house, and selling back valuable components. Over time, members of the
house demanded more raw materials to fuel their consumption, which in turn produced more waste
and provided employment for more members of the growing population of outsiders. The swelling
hordes of recyclers repulsed and frightened house insiders, some of whom saw a business opportun-
ity. These insiders privatized the increasingly valuable resource of waste, bringing the trashcan back
into the house in order to sort through it with modern technology. Just as they were closing the
door, however, a group of outsiders stuck a wedge in it, pried it open, and declared, “If you take the
can into the house, we’re coming with it.” If civil society support was the vehicle that recyclers used
to arrive at the door of the house, then the Constitution of 1991 was the wedge. Notably, the em-
ployment of these tools required collaboration between outsiders and sympathetic insiders. The door
is now open, but it remains to be seen how many recyclers will be welcomed into the house and
whether they will be capable of building enterprises within it.
How does the Colombian recycler movement help us understand the unexpected global boom in
informal worker organizing? Generalizing from any single case study is hazardous and the Colombian
recyclers have admittedly made exceptional gains relative to most of their national and international
counterparts. Nonetheless, though much of the specific configuration of threats and opportunities
17 I shall save further analysis of the contemporary relational dynamics between ARB and other actors in its political field for future
writings, as the present article focuses on the political and economic dynamics that led to the emergence and growth of the re-
cycler movement.
18 Over 30 years after coining the term “informal sector,” Hart (2006:24, 29) warned that the concept poses an either/or fallacy.
The informal/formal dichotomy “gives the impression that [informal and formal] are located in different places, like agriculture
and manufacturing” and leads scholars to “mistake the category for the reality it identifies.” In fact, the formal and informal
economies are closely interwoven and many enterprises exist in a grey area between the two ideal types. Cobb, King, and
Rodriguez (2009) propose a “spectrum of formality.”
18 Rosaldo
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that stimulated their movement are specific to the Colombian waste industry, many of the processes
behind it had their genesis at the global level. It is not unreasonable to conjecture that given a local
political context of democratic consolidation and a local social context in which civil society organiza-
tions provide support, grievances created by neoliberal reforms are likely to provoke increased infor-
mal worker organizing efforts. Systematic cross-national and cross-industrial analyses of informal
worker movements are needed to corroborate this hypothesis. Nonetheless, the gains of the
Colombian recyclers suggest that working in cohort, marginalized workers and civil society groups
may tap into reservoirs of power that are not anticipated by narratives that view neoliberal globaliza-
tion and the resultant erosion of labor’s power as an inevitable and monolithic process.
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... Research on how integration of the IRS takes place in different low-income and middle-income countries is growing (Aparcana, 2017;Gall et al., 2020;Scheinberg, 2011). An example of this are the specific studies carried out in Latin America: in Argentina (Villalba, 2020), Brazil (Ibáñez-Forés et al., 2018;Rutkowski & Rutkowski, 2015), Chile (Navarrete-Hernandez & Navarrete-Hernandez, 2018), Colombia (Rosaldo, 2016(Rosaldo, , 2019 and Peru (Diaz & Otoma, 2012). Aparcana, 2017 mentions other countries which have started this process in national legislations, but many difficulties persist to make integration a reality at local level (e.g. ...
... This centralisation might result in disarticulations with local demands, mainly in lowincome and rural municipalities. On the other hand, several decisions from the Constitutional Court (judicial branch) are the predecessors of current public policies about the formalisation of WPs within municipal waste management systems (Lacre, 2017;Parra, 2016;Rosaldo, 2016). ...
... In Colombia, informal recycling began in the 1950s because of the crisis of violence that dispossessed millions of peasants of their lands, who saw in this profession a means of survival within the poorest towns in large cities, working mainly in dumpsites (Rosaldo, 2016(Rosaldo, , 2019. In 1962, the first known WPs' organisation was created in Medellin (Colombia), for over a year (Birkbeck, 1978;Rosaldo, 2016). ...
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This article aims to identify and comprehend the challenges and strengths behind public policies on integrating waste pickers (WPs) within waste management systems in Colombia and Brazil. In both, WPs started to come together and found organisations and external agents such as NGOs began to support organised groups of WPs. After 10 years of judicial court actions in Colombia, WPs organisations were finally recognised in legislation, while in Brazil, they were recognised in 2007 in one of the national policies through lobby. Today, there are almost 700 WPs organisations formalised in Colombia and 1700 in Brazil. Their public policies’ main achievements and challenges are exposed to supply knowledge to other countries interested in this theme. A Roadmap for the organisation and formalisation of WPs within waste management systems was created. This constitutes a source of information for policymakers in other emerging economies to address this in their territories.
... Neoliberal economists have sought to recast informal workers as heroic entrepreneurs who demonstrate free market capitalism's potential to solve problems of underdevelopment (De Soto, 1989). Structuralist sociologists, in contrast, have emphasized both informal workers' location the bottom of capitalist webs of exploitation (Portes et al., 1989), and their capacity to contest such exploitation through collective organizing (Rosaldo, 2016). ...
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Since its coining in 1971, the concept of the “informal sector” has been used to draw scholarly, political, and philanthropic attention to hundreds of millions of workers who lack basic labor protections. But as the term proliferated, so too did its detractors. Critics claim that the label of “informal” homogenizes the world's poor and distorts understandings of the sources of and solutions to their economic woes. What are the origins of the concept's contradictory nature? What strategies have scholars used to increase the likelihood that it will be used to illuminate and uplift, rather than to distort and denigrate? This article analyzes how scholars have resignified and retheorized the informal economy in response to five conceptual challenges: stigmatization, definitional fuzziness, homogenization, an either/or fallacy, and the presumption of “formalization” as the solution. Such efforts have preserved the concept's analytic potency and political relevance. In the longer term, however, a true testament to the concept's value would be if it outlives its own utility; that is, if it mobilizes enough recognition and resources to the invisibilized majority of the world's workers that scholars and state bureaucrats no longer feel the need to lump them together under a misleading catchall label.
... Schindler et al., 2012), and reclaimer organisation as a response, and act of resistance, to S@S (c.f. Rosaldo, 2016). In South Africa, a number of municipalities have implemented S@S schemes that are usually run by private companies (cf. ...
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Within South Africa’s recycling economy, informal waste pickers (also known as reclaimers) generate immense value for local waste management systems by diverting waste from landfills. However, official municipal separation at source ([email protected]) programmes, that task residents with sorting recyclables from their waste for separate collection, have failed to integrate reclaimers’ unofficial collection system. This dislocates reclaimers, forcing them to work on the margins of municipal [email protected] programmes and forge separate links with residents to maintain access to recyclables. Drawing on extensive qualitative research in Johannesburg, South Africa, this article reflects on how residents in three different residential neighbourhoods understood and interacted with reclaimers’ unofficial collection system and the official [email protected] programme run by the city. Our findings suggest that five types of residents emerge: wasters (who did not see the value in recycling), agnostics (who did not care who collected their recyclables), enforcers (who actively prevented reclaimers from accessing recyclables), community integrators (who gave their materials to reclaimers); and competitors (who supplemented their own income by selling recyclables). We argue that residents and reclaimers play active roles in shaping official [email protected] on the ground, and cannot be ignored when developing [email protected] programmes. Furthermore, [email protected] and integration are inherently related, as they each target the same residents and the same recyclables, and therefore cannot be understood or addressed in isolation. Unless a specific commitment is made to integrate [email protected], [email protected] becomes a reclaimer dis-integration programme. These findings have broad implications for how [email protected] should be conceptualised, designed, and implemented.
... These characteristics provide some explanation for both the obstacles traditional unions have encountered in organising informal workers and, equally important, the fact that these workers have often sought alternatives to conventional working-class forms of organising as channels for their collective action (Bonner and Spooner, 2011;Agarwala, 2014). Nonetheless, there are a number of successful organising experiences among informal workers that show that, while difficult, workers do find the ways to express their demands collectively, as has been the case with domestic workers, street vendors, home-based workers, recyclers and so on (Bonner and Spooner, 2011;Chen, 2012;Argawala, 2014;Rosaldo, 2016). Moreover, emerging informal workers' organisations have managed to provide options to sectors that have remained historically marginal to union's spheres of action (Argarwala, 2014). ...
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Our article engages with discussions about the implications of precarious work and its impact on workers’ capacity to organise by analysing the case of Argentina’s Confederation of Popular Economy Workers (CTEP, Confederación de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular). The organisation was created in 2011 with the aim of representing a broad and heterogeneous group of workers in varying conditions of informality, precarious self-employment and workfare programmes. We trace the history of the organisation and analyse its development by focusing on the role of social assistance as a crucial expression of the changing relations between precarious workers and the state. Social assistance has provided some resources for addressing the reproduction needs of precarious workers and of the territories in which they live, and also the material means through which an organisation like CTEP has sought to consolidate its political work among precarious workers. Nonetheless, social assistance has also worked as a means to circumscribe broader demands for change into issues to be addressed through social policy. Our argument is that central to CTEP’s trajectory as an organisation of precarious workers was its attempt to break away from the narrow confines of social assistance, pushing for changes that would allow its members to gain some autonomy both materially and institutionally. KEYWORDS: Argentina; precarious worker organisations; CTEP; social assistance policy
... As argued in urban studies more generally, this provides limited grounding through which to study cases where informality and poverty significantly shape waste practices. A large part of the current research on waste in the global south focuses on the practices of informal waste collectors (Millington and Lawhon, 2019;Mitchell, 2008;Samson 2010a;Schenck and Blaauw, 2011;Gutberlet, 2012;Thieme, 2013;Millar, 2014) and broader patterns of neoliberalisation, privatisation and enclosure (Millington and Lawhon, 2019;Njeru, 2006;Holifield, 2004;Miraftab, 2004;Gidwani and Reddy, 2011;Gutberlet, 2012;Fredericks, 2014;Gidwani, 2015;Samson, 2015;Rosaldo, 2016). Our work draws from these analyses in order to develop understandings of the links between policy, technology, poverty, power and waste itself, particularly in light of the changing political economy of waste internationally, regionally and nationally and associated political and technological interventions. ...
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This chapter describes the dynamic institutional, technical, social and political ecological landscape of waste management in South Africa and how this in turn is shaping the practices by which waste is transformed into economic and social value, who is allowed to claim such benefits, and what makes for successful claims. Drawing on urban political ecology (UPE), we call attention to the competing mandates of government – to manage waste, support social development and increase employment while limiting the cost of both and nurturing a green sustainable transition model – and the ways in which various actors respond to these oſten countervailing mandates. The empirical work is based on investigations into: 1) the technologisation of waste management; 2) the differential impacts of the internationalisation of waste management finance; and 3) initiatives that emphasise collaborative governance and community participation and awareness as means of improving waste management. In a global context, we further argue that the South African case is particularly instructive in how the neoliberalisation of the South African state is intersected with widening socio-ecological polarisation and the discursive emphasis on pursuing a more socially inclusive and ecologically benign development trajectory.
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Under what conditions do collaborations between informal workers and the state in public service provision lead to socially beneficial synergies, and when might they intensify inequalities? This article, based on 14 months of ethnographic research, addresses this question through a comparative case study of two attempts to co-produce recycling services in São Paulo. The first, a grassroots organizing effort in the 1980s and 1990s, improved the incomes and conditions of hundreds of waste pickers and inspired a national upsurge of waste picker organizing. The second, an ambitious overhaul of waste management in the early 2000s, generated about 1,500 jobs but functionally excluded the very population of street waste pickers it was designed to benefit. The findings suggest that co-production is most likely to lead to pro-poor outcomes if concerted efforts are made to level inequalities between poor constituents and more powerful stakeholders during processes of policy design and implementation.
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Many cities in the Global South have experienced rapid urbanisation during the past decades that has added further pressure to their (often) rudimentary Municipal Solid Waste Management (MSWM) systems. This has reduced the ability of many local governments and other related actors to cope with these changes, further catalysing negative social, environmental, and economic impacts from such underperforming infrastructure systems. By focusing on Bolivian cities, this study identifies the most relevant challenges, opportunities, and responses related to the sustainability of MSWM systems in urban settings of the Global South. To achieve this, we populate the different dimensions and sub-dimensions of the Integrated and Sustainable Solid Waste Management Framework (ISWM) with qualitative information elicited from semi-structured interviews with the main stakeholders involved in MSWM systems in the largest Bolivian cities. The results suggest that despite the different perceptions and interests of the interviewed stakeholders, some commonalities exist, particularly in their shared (a) concern over the potential health and environmental impacts of the current MSWM systems and (b) sense of urgency for a paradigm change, particularly towards more inclusive and holistic/integrated approaches for MSWM systems. We discuss how these aspects might intersect with future transition pathways and their ramifications for different stakeholder groups.
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How does the world of work in Latin America affect the way workers act to defend their interests? To what extent have “productionist” demands, those concerning jobs, work conditions, and wages, which are highly salient across the region, been “displaced” by consumptionist or political demands? While the literature has distinguished formal and informal work grosso modo, we explore individual traits of work, which cross-cut the formal-informal distinction. Analyzing survey data from four Latin American capital cities, we find, not surprisingly, that both work-based atomization and insecurity depress demand making in the work arena. But these traits of work also affect demand making on the state, albeit in somewhat different ways. Insecurity is associated with a shift from productionist to consumptionist and political demands, while atomization is associated with a more generalized demobilization across issues. These findings have implications for the representation of worker interests in light of current labor market restructuring and raise the question if labor can reclaim an important voice in that restructuring process.
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Criminal extortion is an understudied, but widespread and severe problem in Latin America. In states that cannot or choose not to uphold the rule of law, victims are often seen as helpless in the face of powerful criminals. However, even under such difficult circumstances, victims resist criminal extortion in surprisingly different ways. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in violent localities in Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico, Moncada weaves together interviews, focus groups, and participatory drawing exercises to explain why victims pursue distinct strategies to resist criminal extortion. The analysis traces and compares processes that lead to individual acts of everyday resistance; sporadic killings by ad hoc groups of victims and police; institutionalized and sustained collective vigilantism; and coordination between victims and states to co-produce order in ways that both strengthen and undermine the rule of law. This book offers valuable new insights into the broader politics of crime and the state.
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El presente trabajo busca resaltar la importancia de la labor de los recuperadores de residuos plásticos. La investigación ha sido adelantada en Villavicencio-Meta en el marco del proyecto Investigación de mercados, enfocada en el aprovechamiento de residuos plásticos (PP, PEAD, PEBD) para el sector de la construcción, que busca abordar aspectos ambientales, sociales y económicos relacionados con el adecuado aprovechamiento de residuos plásticos en la ciudad. La metodología empleada parte de un enfoque mixto (cualitativo-cuantitativo), gracias al cual, a través de entrevistas semiestructuradas y encuestas, ha sido posible establecer el número y las características de las asociaciones existentes en Villavicencio, las condiciones socioeconómicas de quienes se dedican a esta actividad, sus percepciones y perspectivas sobre el negocio y el siguiente eslabón de esta cadena productiva. En general, es posible describir a los recuperadores como personas de bajos ingresos, que se dedican a esta actividad debido a factores como el nivel de escolaridad y la avanzada edad. Esto no significa que la actividad de recuperación de materiales plásticos sea un mal negocio, al contrario, reconocen que permite obtener buenos ingresos en la medida en que se recoja una buena cantidad de residuos; sin embargo, existe una alta competencia en el oficio y los precios de compra tienden a la baja, ya que este tipo de materia prima suele importarse a precios más bajos.
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This paper presents the scenario related to urban solid waste in Brazil, in the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo and in the city of São Paulo, pointing out the main advances, setbacks and challenges. The emphasis is on the important role of the universalization of selective waste collection with the inclusion of waste pickers of recyclable materials within the city of São Paulo as a strategy to promote socio-environmental urban sustainability.
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This article examines five common misunderstandings about case-study research: (1) Theoretical knowledge is more valuable than practical knowledge; (2) One cannot generalize from a single case, therefore the single case study cannot contribute to scientific development; (3) The case study is most useful for generating hypotheses, while other methods are more suitable for hypotheses testing and theory building; (4) The case study contains a bias toward verification; and (5) It is often difficult to summarize specific case studies. The article explains and corrects these misunderstandings one by one and concludes with the Kuhnian insight that a scientific discipline without a large number of thoroughly executed case studies is a discipline without systematic production of exemplars, and that a discipline without exemplars is an ineffective one. Social science may be strengthened by the execution of more good case studies.
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This article draws from and develops themes from my earlier work on human rights and social movements. It is organised in three main parts. The first looks at the socio-historical links between human rights and social movements, critiquing the dominant literature and examining the complex and ambiguous relationship between human rights and power. The second explores the implications of my analysis for issues in social theory, pointing towards the need for reconstructing a non-Eurocentric historical sociology that has a concept of creative agency from below at its core. The third part briefly considers some largely unexplored links between human rights, social movements and democratic praxis asking whether social movements, as particular forms of human association, have specific roles to play in embedding and deepening democratic praxis. A brief conclusion reflects on the main themes of the article.
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Since the 1980s, the world‘s governments have decreased state welfare and thus increased the number of unprotected ‘informal’ or ‘precarious’ workers. As a result, more and more workers do not receive secure wages or benefits from either employers or the state. This book offers a fresh and provocative look into the alternative social movements informal workers in India are launching. It also offers a unique analysis of the conditions under which these movements succeed or fail. Drawing from 300 interviews with informal workers, government officials and union leaders, Rina Agarwala argues that Indian informal workers are using their power as voters to demand welfare benefits from the state, rather than demanding traditional work benefits from employers. In addition, they are organizing at the neighborhood level, rather than the shop floor, and appealing to ‘citizenship’, rather than labor rights.