Columbia - Recycling co-operative (1996)

    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
                         July, 1996

            (Source: ICA News, Issue No.3/1996- pp.4-5)

     Colombia - Recycling Co-operative Offers New Beginnings
                         by John Julian

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

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

"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-ops 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

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

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.

In 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.