This is the story of Jennifer Thaís Santos Fernandes, the secretary of the ASCITO waste picker cooperative that is supported by WIEGO through the Gender & Waste Project.
I am Jennifer Thaís Santos Fernandes. I am 25 years old and I am a young black woman and a waste picker. I have worked at ASCITO, a waste picker association from the city of Itabirito—a town in the Metropolitan Region of Belo Horizonte in the south-east of Brazil—since I was 16 years old. Currently, I am the association’s secretary.
Waste management has always been present in my life in different forms. As a child, my brothers and I used to go to the Ribeirão das Neves dump site with our mother to help collecting recyclables, because having more hands at work would decrease our chances of starving. We would also go to the dump site not to be alone at home, as we have always lived in shanty towns or irregular settlements, so it was not good for us to stay home alone.
The ASCITO group has a long journey behind them of struggles for support and recognition. Early on, I saw that selective waste collection was not just collecting, sorting and compressing recyclable materials; it was something bigger and more enchanting than I could have imagined at the time.
ASCITO was already part of the National Movement of Waste Pickers (Movimento Nacional dos Catadores de Materiais Recicláveis or MNCR) and therefore the waste pickers always participated in discussions and struggles for our cause. That was when I realized that this was what I was looking for in my heart. This moved me so much that it scared me, because I saw that I could help waste pickers by contributing to the political representation of the group.
Through MNCR, I got to learn incredible stories and participated in political capacity-building courses. Through the bonds this created with other waste pickers, I felt empowered. Today, in addition to being an MNCR activist, I am also a representative of the waste picker youth within UNICATADORES.
[UNICATADORES is the central unit of waste picker cooperatives, in Brazil, created by the National Movement of Waste Pickers (MNCR). The MNCR is the political wing and UNICATADORES is the organization that enables cooperatives to access financial resources.]
As a result of skills training we received, we felt that there were some things that we needed to develop in order for the waste picker associations and cooperatives to move forward. Demand for and interest in gender training at MNCR began to emerge and the gender and waste project was born in 2012. With support from WIEGO, we started to identify female leaders to develop this process of gender awareness. That’s when the group As Bonitas—The Pretty Ones—was born. It is a group of women who, throughout 2012-2020 and along with WIEGO, organized workshops to discuss various themes related to gender issues. One of the main objectives of the workshops was also to strengthen the emotional bonds between us.
In 2020, with the arrival of the pandemic, we had to adjust all of our activities and we started to meet online. Despite these challenges, we developed our gender action plan 2021/2023 with contributions from each of us. We feel that over the years and with the draft of the plan, we strengthened our sisterhood.
Several things happened during my life’s journey, but I dare say that the most difficult period started in 2020 with the arrival of the pandemic, since my companions and I working with recyclables were very exposed. The role of women leaders in MNCR did not change with the pandemic. They continued to have the will and determination to help the workers.
The local authorities hardly supported us in the beginning of the pandemic. They only supported us with social assistance such as food baskets. ASCITO informed the municipal Secretariat of the Environment that we could not continue selective waste collection without a dialogue to discuss concrete action. During the time that waste collection was suspended, we received support from partners and friends, as we were even at risk of starving. Because of this support we were able to distribute basic food baskets, hand sanitizer and some Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to our members.
MNCR sent part of the funding received from industry for the waste pickers’ work [as determined under Brazil’s extended producer responsibility which stipulates that industry needs to share costs of returning back materials for reuse and recycling] in advance to associations and cooperatives supervised by them. This helped waste pickers a lot. In collaboration with several other partners, MNCR started an online crowdfunding campaign, which enabled us to also provide support to waste pickers outside of the organization.
I think that the public authorities have to see us as key players in the process of transforming the future and they need to contribute to improving the infrastructure of our warehouses and to invest in training.
Revisiting the Past to Look To the Future
At MNCR, women and young people can dream and be protagonists of their dreams. MNCR women have always had a lot of determination, but they just needed to organize themselves. With the gender training and the elaboration of the “Bonitas” action plan, we are managing to support one another and focus on where we want to go, which is strengthening everyone at the base.
As a representative of MNCR youth, I tell adults that perhaps the young woman or young man next to them is just waiting for an opportunity to make a difference in their base. Alone we will get nowhere. The pandemic has stressed that we need each other. MNCR’s motto is love, gratitude and hope and it means always having someone by your side who you can count on.
In waste picking, nothing is lost because we recycle with love and, if there is a right path to follow, I am sure we are on it by giving voice and opportunities to women and young people. This is already a big step towards the progress we have dreamed of. This pandemic will pass and we will be as good as can be and with very warm hearts for having been a shelter for each other.