As A Massive Garbage Dump Closes In Brazil, Trash-Pickers Face An Uncertain Future : Parallels Authorities are closing a dump on the outskirts of Brasilia. Some 2,000 trash-pickers, who sort and sell recyclables, depend on the dump for their livelihoods — despite the risk of disease and injury.

As A Massive Garbage Dump Closes In Brazil, Trash-Pickers Face An Uncertain Future

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We turn now to Brazil and its modern capital Brasilia. That city was conceived and planned as a kind of utopia, yet its mastermind, the world-renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer, and his fellow planners forgot something critical, which left the city with a dirty secret. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.




UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Brazil's capital, Brasilia, is celebrating its inauguration in a blaze of optimism.


REEVES: The world watches on TV, dazzled by the modernist architecture and plans for stately parks and promenades. The new city seemed so orderly. No one expected back then that today, there'd be this.


REEVES: This is the second-largest open garbage dump in the world. Brasilia was created without a purpose-built landfill. Its trash wound up being tossed here, on open ground some 20 minutes' drive from the presidential palace. The dump now occupies as much space as 250 football fields and is as close to resembling hell as anywhere you'll likely find.


REEVES: There are vultures everywhere. There are swarms of flies. There are piles and piles of black garbage bags which are broken open and are spewing their contents out into the sea of mud. There are people all over this, picking through it, looking for bottles, looking for bits of plastic, bits of metal, anything that they can sell to a middleman.


REEVES: A garbage truck arrives...


REEVES: ...And disgorges a load of dripping trash bags.


REEVES: The trash-pickers start punching holes in the bags even before they hit the ground and pulling out plastic bottles for recycling. There are kids in their early teens. Quite a few of the pickers are women, including many single moms who struggle to get regular jobs because they've been in trouble with the authorities. Sometimes, they find corpses.


REEVES: Miriam Ribeiro Araujo has been in and out of prison.

MIRIAM RIBEIRO ARAUJO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: She says she comes here to earn cash to buy food for her son. The garbage and the methane gas it creates damages the skin, eyes and lungs. Yet some trash-pickers - catadores, as they're called here - wade around the mud in flip-flops.

ARAUJO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Araujo shows her hands crisscrossed with cuts.


REEVES: Trash-pickers work day and night. After dark, they're sometimes hit and killed by trucks and bulldozers.

PAULO CELSO DOS REIS: We have to close it. It's not possible to stay in the 21st century with that open. It's an environmental problem, a social problem, an economic problem.

REEVES: Paulo Celso dos Reis heads a team recruited by Brasilia's federal district government to shut the dump. Dos Reis says for decades, the city didn't care what happened to the garbage so long as it was out of sight. Even now, a lot of people don't know about the dump and, it seems, don't want to know.

DOS REIS: It's unbelievable. I can tell you the majority of people who lives in Brazil does not know it exists. I have friends of mine that do not believe. No, it's not true. I have to show pictures and films of dirt that - that they can believe.

REEVES: In 2011, a Brazilian court declared the dump illegal and ordered it closed. The shutdown was delayed by arguments over where to locate a new landfill to take the city's trash. That landfill is now open out of town. The dump is closing. Yet the authorities haven't decided what to do with the dump's 44-million-ton mountain of toxic garbage that's polluting the ground water. Nor is there a plan for this place, a shanty town that's grown up over the years near the dump. Forty thousand people live here. One way or another, at least half make a living from trash.

JOSE MARIA VASCONCELOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Jose Maria Vasconcelos is in the recycling business.

VASCONCELOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He's worried he'll be destitute.

VASCONCELOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Inside the dump, trash-pickers are also worried. They're being offered jobs at new recycling depots, working in collectives, sorting garbage on conveyor belts. They'll earn quite a bit less than their $620 monthly average. But they'll have a roof, protective equipment and health insurance.

GILBERTO FERREIRA ALVES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Gilberto Ferreira Alves has been picking trash out dumped for a quarter of a century. He says he's used to the awful conditions.

ALVES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: The vultures are like work mates, he says. Yet a lifetime on this Brazilian dump has given Alves a profound distrust of government and its promises.

ALVES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "We're all very suspicious," he says. Until he's sure his life will improve, he'd rather stay here in hell. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Brasilia.

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