Geopolitics

Waste In Brazil, Where Environmental Failure Meets Dire Poverty

Brazil has utterly failed to find an environmentally friendly response to waste disposal. The struggling economy makes change unlikely, meaning ever more garbage "pickers" making modest livings sifting through the dumps.

A trash picker at the Gramacho Garden landfill, on the northern outskirts of Rio de Janeiro
A trash picker at the Gramacho Garden landfill, on the northern outskirts of Rio de Janeiro
Lucas Ferraz and Avener Prado

PERUÍBE â€" One of the ways to measure a country's development (or lack thereof) is to look at its garbage. Unfortunately for Brazil, such scrutiny is yet more proof that our country's woes, as we have plainly failed to eradicate landfills as the quantity of our garbage continues to pile up every year.

And it doesn't look like the situation will improve in the near future. Brazil's ongoing economic crisis and the unprecedented budget deficit of more than 50 billion reais ($13 billion) forecast for 2016 are certain to exacerbate the problem.

For the lowest rungs of society, it means ever more people will be pushed into the degrading position of sifting and sorting through the mountains of trash in dumps to resell what they can find, while the country as a whole has fewer resources to tackle the issue.

"I know that a lot of people don't have the courage to face such a disgusting task, but I really didn't have any other choice," explains 31-year-old Edson Sousa Silva, who recently began garbage "picking" in the landfill in Peruíbe, on the southern coast of São Paulo state.

Without work available in civil construction, he found himself out of a job. Two months ago, he started searching the landfill for materials to recycle. Since then, he's earned 2,000 reais ($500). He works at night, sifting through domestic garbage with a headlamp but without any protection for his hands. "It's slower with gloves," he says.

Peruíbe's landfill is just one example of Brazil's failure to deal with its garbage. The fence around it doesn't change the fact that the waste piles up under the open sky. It draws dozens of trash pickers, including children, who climb up and down the mountains of garbage. They all start work at around dusk, the only time when they can enter the site.

There is a stream just 500 meters away, threatened by the dregs created as trash decomposes, which penetrates the soil until it reaches ground water.

Working in a dump, living in a slum

Most of those who work here live in the neighborhood nearby. It's a depressing slum along the highway that increasing numbers of people are forced to call home. "I'd rather live here than in jail," says José Carlos Sena, a 39-year-old who's been working in Peruíbe's landfill for nine years. Like most houses in the area, his consists of material he collected in the dump. He sometimes even finds discarded food to eat.

According to Brazil's Environment Ministry, there are 3,000 landfills across the country and about 800,000 people who sort through garbage for a living. Almost half of Brazil's waste ends up in these dumps.

And yet, as another sign of the unfulfilled euphoria of the Lula years (2003-2010), a 2010 National Policy of Solid Waste planned for all landfills to disappear by August 2014. Brazil missed the target by a long shot.

"Even in 50 years, we might not be done with them," says Albino Rodrigues Alvarez, a scientist who led a waste study at the Institute of Applied Economic Research. "The plan was far too ambitious. Garbage is a civic challenge, and it's directly connected to education."

A good example of the issue's complexity is in the capital, Brasilia. The city boasts the highest income per capita in the country, yet the nearest dump, Lixão da Estrutural, is the largest in all of Latin America.

But despite the initial blatant failure, a new bill currently being reviewed by Congress would create a new deadline to eradicate landfills. For small cities, the new deadline would be 2021.

"If we couldn’t solve the problem in the last five years, will we in the next five?" asks Ariovaldo Caodaglio, president of the São Paulo State Union of Urban Cleaning Companies. He says municipalities depend on federal cash to deal with the garbage crisis, but the current situation and the recession are likely to jeopardize these efforts.

Still, in a sad paradox, landfills offer a humble blessing for some families. After working in a landfill for years and then officially retiring, 65-year-old Aparecido Bonifacio continues to return to Peruíbe almost every night with his wife and daughter to sift through the trash for valuables. Together, they earn a modest living.

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Green

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.


It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park

Xinhua/ZUMA

Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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