By Santi Carneri
RIO DE JANEIRO – The closure of Latin America’s largest dump will put some 1,200 people out of work who live by selling the reusable goods they find among the 8,400 tons of trash produced daily by Brazil’s second city.
The city dump with the bucolic name of Gramacho Garden occupies an enormous expanse of fields in the Rio suburb of Duque de Caxias next to Guanabara Bay, an ecologically rich marine site that contrasts with the mountains of garbage dumped every day by scores of trucks on the land bordering it.
Inaugurated in 1976 when Brazil was under military rule, the giant dump has had a heavy environmental impact from the decomposition of waste materials that generate methane, a greenhouse gas.
Much of the garbage from Rio de Janeiro and several neighboring municipalities ends up here, attracting an infinity of flies and vultures.
Previously about 70 percent of Rio de Janeiro’s trash went to Gramacho, but since the 2011 establishment of the Seropedica Waste Treatment Center, the quantity has ebbed.
About 2,000 tons of rubbish are unloaded daily at this dump, or around a quarter of what it received several years ago.
Scavengers who labor all day among the huge piles of garbage live by selling the metals, cardboard, cans, plastic and paper they collect there.
Garbage trucks come and go 24 hours a day, while the scavengers work day and night shifts and vultures flay forever overhead.
A worker told Efe that for a kilo (2.2 pounds) of copper, the most prized material, he can get up to 9 reais ($4.83), 2 reais ($1.08) for aluminum and just 1 real ($.54) for each kilo of plastic that they cram into the big canvas bags they carry at all times.
“If you get going you can make up to 150 reais (nearly $80) a day, now only enough for the rent, a coffee and an empanada,” Melquits said.
A few steps further on, Elaine, 24, wore a hat and plastic gloves to keep from dirtying her hair or ruining her nail polish.
The young woman is finishing her studies and plans to be a hairdresser, but meanwhile works at the dump to get by.
Since the city and state of Rio de Janeiro decided to close the dump, the scavengers have been negotiating with the authorities to try and obtain 21 million reais ($11 million) in compensation.
Most of those who pick over the trash have been working here for more than 15 years and are afraid they won’t find another livelihood, which is why they’re pleading with the authorities not to just forget about them.
Others believe the state will come to their aid, like Ivan, who has been working the Gramacho dump for 20 years and plans to take the money they give him to open a business together with some of his fellow workers.
“We need that money to start a business and to survive until we find another job,” said 36-year-old Juliano, who has been working at the city dump since he arrived from Sao Paulo at age 14.
Juliano believes he deserves this help from the state and threatens to start an uprising if it doesn’t come through, though he immediately acknowledged that he would prefer a peaceful solution.
A woman named Angelica said she wants to earn her living with dignity, which is why she has come here every day since 1994. “I don’t want to beg or steal, I have no education and this is my only way to make a living,” she said.
The definitive closure of the city dump is scheduled for this month, but city hall has postponed it until May, due to the lack of an accord with the scavengers on some kind of compensation. EFE