Nohra Padilla began organizing waste pickers into recyclers in Bogota, Colombia, in 1990. Photo courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize

by Mike CeasarSF Chronicle
April 15th, 2013

Bogota, Colombia

Fourteen years ago, Blanca Cecilia Lopez began combing the streets of this South American metropolis in search of sellable articles to feed her family. She typically earned only a few dollars a day scavenging bottles, cans, paper and any other reusable items that she could find.

“I worked in the sun and rain” carrying heavy loads of collected materials, she recalled.

Two years ago, however, her life changed dramatically thanks to a grassroots organization that found her a position at a city recycling center with a monthly salary and health benefits.

The 50-year-old mother of seven owes her new life to Nohra Padilla, who began organizing waste pickers like Lopez in 1990 into the Bogota Recyclers’ Association. For her work, Padilla is one of six recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize to be awarded Monday at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House.

Over the years, the association, which has 2,000 members, has battled city officials and private sanitation companies vying to monopolize trash collection from Bogota’s 8 million inhabitants. In the 1980s and 1990s, Padilla and other organizers were threatened by right-wing paramilitaries who regarded organizing the poor as subversive. Several waste pickers were murdered in what the militias called “social cleansing.”

Padilla, 47, is a short, spirited mother of three teenage boys, who is a third-generation waste picker. Her grandparents were subsistence farmers who moved to Bogota around 1940 in search of work. One of the few jobs they could find was at the city dump sifting through trash for recyclable items.

At 7, Padilla began working alongside her mother. After high school, she married a fellow waste picker and years later earned a college degree in public administration.

But it was during her teenage years that a talent for organizing and motivating others emerged, turning Padilla into a leader of an estimated 17,000 waste pickers who are a common sight on Bogota streets pushing hand carts or riding on horse carts piled high with scavenged trash.

Mike Ceaser, SFC

Blanca Cecilia Lopez (center) sorts paper for recycling in a warehouse in Bogota, Colombia, where she earns a decent wage instead of struggling to find trash to sell every day.

“Since I was a little girl, I’ve tried to motivate people to overcome our problems,” she said.

Recyclers win major suit

In December 2011, the association won a landmark lawsuit when the nation’s Supreme Court ruled that waste pickers must have a voice alongside city officials and private companies during contract negotiations.

The ruling also mandated set routes, schedules, collection points and prices for each kilo of recyclable materials removed from city streets. Most waste pickers, who prefer the term recycler, now receive nearly $49 per ton delivered to recycling centers. The nation’s minimum wage is $325 a month.

“If she (Padilla) weren’t around, the recyclers would have to compete with the big trash companies,” said Federico Parra, regional coordinator for a global nonprofit that helps improve conditions for the working poor.

On a recent afternoon, Padilla stood in a gritty warehouse the size of a soccer field piled halfway to the ceiling with stacks and barrels of discarded paper. She reached into one barrel, pulling out an envelope and ripping a bit of nonrecyclable plastic from a piece of recyclable paper.

It’s a tiny item of the estimated 661,000 pounds of recyclable materials processed monthly at this central warehouse. Nearby storage areas process metals and cardboard, while diverting some 30 percent of Bogota’s trash away from the city dump, which is projected to fill up sometime this year, according to dump administrators.

Model for other cities

Fernando Medellin, an adviser to Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, hopes regional mayors will see the value of incorporating low-income waste pickers into their city’s garbage collection scheme. His city’s model, he says, should “be reproduced across Latin America.”

Padilla says waste pickers provide a service that corporate sanitation companies could never match.

“They know their customers, who give them a bit of wine, or the notebooks that their children don’t need,” she said. “It’s a relationship that goes way beyond just the garbage.”

At the same time, Blanca Cecilia Lopez no longer struggles to eke out a living.

“Now I’ve got a good job,” she said proudly, “and a way to pay for my children’s studies.”

Mike Ceaser is a freelance reporter in Bogota. E-mail: foreigndesk@sfchronicle.com

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