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Ten years ago Villa Pinto was one of Porto Alegres poorest

By Laurie Harris,2014-07-11 14:29
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Ten years ago Villa Pinto was one of Porto Alegres poorest ...

Amanda Smith/ Marie Claire/ June 2006 Recycling

    (HEADLINE: Cleaning up communities and lives)

    (STANDFIRST: There are ways around living on a dollar a day as the women of Villa

    Pinto, one of the world’s poorest favelas, have found. Amanda Smith travels to southern

    Brazil to find out how a group of determined women are working their way out of

    poverty.)

The wooden huts of favela Villa Pinto cover the side of a vast hill on the outskirts of the

    Porto Alegre, southern Brazil. As you approach the rows of irregular huts, divided by

    tight alleys and dusty dirt tracks, you’ll be struck by how tidy everywhere is: there’s not

    one coke can rattling down the road or one crisp packet caught on the breeze. In fact, the

    place is spotless.

    It’s down to one woman, Marli Madeiros, who looked at the rubbish that once strewed the narrow streets of her favela and realised there was money to be made out of it. Even

    as a child Madeiros remembers fighting the filthy conditions of her favela by clearing up

    the litter in the playground. But it was only after she had a child that Madeiros recognised

    that the hundreds of mothers confined to the favela, were also a competent work force,

    capable of cleaning up the community, as well as their own lives.

This month Villa Pinto will celebrate the tenth year of its hugely successful recycling

    centre, set up by Madeiros and four other mothers. The Centro de Educação Ambiental,

    (CEA, centre of enveloping education) today employs 160 full-time members of staff and

    another 40 part-time, all of which live in Villa Pinto. Although a total of 11,000 people

    live in the favela, the recycling centre has become something of an icon for the

    community. It stands as the accomplishment of a group of women who had nothing, but

    weren’t willing to put up with it. The recycling centre is now so well known in Porto

    Alegre that private companies, keen to be associated with the centre’s pro-active

    determined workers, are donating money to projects linked to the centre that benefit the

    whole favela. And as the recycling centre continues to grow, so do the hopes and

    aspirations of the community of Villa Pinto.

Amanda Smith/ Marie Claire/ June 2006 Recycling

    The recycling centre started off back in 1996 in Madeiros’s front yard, when her and four

    friends decided to make some extra money while watching their young children. There

    were so many drink cans, plastic bottles, and newspapers scattered across the favela that

    the women didn’t have to walk more than a few metres to find their resources. After

    separating the litter, Madeiros then sold these sorted bundles onto another party, who

    then traded the materials back to the manufacturers located across the border in Paraguay.

    Within two weeks the group of four mothers tripled in size, at which point Madeiros, who

    had recently given birth to her son Paulo, realised the untapped potential of the hundreds

    of mothers living in Villa Pinto.

Today’s recycling takes place in an enormous warehouse at the edge of Villa Pinto. Rain

    pulsates against the corrugated iron ceiling and walls, which look strangely modern next

    to the residential wooden huts. Maderios secured the vacant warehouse just one year after

    the recycling project started. With more space to sort Maderios organised for the council

    to deliver them the litter from the east side of the city. Today still these bags of litter are

    the only contribution the centre receives from the state.

Every evening the rubbish trucks drop off the bags, and the next morning up to 148

    women sort through the litter. As all the employees are paid according to the weight of

    the different litter materials, they work with focus and speed, hoping to come across more

    expensive materials like aluminium cans, glass bottles, and Tetra packs. They sort the

    into 12 separate bins, after which it is compressed, weighed, and sold to firms with the

    transport to sell it back to the manufactures’.

Inside the warehouse, there is a clinging smell of decay. It’s a sour smell like curdled

    milk, but the clusters of workers taking their morning coffee break seem to be oblivious

    to it. A day in the warehouse starts at 7am and finishes at 6pm, with employees getting an

    hour for lunch and two half-hour coffee breaks. As their gloved hands move continuously,

    the woman chat about the latest dramas in Bellissima, a soap opera about the frivolous

    lives of a group of upper class Brazilians. Will Julia move to Milan to model for an

    Italian fashion label? Will Birche get back the family fortune that her son-in-law stole?

Amanda Smith/ Marie Claire/ June 2006 Recycling

    On ?3.40 a day you might think that these woman would show some signs of bitterness

    towards Brazil’s hugely uneven wealth distribution, but the frequent eruptions of laughter suggest they’re just getting on with life as best as they can.

By securing the warehouse, Madeiros could take on more mothers. Woman who had been

    constantly on the edge of poverty were given the opportunity to provide their families

    with a steady income. Others who had dealt drugs could offer a safer, brighter future for

    their children. “We don’t just recycle litter, we recycle lives,” says Madeiros. “I have always been a strong believer in the collective power of women to bring about change.

    And all the women who work at the recycling centre have a common goal and that’s to

    create a better future for their children and the favela.”

When a woman living in a favela has a child she would almost always look after it at

    home. As the Brazilian government does not provide financial benefits for either the

    support of children, or the unemployed, the women are forced to rely on others. When

    these other people fail them, many end up dealing drugs and petty thieving to feed and

    clothe their children.

Julia Goethe, 36, a single mother of four, has been working at the recycling centre for

    three years. Although her history is one of a constant struggle, her face looks surprisingly

    youthful and bright. Before she got her job at the recycling centre Goethe supported her

    children by trafficking cocaine and marijuana. Her two bedroom hut was used to store the

    drugs of one of Villa Pinto’s well known drug lords. It was a pick up point for dealers,

    many of whom were also users. It’s a period of her life she would prefer to forget, but it’s a common way out of poverty for unemployed mothers living outside the city in favelas.

    “Women in my situation don’t have many options,” says Goethe, “drug trafficking was a last resort for me, although I ended up relying on it for twelve years”.

    “Storing drugs enabled me to feed my children, who can argue with that? But now I’m happy to say that I support them without exposing them to danger,” Goethe says with a calm air of confidence.

Amanda Smith/ Marie Claire/ June 2006 Recycling

    Singles mothers like Goethe have a particularly tough time living in Brazil’s favelas as the state frequently fails to make fathers pay the legally required child support. In part

    this is because anyone living in a favela is hard to trace, but it’s also because there’s no penalty system in place for when the fathers don’t cough up. “It’s often women not men who pay for the family’s food and clothes- men know they can get away without

    contributing,” explains Goethe, adding that only one of her three ex-boyfriends gives her

    any money.

    Over one third of the centre’s employees are single mothers. It’s a statistic that’s no coincidence as Madeiros has always chosen to hire women who are hard up. Until two

    years ago the centre was exclusively only for woman, but since then Madeiros started

    employing men, of whom there are now twelve. Although the men and women are now

    fully integrated, the men joke that they’re second class citizens. “They only want us for

    our biceps, it’s the only reason we’re here,” laughs João Silveira, whose tasks all involve heavy labour. Maderios is firm that it’s still predominately a woman’s centre, and that she

    plans to keep it that way. “Women living in favelas have a much rougher deal then men:

    they’re expected to do everything and it’s completely imbalanced. So I think it’s necessary to create projects which directly help women survive,” says Maderios.

Aside from its success, the recycling centre also has its problems. Carolina Silvana, who

    is responsible for the employees’ welfare, explains that there is a lot of harmful bacteria in the litter, which gets transfers to the employees through their clothes and hair.

    Silvana’s biggest task is making sure that all the employees stay well. Six days a week

    she has to drive at least one employee to a nearby health clinic for problems ranging from

    respiratory difficulties and diarrhoea, to septic cuts and tetanus. The warehouse does not

    have the facilities to rinse the litter, but Silvana hopes the centre will offer this service in

    the future. “If we could disinfect the litter then people would stop getting ill,” says

    Silvana.

Amanda Smith/ Marie Claire/ June 2006 Recycling

    It is a requirement that all employees wear gloves, and that they report any injuries to Silvana, but these precautions do not prevent illness. Silvana knows of around 20 employees who are HIV positive, and they are the ones she worries about the most. She explains that knowing these 20 could die if they contract a virus weighs heavily on her conscience. She emphasises that the recycling centre has become a safer place to work since they’ve been promoting good personal hygiene, like the importance of using soap

    when washing hands. She says that what used to happen was employees would go home for lunch and prepare food without thoroughly washing their hands and arms. “Some of the employees have never had even a basic education, so now the centre has the opportunity of putting that right,” she says.

    Paula Mattos, 58, has worked at the centre for six years, and finds that what she appreciates the most is the sense of sisterhood. Previously Matttos worked as a live-in maid for a middle class family in the city. The family paid her below the minimum wage, an equivalent of ?100 per month, and rarely let her take time off to visit her family living back in Villa Pinto. Her job at the centre means that Mattos now lives back among her family and friends. “Everyone in the centre supports each other, especially as we all face similar problems. It’s like an extended family,” says Mattos.

    In ten years the recycling centre has been beneficial not only its employees but the whole community. Like many favela’s, the streets and communal areas of Pinto used to be full of litter, as well as the rodents litter attracts. Although people took pride in their houses, they frequently threw their litter into the street as there was no official system in place. Today women from the recycling centre collect all the favela’s rubbish bags. For them litter in Villa Pinto now means money.

    The success of the recycling centre has also attracted private funding from local businesses wanting to appear benevolent by supporting this group of industrious women. Before the recycling centre was set-up Villa Pinto was the poorest of Porto Alegre’s 256

    favelas. Madeiros describes that life then was tough, with widespread unemployment and

Amanda Smith/ Marie Claire/ June 2006 Recycling

    no hope of change. As there was no community centre or childcare facilities, the people

    living in the favela were disengaged from each other,” says Madeiros.

Today Pinto bears no resemblance to its former self, with private sponsorship funding

    their own 50 seat cinema, education programs, and a sports centre that will open next

    month. Private funding has also paid for a two-story community centre which has been

    built next to the warehouse. The community centre is open to the centre’s employees and

    their relatives, but everyone from the favela can use it as long as they sign in the visitors

    book. They have one room which is used as for textiles classes, with electric sewing

    machines and rolls of material, another room is used as a library, and another is used for

    art, including clay and mosaic work. The latest contribution was twelve computers which

    were donated by a local bank. The new computer room is now used by the favela’s

    children and adults, many of whom are learning how to type and use the Internet, which

    is paid for by a local architecture firm.

Paula Mattos’s two grandchildren use the community centre’s computers and sewing

    room after school. Her grandson has recently set up a hotmail email account for her, the

    address of which she wears on a piece of card around her neck.

Of course the sponsorships and donations did not arrive without a bit of persuasion.

    Renowned for her way with words and mind for business, Madeiros single-handedly

    approached companies with a business plan that showed that funding them could raise

    their profile.

Madeiros hopes that the next ten years will see even more progress. Her current project is

    lobbying private companies to raise money for conveyor belts so that the women will be

    able to work more quickly. She also hopes that within the next ten years she’ll be able to cut out the middle man by buying trucks of their own. “If we had our own trucks we

    could sell the materials directly back to the manufactures and therefore be able to pay

    higher wages,” says Madeiros, “but maybe in ten years we’ll be the manufacturers as

    well!”

Amanda Smith/ Marie Claire/ June 2006 Recycling

2255 words, ends.

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