Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio's Garbage Dump

Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio's Garbage Dump

by Kathleen M. Millar

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In Reclaiming the Discarded Kathleen M. Millar offers an evocative ethnography of Jardim Gramacho, a sprawling garbage dump on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, where roughly two thousand self-employed workers known as catadores collect recyclable materials. While the figure of the scavenger sifting through garbage seems iconic of wageless life today, Millar shows how the work of reclaiming recyclables is more than a survival strategy or an informal labor practice. Rather, the stories of catadores show how this work is inseparable from conceptions of the good life and from human struggles to realize these visions within precarious conditions of urban poverty. By approaching the work of catadores as highly generative, Millar calls into question the category of informality, common conceptions of garbage, and the continued normativity of wage labor. In so doing, she illuminates how waste lies at the heart of relations of inequality and projects of social transformation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822370505
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 02/13/2018
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Kathleen M. Millar is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Simon Fraser University.

Read an Excerpt


Arriving beyond Abjection


"Jardim Gramacho was a paradise."

My neighbor, Deca, told me this on an unusually quiet afternoon at his open-air bar. I was the only one seated on one of the plastic stools that lined the counter, though a couple of guys were busy choosing a song at the jukebox in the corner of the bar. Deca seemed to be in the rare mood to talk, and so I had asked him what he remembered of the neighborhood before the garbage dump existed. I knew that his family, having migrated from the northeastern state of Paraíba in the 1960s, was one of the first to arrive in Jardim Gramacho.

"This road," Deca recalled, indicating the main street in front of us, "was just a dirt path. I think my house might have been the seventy-eighth in the whole neighborhood. We were surrounded by fruit trees and natural springs."

I thought of the old stone hitching post at the edge of Jardim Gramacho where the nineteenth-century Emperor Dom Pedro II would stop on his way from Rio de Janeiro to his summer residence in Petrópolis so that his horses could drink from the spring. Today, the dust-covered hitching post is the only sign that a natural spring once flowed nearby.

There were also tidal pools, Deca told me, where neighborhood children would go swimming and where crabs could be caught among the mangroves. Residents supplemented their income by catching these crabs and other fish that entered from Guanabara Bay to lay their eggs. It was possible to fill a whole bag with mussels (sururu), mullets (parati), or blennies (maria-datoca) — too much for any one family to eat. Lacking refrigeration, they would lay the excess fish on the tin roofs of their homes to dry in the sun.

Not that life was easy at the time. Like most early residents, Deca spoke of everyday struggles resulting from a lack of electricity, sanitation, paved roads, and bus service. There was also no pedestrian bridge over the highway, Washington Luiz, that borders Jardim Gramacho. Leaving the neighborhood required crossing eight lanes of traffic moving at speeds of sixty to seventy miles per hour. I recalled Glória telling me, soon after we first met, that her older brother had been hit and killed crossing the highway when he was nineteen years old. When I mentioned this to Deca, he shook his head.

"Before the garbage began arriving, they told us that Monte Castelo would be paved. We were told about the dump, but none of us knew to what extent the garbage would affect our lives." His words hung in the air, as if laden with sadness or perhaps saudades, the bittersweet remembering of something loved and lost.

"Did you know my wife?" Deca asked me. "Did you know her before she died?"

I recalled the day that I found a house to rent in Jardim Gramacho, not an easy feat in a place where most families built their own homes. Mariana, who sold clothing door-to-door in Jardim Gramacho and knew more about neighborhood news than did the most committed gossiper, had offered to take me to a couple of residents who she thought had a vacant house in their family's yard that they might be willing to rent out. We arrived at Deca's bar. Deca was not there, but Tom, another longtime resident of Jardim Gramacho, was working the bar and showed me a house behind the bar owned by Deca's brother, who had moved in with his grown children. As I finished making arrangements with Tom to rent the house, Mariana inquired about Deca's wife, and Tom replied that she had recently passed away. "She was such a good person, kind to everyone," Mariana kept repeating, her voice trembling, as we walked away.

I told Deca what Mariana had said.

"My wife had breast cancer," Deca replied. "We fought it. We did the mastectomy and the reconstructive surgery. After five years, the cancer came back. When it comes back, there is nothing to be done, não tem jeito."

"I'm so sorry," I replied.

Deca picked up a rag to wipe the counter and then stopped, shaking his head. "There are so many diseases in Jardim Gramacho. Cancers. Tuberculosis. Skin diseases. Other horrible diseases. I think it's the garbage. It's the dust that we breathe in Jardim Gramacho, a dust like no other dust, a dust that comes off the garbage trucks on their way to the dump. The leachate drips from the trucks onto our streets. All this toxicity. It causes these diseases."

I wanted to ask Deca why he had stayed in Jardim Gramacho, but I knew enough to realize this question had no simple answer. Most of the clientele who frequented Deca's bar were tied in some way to the dump. Truck drivers often stopped for a plate of Deca's rotisserie chicken on their way to and from recycling plants in the south of Brazil. A team of engineers working on a new piping system for the dump's methane gas had drinks each night at Deca's bar before heading to the local motel where they were staying. And many catadores unwound at his bar after a day of collecting — sharing rounds of drinks, playing dominoes, and listening to music that blared from the bar's jukebox.

Instead, I asked about the early days of the bar. How did it start? Deca's voice became more animated, as he described how he sold quentinhas (togo lunches kept warm in an aluminum container) to the employees of Queiroz Galvão, the company contracted to remediate the dump in the 1990s. It was possible to sell sixty quentinhas at lunchtime and another forty throughout the day. At a certain point, Queiroz Galvão began giving employees tickets that they could use to go out and buy lunch at one of several locations. The bar was established to provide these sit-down lunches. Eventually the rotisserie was acquired. In a single week, 120 chickens were sold.

Deca paused, seemingly lost in a memory and then smiled: "Those were good times, you know, very good times."

FOR A LONG TIME, I understood the history of Jardim Gramacho as a straightforward story of environmental degradation. The arrival of garbage in Jardim Gramacho polluted the surrounding bay, clogged springs, smothered mangroves, and dripped on its streets and into its groundwater leachate — a black, acidic, nauseating liquid that seeps through decomposing waste, carrying concentrated amounts of copper, lead, nickel, and mercury, among other contaminants. The neighborhood that derived its name Jardim, meaning "gardens," from its history as a densely vegetated plantation dating back to the eighteenth century, had now become a toxic site. Deca's own story of loss certainly echoed this narrative. It recounts the loss of beauty, the loss of resources in fruit trees, crabs, and fish, and most painfully, the loss of life. For Deca, there was never any doubt that it was the garbage that caused his wife's cancer and ultimately her untimely death.

Yet Deca's story also speaks to what I began to see as the entangled relations of life, labor, and the dump. The everyday labor of running his bar — a business that first emerged to serve sanitation workers — depended on and intersected with materials, activities, and individuals tied to the dump. I saw this web of work and waste in Deca's simple act of wiping the bar counter of dust kicked up by passing garbage trucks. It was also apparent from observing his customers, most of whom either worked on the dump or worked in transporting waste and recyclables to and from the dump. As a result, his work routines shifted with those of the dump: peak hours at the bar coincided with the times of day scrapyard trucks made their trips back from the dump, carting sacks of recyclables along with tired catadores in search of meals, drinks, and rest. Deca's story captured these ambivalent connections to the dump. He certainly knew now to what extent the garbage would affect his life, leading in his eyes to the death of a loved one. At the same time, the dump both initiated and contributed to his form of living. As Deca's narrative shifted from fruit trees and springs, to dust and disease, to hot lunches and "good times," it became clear that there was no easy relation to the garbage. There was no such thing as a singular experience of the dump.

The ambivalence that Deca expressed in his reflections on the arrival of garbage in Jardim Gramacho was echoed in catadores' own stories of arrival — their accounts of how they first came to the dump. To arrive is often understood as a conclusive act, in the sense of reaching a destination or attaining some end. But in the stories of catadores, I came to understand arrival more as a fraught condition, an unsettled and ambiguous moment when everything has yet to be resolved. These stories of arrival therefore became particularly useful windows onto the complex ways catadores experience the dump and the labor they perform in reclaiming the discarded. In listening to their narratives, I also began to realize that to understand the returns of catadores to the dump, it is necessary to understand how they first arrived.


Catadores came to Jardim Gramacho for a host of reasons, but as I pieced together their accounts, I began to trace how the pathways that initially led them to the dump told a larger story of historical shifts in the political economy of Brazil. In tracing these connections, I follow Donna Goldstein's (2003: 45) insistence that any "ethnographic snapshot" of Rio de Janeiro must be situated within "Brazil's particular historical, political, and economic framework." In her richly textured ethnography of domestic work and class relations in Rio de Janeiro, Goldstein shows how the everyday life of favela residents is both a product of and an oppositional response to Brazil's historical and spatial structures of elite privilege, dominant racial ideologies, and differentiated forms of state governance. This commitment to political-economic critique is part of a long tradition in Brazilianist ethnography and Latin American anthropology more broadly that sought to bring questions of power and inequality to the study of cultural practices, local histories, and social worlds. More recently, anthropology has shown that weaving together ethnography and political economy does not just entail placing ethnographic subjects within their larger historical contexts. Rather, as João Biehl (2005) argues in his person-centered ethnography Vita, singular lives can uniquely illuminate the workings of structural forces and challenge accepted interpretations of the world. In the case of catadores, their continued arrivals to the dump in the early 2000s tell a story that calls into question hegemonic narratives of Brazil's economic growth (and subsequent decline) at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The first arrivals of catadores to the dump date back to the late 1970s when the dump first opened. Most catadores from this older generation were migrants who had come to Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s and 1970s, part of a massive exodus from Brazil's rural areas, particularly from the drought-ridden northeast. Beginning in the 1950s, the rise of the modern sugar industry in the rural northeast uprooted the traditional plantation economy, evicting many peasants who had had customary arrangements of land tenure (Scheper-Hughes 1992). Migrants were also drawn to cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo by the prospect of finding jobs in new industries that were booming at the time as the result of state-led development efforts. However, increased employment opportunities were insufficient to absorb the labor force pouring into Brazil's major cities. Inequality also continued to rise, a sign that the fruits of Brazil's "economic miracle" continued to be held by a small, elite segment of its population.

It was at this time that Carolina Maria de Jesús, a black, single mother of three who had migrated from rural Minas Gerais to a favela in São Paulo, published her diary, Quarto de Despejo (1960), literally "Room of Garbage," which had been discovered by a local journalist. Surpassing sales of the Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado and eventually translated into thirteen languages, the diary described de Jesús's everyday struggles to support her children by collecting paper, bottles, cans, and food from junkyards and garbage cans. In addition to de Jesus's diary, scholarly literature on rural–urban migration and shantytown life in Latin America portrayed scavenging as an element of this new urbanization. For example, in her study of a Mexican shantytown in the 1970s, Larissa Lomnitz (1975) argued that the poor survived by gathering what the industrial system discarded — used clothing, leftover materials from construction sites, even odd jobs — calling them urban "hunters and gatherers" (96). Though the Jardim Gramacho dump did not open until the late 1970s, the first catadores who arrived there had been collecting recyclables for years. When one dump had closed, they had simply moved to another — "following the garbage," as they recounted.

By the 1980s, Brazil's state-led industrialization led to an acute debt crisis, soaring inflation, and stagnant to negative economic growth. Unemployment began rising at a rate of 5.6 percent, while the real value of the minimum wage dropped by 1.8 percent (Pochmann 2010: 641). Brazil's economic restructuring in the 1990s did little to ameliorate the situation of Rio's poor. Deindustrialization, privatization, outsourcing, and reductions in the public sector meant that employment possibilities that did exist tended to be temporary and precarious. During these two decades, those who were new to the dump often came in the wake of a supporting family member's job loss. Glória's father, for example, lost his job as a shipyard worker in the late 1980s. Faced with little means to feed eight children, her mother went to the dump in search of food, returning the first day with a sack full of rice, beans, and vegetables. She soon began collecting recyclables regularly, along with Glória's father and at times with Glória and some of her siblings.

This was also a time when street children began arriving on the dump, prompted by heightened concern over their presence on city streets in the late 1980s and 1990s. Though the number of street children in Brazil at this time was relatively small (797 in Rio de Janeiro in 1993), they became the target of police "death squads" seeking to clear the streets of those perceived to be perpetrators of crime. One of the most widely denounced incidents occurred in Rio de Janeiro in 1993 when several off-duty police officers shot and killed seven children who were sleeping on the steps of the Candelária Church located in the center of the city. Street children did not fare much better in state institutions for minors. Facilities run by the National Foundation for the Welfare of Minors (Fundação Nacional do Bem-Estar do Menor or FUNABEM) became notorious for their crowded rooms, squalid living conditions, and abuse by overseers.

Several catadores whom I met as adults on the dump told me that they had first arrived in Jardim Gramacho as children seeking to escape life on the streets or in state institutions. For instance, a catador nicknamed "Funabem," for having spent time in the state institution, ran away from an abusive mother when he was eight years old. He lived on the streets for two years, sleeping on sidewalks under newspapers and begging for food, clothes, and other necessities. When he was ten years old, he was apprehended and placed in a FUNABEM institution that was located in Rio's neighboring municipality of Niterói. After two years in the institution, Funabem managed to escape along with several other children, and having heard about the dump, made his way to Jardim Gramacho. Though the pathways that led Funabem and Glória to Jardim Gramacho differed, they both formed part of a cohort of catadores who started collecting in their early adolescence. The friendships that formed among these young catadores became, years later, the basis of the political organizing that generated ACAMJG. By the time I came to Jardim Gramacho, there were no longer children collecting as young as Glória and Funabem had been when they first arrived. In the late 1990s, the waste management company, Comlurb, began enforcing rules prohibiting minors (those under eighteen years of age) from entering the dump as part of a larger social and environmental effort to remediate the dump. However, older adolescents who were still minors were often able to pass as adults and slip by the guards who monitored entry and exit at the dump.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
1. Arriving beyond Abjection  35
2. The Precarious Present  67
3. Life Well Spent  95
4. Plastic Economy  123
5. From Refuse to Revolution  151
Conclusion: The Garbage Never Ends  177
Notes  191
References  207
Index  223

What People are Saying About This

Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown - Donna M. Goldstein

“This beautifully written ethnography captures the daily living and precarious lives of impoverished workers and how they manage to be creative in spite of the harsh economic context. Daily problems permeate these lives, but there is also a celebration of life. This wonderful book is hard to put down, and its subject is new and freshly presented.”

The City at Its Limits: Taboo, Transgression, and Urban Renewal in Lima - Daniella Gandolfo

“Through a narrative built around a constellation of persons and objects, Jardim Gramacho comes alive in this gripping ethnography of garbage-reclaiming work and life in Rio's urban periphery. Kathleen M. Millar resists facile explanations of life in the dump, opting instead to closely listen to her interlocutors' stories, find value in literal interpretations of their words, and take ambivalences and contradictions not as calls for authoritative intervention but as invitations to inhabit the subtleties and complexities of their formidable social world. Reclaiming the Discarded is beautifully written and its argument disrupts truisms that sustain whole fields of inquiry.”

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