Known in Portuguese as "catadores," the people who find their livelihoods at the 430-acre Estrutural landfill worry about how they'll survive once the open-air dump closes.
BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) – Thousands of trash pickers in Brazil are worried about how they'll survive once the largest landfill in Latin America closes.
Against a distant skyline of high-rise buildings, huge vultures dive over the nearly 9 tons of rubbish that arrive daily at the huge dump in Brazil's capital as nearly 3,000 trash pickers set aside recyclable plastic, metal and paper to sell.
Known in Portuguese as "catadores," these are people who find their livelihoods at the 430-acre (174-hectare) Estrutural landfill. Lying just 9 miles (15 kilometers) west of Brazil's ultramodern Planalto Presidential Palace, which was designed by the late architect Oscar Niemeyer, the dump is set to shut down on a still-unannounced date, the closure postponed because a replacement site is not ready.
Those concerned about Estrutural's eventual closure include 58-year-old Valter and Maria Viana, who left their small family farm in the state of Goias 25 years ago to work at the dump, where he says he can earn up to $850 a month — well above Brazil's $295 minimum salary.
Maria Viana quit working at the dump a few years ago because of a bad knee and now cares for the couple's three granddaughters in the family's comfortable three-story concrete house in Cidade Estrutural, a neighborhood of about 40,000 people next to the landfill where most of the trash pickers live.
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But Valter Viana, two daughters and two sons still walk to the dump at dawn each morning to look for treasure in the trash. They wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts, along with caps and rubber gloves. Several also wrap an additional T-shirt around their heads for more protection from the waste. Some trash pickers working after sundown wear headlamps to illuminate their way.
Along with the newspapers, bottles and cans they collect for cash, they also often find other interesting objects to take home, like a pair of ceramic animals that now adorn the family's living room.
"Me and my wife raised our children and built our house thanks to the money we made as trash pickers," Valter Viana said after a day at the dump.
"Here, we made enough to sustain ourselves and our children and lead a decent life," Maria Viana added.
Over the years, the couple saved their money and even built a smaller house on their plot of land that they rent out to another family of "catadores."
But the Vianas say they don't know how they or the other trash pickers will sustain their current way of life once the dump closes.
Since it opened in the 1960s, the landfill has accumulated some 30 million tons of trash, making it the largest in Latin America, according to the University of Brasilia and Brazil's National Waste Pickers Movement. The Cidade Estrutural neighborhood alongside it grew over the years as more people arrived from around Brazil to make a living off the dump, and it was officially recognized as a satellite city of Brasilia in 2004.
But earlier this year, the city government announced it would shut the landfill and replace it with a new one in the district of Samambaia, 16 miles (25 kilometers) southwest of the presidential palace. It will use modern waste separation techniques that will require less human trash pickers.
"Just about everyone who lives in Estrutural depends on the dump for a living," said Maria Viana. "If it closes we will have to leave and seek work elsewhere."