A Cloud of Uncertainty for Waste Pickers in Bogota


By Olga Abizaid

Gustavo Petro was reinstated as Mayor of Bogota in April, but the fate of the waste management system he established is far from clear. And this uncertainty is a source of worry for Bogota’s waste pickers.

Petro’s Zero Waste programme of 2012, included in the Municipal Decree 564, entailed the remunicipalization of waste services and a greater emphasis on recycling. Following the Constitutional Court’s Order 275, the programme also paved the way for the inclusion of waste pickers into public waste management and for a payment system to remunerate them for the recycling services provided to the municipality, which in January 2014 had benefitted almost 5,000 waste pickers. Also following the Court’s order, the programme set up a scheme to help exchange animal-pulled vehicles for motorized vehicles, which benefitted 1,800 people (many of which are waste pickers).

Now, however, confronted with various judicial processes, hefty monetary fines and a potential recall vote, it is yet to be seen if Petro will remain in office for the rest of his mandate (2016) or, more importantly, if he can guarantee the continuation of the waste management system he implemented.

Currently the voices to dismantle the system are strong and influential.

Private corporations continue to exert pressures in any way possible for the restoration of the previous system (where they were thriving), and large recycling firms are also pushing for pieces of the waste recycling pie. As if this was not enough, national controlling agencies like the Office of the Inspector General and the Superintendent of Industry and Commerce have blamed the municipal government for the supposedly environmental crisis that occurred in December 2012 during the transition from one system to the other and have condemned it for not respecting the principle of free competition in the procurement of waste management services. The Superintendent also imposed large economic sanctions to both the municipal government bodies and public officers who have been responsible for the implementation of Petro’s Zero Waste programme since the end of 2012.

These pressures will no doubt make a dent in current discussions about the future of waste management in Bogota.

It is true that the inclusion of waste pickers and their remuneration are both protected by the Constitutional Court orders and by recent changes in legislation, including the National Decree 2981, which incorporates recycling into waste management services. But there are certain grey areas within Decree 2981 (e.g. the definition of “recycler,” which could also fit a recycling firm) and within the programme that need clarification, like the definition of recycling routes and whether existing territories held by waste pickers would be respected or the municipal government’s interest in eventually taking waste pickers off the streets to relocate them into warehouses – a movement that, in the eyes of waste pickers, would lead to a net loss of jobs for them.

Moreover, now that there are such strong pressures to change the existing waste management system, it is worthwhile to ask about the direction of the proposed changes to date.

For one thing, the municipality has hinted that the current payment system (which they argue was transitory) may be replaced after an upcoming tendering process for the procurement of waste services (yet to be announced). From then on, the municipality wants to process payments through authorized waste pickers’ organizations instead of paying waste pickers individually. To move forward, the municipality wants to sign agreements of joint responsibility with the organizations, which would bind them to a process of formalization but with no clear signals on the part of the government regarding how it intends to facilitate such process and/or assist the strengthening of waste pickers’ organizations. A process of formalization that only includes costs –and not benefits– for the workers and that is not gradual should be avoided.

To date, though, the administration has yet to define the modalities for the procurement of services and the remuneration scheme for waste pickers. In 2013, the Commission for the Regulation of Water Supply and Sanitation (CRA) elaborated a proposal for a methodology to calculate the costs associated with the recycling of materials, which was used to determine waste pickers’ payment through users’ fees. With that methodology, waste pickers received a rate comparable to the rate paid to private corporations for the provision of waste services. This year, however, the CRA has not yet established the methodology, arguing that it is waiting for the compilation of a consultative process it undertook last year. So, it is not yet clear how much money waste pickers will receive per tonne of waste recuperated in the future. Worse still, it is very likely that the pressures in defense of free competition will have influence in the definition of the methodology.

Moreover, the future of waste management in Bogota will likely become the parameter used by other municipalities in Colombia to define how they will fulfill the court’s orders regarding recognition and remuneration of waste pickers.

 So, beyond the political turmoil surrounding Bogota’s mayor, the main issue for waste pickers remains having secure access to recyclable materials and the recognition of their occupation and of their contribution to the value chain. These concerns have also been highlighted in a recent study conducted by WIEGO in partnership with the Bogota Waste Pickers’ Association (Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá, ARB), which analyzed the situation of waste pickers in Bogota, the driving forces affecting their livelihoods and their responses to the challenges they face. The report in English is forthcoming. Read the executive summary.