Recycling Co-operative Offers New Beginnings (1996)

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   This document has been made available in electronic format
           by the International Co-operative Alliance.
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   Colombia - Recycling Co-operative Offers New Beginnings
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         Story for ICA by John Julian, CCA Canada

At 16, Nellie was in big trouble. She was pregnant, illiterate,
unskilled, and she had two children under the age of two. Her
husband, a thief, was failing in his chosen profession, her
parents were dead, and the children were hungry. In Buccaramanga,
Colombia, Nellie's options were limited. 

Desperate, Nellie made her way to the edge of the city, and with
her two tiny children, walked down the dusty gravel road to the
municipal garbage dump. For Nellie, and others who have passed
that way before and since, it is a long, hot walk into hell.

The dump is situated on a relatively flat piece of land
surrounded on three sides by hills. Chulos "a type of vulture"
wheel overhead or cluster on the ground, feeding on the garbage.
Scattered on the hills around are little makeshift shelters of
sticks and tattered plastic and cardboard "home to as many as 200
people who survive by scavenging in the dump. When garbage trucks
rumble in the people emerge through the billowing clouds of dust
to swarm over the piles, pulling out glass or plastic "anything
saleable". Most carry knives to cut up plastic and to defend
themselves from each other. When the human population at the dump
gets too large, civic minded citizens have been known to shoot
them. Nor do the authorities pay much heed if the dump dwellers
kill each other. There are just two rules to follow at the dump -
the law of the jungle, and the code of silence.

"We were desechables," says Nellie, "the disposable ones. No one
ever went to jail for killing one of us. I was no better than an
animal." Like Nellie, all the people who find their way to the
dump teeter precariously on the bottom rung of society. Many are
alcoholic, and others addicted to basuko, a by-product of cocaine
that is cheap, highly addictive, damaging to those who use it,
and readily available throughout Colombia.

Nellie's immediate concern on her arrival, and during much of the
four years she spent in the dump, was food. If she and her
children found bottles or plastic, they often traded with others
who had found food in the mounds of refuse. Chulos provided extra
protein. Enterprising people would kill the birds and roast them
- a simple enough matter in a dump. The rotting garbage provided
a ready source of fuel. A deep hole would release enough methane
gas for a steady fire. Life in the dump was ugly, violent, and
very often short.

Salvation for Nellie and many other dump workers came from an
unexpected source. The city of Buccaramanga was planning to close
the dump and replace it with a modern landfill. A team of social
workers from Santander University were dispatched to look into
the problem of the people who lived there. After months of daily
visits a co-operative was formed, and for the dump people who
joined it was a ticket out of hell. Nellie was among the first
to sign up.

Ten years later, little has changed in the dump. But everything
has changed for Nellie. Now thirty, and married for the second
time to another co-op member, Nellie is a senior member of the
co-operative. Her job these days is as a supervisor at the
co-op's recycling facility. 

There, workers sort and package a wide range of products for
resale. And while they may still be working in the same industry
as they did during their days in the dump, the recycling facility
might as well be on another planet.

The workers wear neat uniforms - green to symbolize hope. To be
a member of the co-operative a new recruit must be free of drugs
and alcohol. The facility is orderly and businesslike, and at the
end of the month there is a steady pay cheque of between 250,000
and 300,000 pesos, approximately $500 to $600 Canadian dollars.

The recycling facility is not the only business that the
co-operative is involved in. The co-op members, now more than 130
strong, clean buildings throughout the city. They run a
restaurant, and have contracts to sweep city streets. Others go
door to door, collecting recyclable products in the suburbs.
There is a co-op run restaurant at the city's gigantic new bus
terminal. And in one of the poorer barrios of the city there is
a daycare centre where more than 60 children, dressed in
carefully laundered white shorts and T-shirts, spend their days
learning and singing and playing.

Without the co-operative, their fate would certainly have been
that of the hard eyed, dirty children that can still be found
growing up in the horror of the dump.

The members of the co-operative are proud and independent. Their
co-operative has never received assistance from government.
Starting with capital of less than $100 they have grown, in 10
years, to own the buildings that house the recycling plant and
the daycare centre. They own two trucks and a variety of other
pieces of equipment, and they have provided themselves with
employment and a new life.

The university which was instrumental in establishing the
co-operative has maintained its ties, and the co-operative is a
member of ASCOOP, the national association of co-operatives in
Colombia. Through ASCOOP the co-operative is part of a program,
funded by the Canadian Co-operative Association, that provides
skilled technical assistance and credit. They have had help from
ASCOOP business specialists and auditors, and are about to
receive a loan to buy a machine to compress and bale cardboard.
Money for the recycling co-op~s part of the program was
contributed by St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Good Neighbour
Fund, of Ottawa, Ontario. 

Nellie and her new husband have bought their own house. They now
have two more children, and the family owns a shiny new
motorbike. After years of attending school on Saturdays, Nellie
has completed the first levels of high school. A measure of the
respect she has earned in the co-operative is the fact that she
has been assigned the duty of working with new recruits. When
they arrive fresh from the dump, Nellie helps them to adjust to
the discipline of an ordered and regulated working life.

She has never had to refuse a new recruit entry into the
co-operative. By the time they complete their three-month trial,
the recruits know for themselves whether they belong or not. Long
before the trial period is over, those who cannot conform, who
cannot contain their violence, or for whom the pull of basuko or
alcohol is still too strong, usually drift back to the dump. 

Nellie has another important responsibility with the
co-operative. She supervises the co-op members who return to the
dump as buyers to purchase products for the recycling facility.
For many co-op members, this job would be impossible. They have
escaped the fate that awaited them in the dump, and they cannot
bear to tempt that fate by once again travelling down that dusty,
litter-strewn road.

On a sunny day in March, Nellie makes one of her visits to the
dump. The chulos swoop and swirl as she is greeted warmly by a
growing crowd of children and adults, caked with dirt and dressed
in an odd assortment of cast-off clothes. They press in around
her to exchange greetings.

Nellie stops to talk to a tiny, baby-faced 13-year-old. The girl
is small because she has lived most of her life in the dump. She
has never had adequate nutrition. Already she has two children,
and according to Nellie, is passed around from man to man like
a piece of communal property. As Nellie turns away a look of
terrible sadness comes over her face. She sits rigidly in the
van, and as the vehicle begins to move she looks neither left nor
right, and certainly not back. Just straight ahead down the
narrow road to redemption.