Collective Action for Waste Management Discussed in Favelas of Complexo do Alemão

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On Saturday, February 23, community-based social and cultural development organization Instituto Raízes em Movimento (Roots in Movement Institute) hosted the event “Waste: Policies and Challenges,” bringing together local residents and guest speakers to address the issue of waste both locally in the favelas of Complexo do Alemão, in Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone, and in a global context. The event focused on the socio-cultural impacts of waste and how, in turn, socio-cultural dimensions can be part of the solution. Twenty community members joined the discussion, which was held outside of the organization’s headquarters in Alemão, as they began to tackle the increasingly pressing challenge of urban waste.

The discussion, which was part of the Vamos Desenrolar (“Let’s Talk It Out”) project—an initiative aiming to foster discussion on relevant issues in the community with an emphasis on the environment in 2018/2019—provided all in attendance the space to voice their experiences and exchange ideas with the guest speakers. The waste management specialists invited to participate were Dona Josefa Maria da Conceição, an artisan and volunteer at North Zone environmental organization Verdejar; Marcio Ranauro, an anthropologist focused on socio-environmental public policy; Robson Borges, founder of recycling cooperative Eu Quero Liberdade (“I Want Freedom”)and Aloísio Caetano de Carvalho, nicknamed “Smile” for his charisma and infectious smile, a famous employee of Rio’s municipal waste collection utility COMLURB.

Two key points emerged during the three-hour gathering. First is the need for increased education, both in schools and throughout the community, to ensure that children grow up with the environmental awareness that is crucial for future generations. According to Borges—whose recycling cooperative works with formerly incarcerated individuals to reutilize waste for eco-construction—environmental education is vital to enable “a series of benefits, a domino effect” both locally and globally. The second key point is the need for collective action. Ricardo Moura, who works with Instituto Raízes em Movimento, concentrated on this point, suggesting that change would not come from top-down forces but from within the community itself—as is the case with many of the challenges faced by residents of Alemão and other favelas in Rio. Moura commented: “We cannot have individual action… What we do here is all connected and fundamental.” There was agreement on this point—positive change is essential and must be community-led. One resident commented on the importance of discussing these issues in the community: “This space is extremely important and necessary. I need to be here.”

Both of these points centered around the need for community consciousness surrounding waste. Discussing the need for collective environmental awareness, Borges commented: “Other people depend on my conscience, my leadership, my knowledge, and my awareness.”

Borges and Carvalho spoke about their experiences and work in the area of waste management. Both associated the word “violence” to Rio’s relationship with waste. Robson described the “cycle of violence” that includes violence towards the environment, violence toward public health, and violence towards future generations. Considering waste as a form of violence reframes its inappropriate disposal as a choice, or a deliberate (rather than passive) act, that causes harm to the individual and those around them. This understanding provides a new narrative that may help strengthen the environmental consciousness that is needed in the community. It became clear throughout the discussion that in Alemão and other favelas, waste management and human development are seen to be inextricably linked and to neglect one would be to hinder the other.

This meeting presented community members with space to discuss ideas and start to tackle what is a major challenge not just in Alemão, but throughout Rio and beyond. Organizations such as Instituto Raízes em Movimento and events such as this are born out the resilience that is inherent to favelas and nurtured by the persistent need to act collectively to solve community challenges. Residents’ passion and love for their community was evident throughout the discussion. The meeting was engaging and inclusive, giving rise to the discussion of tangible socio-environmental solutions and providing yet another example of the vibrancy and ingenuity of favela communities.