The third largest city in Brazil, Belo Horizonte (BH), is no different than any other city or town in the world in that it produces tons of trash each day. Unlike other places, BH boasts thousands of “catadores,” who remove the garbage, usually at night when there is less traffic, cart it to a central collection facility that is crawling with rats (but there are enough dogs to chase them away), and separate by gloveless hand their massive load into reusable recyclable materials – paper, cardboard, plastic, etc. While there is no exact translation of “catadore,” since it’s a Brazilian profession, the Portuguese word roughly translates to garbage collectors or collectors of recyclable materials.
The “catadores,” are providing a very valuable service to the city. And, ASMARE, an association of “catadores,” is giving them something no one else will – the opportunity to work for a living, something they were eager to do anyway. In fact, we heard a telling story of how a passer-by recently tried to give a catadore some change, thinking she was homeless and in need. Thanks to ASMARE, the proud woman could reply, “No, thank you. I am working.”
Many of ASMARE’s employees were homeless, including Adriano, who started as a catodore. He is now the head chef of the beautiful downtown restaurant, Reciclo (pictured), which is owned by ASMARE and which serves a mouth-watering lunch each day to patrons from nearby businesses. Each day Adriano, a tall man with a contagious smile, comes out of the kitchen wearing his hairnet, to make sure the buffet meets his approval and the customers are happy. He is also now studying management at the local university.
Reciclo occupies two floors of a 1920s three-story house that is filled with furniture, chandeliers and art work made by catadores out of the “trash” they find on their daily rounds of the city. The house will serve as my new office, which overlooks papaya and banana trees, for the next four weeks.
What brings to me to Brazil and to this house in particular is the very first SAP social sabbatical, where together with eight colleagues from all different lines of business and from five different countries, I will be working for a local non-profit organization. Though the nine of us work for the same company, none had ever met, and our lives never would have intersected had it not been for this innovative program that allows us share our expertise and to help make the world run better and improve people’s lives. We have been divided into three teams of three people each.
In addition to me, my team consists of one 30-something woman, Olena, from the Ukraine and one 40-something man, Jan, from Canada. We have been charged with the daunting task of creating an integrated communications plan in just 19 days, including laying the foundation for a website, for ASMARE, which was founded on May 1, 1990, by Dona Geralda Marçal, who started as a catadora at age 8. She grew up to develop a new approach and an infrastructure to connect garbage workers with the training and social services they need to become self-reliant professionals. Through her many public appearances, including one at the United Nations in New York, she tries to dispel the social stigma attached to the collectors. Over the years many catadores have successfully moved from extreme vulnerability in garbage dumps to socially secure, economically viable and environmentally conscious citizenship. Though there is still much work to be done.
Our team had the pleasure of spending a few hours with Dona Geralda, who exudes a motherly aura of calm, humility and tranquility. Her philosophy can be summarized in two short sentences: “You can never get rid of poverty. All you can offer are opportunities.” And, that is what ASMARE continues to provide, though there is now mounting pressure and competition, since many companies have entered the business of recycling.
Over the next several weeks we will have the opportunity to walk the streets with the catadores; to visit the main collection center, where all the materials are delivered; and to meet with professors and other officials – all with the goal of creating a communications program to improve the perception and brand of ASMARE, an organization doing excellent work for the all the right reasons.