The Economist. Entrepreneurs, not scavengers. Jun 11th 2009. Available at:


Waste disposal in Colombia

Muck and brass plates

Entrepreneurs, not scavengers

Jun 11th 2009 | Cali |



FOR more than 20 years Carmen Lasso has scrabbled a living of sorts for herself and her eight children by scavenging at a rubbish dump in Cali, Colombia's third-largest city. Her life has brought the occasional pleasant surprise, such as the silver ring crowned with a tiny light-blue stone that she gleaned from the trash, and now wears. Another came in April when Colombia's Constitutional Court ruled that she and tens of thousands of her fellow wastepickers should be officially recognised as “entrepreneurs”.

The ruling has a practical effect. The court ordered Cali's city government to suspend the tender for a waste-management concession to give co-operatives of recicladores, as they are known, time to organise themselves and bid for the contract. The dump they worked at was shut down last year, as part of a reorganisation of waste disposal that has already seen three contracts given to private firms.

Adriana Ruiz, the lawyer who represented the wastepickers, argued that taking away their access to garbage violated their right to livelihood and life. She also challenged a new national law under which wastepickers can be fined up to the equivalent of $500 for sorting through trash in public places. The court ruled that future waste-disposal contracts “should favour and try to preserve the status of wastepickers as self-employed entrepreneurs”. The judges also suspended the fines levied by Cali's municipal government for sorting rubbish in public.

The ruling reaches far beyond Cali. In Bogotá wastepickers will rely on the ruling to bid for waste-disposal contracts to be awarded next year. The capital's wastepickers were among the first in the world to form co-operatives, and last year the city hosted the first worldwide conference of wastepickers. Ms Ruiz says that she has been contacted by wastepickers in half-a-dozen countries, ranging from Mexico and Chile to India and Mongolia, who are interested in trying to apply the same argument to gain a legally recognised stake in the waste-disposal business.

Until a decade ago, policymakers across the developing world saw informal waste collectors as a problem and worried about “how to get rid of them”, says Martin Medina, who has written a book on the subject. Today, he says, they are realising that when wastepickers receive support, their co-operatives are “a perfect example of sustainable development”. Brazil's labour ministry has recognised informal waste collection as a legitimate trade.

Ricaurte Larrahondo, who has worked for 42 years sorting rubbish at Cali's Navarro dump, cheered as lawyers explained the Constitutional Court's ruling to hundreds of wastepickers gathered on a hoopless basketball court in the city on June 7th. “We've always been entrepreneurs, but no one ever recognised that,” he said.

Now comes the hard part. Ms Lasso, like most wastepickers, cannot read or write. To function as entrepreneurs, she and her colleagues will have to organise themselves. That in turn means overcoming longstanding feuds between street pickers and former dump pickers. In Cali they have only three months to sort themselves out before the new tender begins. It may not be enough time.