Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators

Cooperative of Associated Work Planeta Verde: Improving living conditions of waste pickers in Colombia

"Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators" is a series of interviews with cooperators from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths during the course of their work with cooperatives. On this occasion, ILO interviewed Martha Elena Iglesias, a waste picker and the leader of Cooperative of Associated Work Planeta Verde in Colombia.

Article | 23 août 2018

1. What is Planeta Verde?

Martha Elena Iglesias, Leader of Planeta Verde, at the 107th session of the International Labour Conference in Geneva, 2018
Planeta Verde (which means Green Planet) was founded 18 years ago in Rionegro, Oriente de Antioquia, Colombia, as part of the search to satisfy the needs of a group of displaced persons who fled from their places of origin owing to the armed conflict unleashed in the region, and in the face of the imminent closure of the rubbish dump which served the city. Transforming rubbish from a problem into a solution was the initiative which a group of solidarity economy students set up at the time, while managing an academic and production project that has now been turned into the hopes of people who found partnership to be the way to realise their dreams.

Original aims: generating employment for vulnerable population, mitigating the environmental impacts caused by the poor disposal and lack of reuse of waste products, setting up a sustainable cooperative enterprise, and achieving regional impact and a model organization for waste pickers. On that basis, the cooperative has been planned as an environmental, social, enterprise and economic solution for integrated waste management, currently involving 86 waste pickers working for the Rionegro municipality:
  • Men 65 %
  • Women 35 %
  • Adults (over-18s) 45 %
  • Women (head of household) 14 %

Members of Planeta Verde

2. Activities and programmes for members

The cooperative has worked diligently to achieve better living conditions for waste pickers. We have observed the need for training in order to influence public policies. Our organization has been an active participant in relation to national, continental and global policies, as a member of the Colombian National Waste Pickers Association (ANR), a founder of the Latin American and Caribbean Waste Pickers Network (Red LACRE) and the Global Alliance, organizations whose management has resulted in the recognition of the Recycling Union and of the value of its work for the benefit of people.

Our biggest conquest now, after years of struggle, is for our waste pickers to receive monthly payment for the recycling service which they provide, as the Constitutional Court of Colombia has declared them to be “Public recycling service providers”, a payment that is made via the charge for public facilities. Our mission continues so that more recycling organizations in Colombia receive the payment and for local governments to comply with the constitutional mandates that have been entrusted to us. We are a model for other organizations of waste pickers in Colombia and we vehemently defend the rights recognized by the State of Colombia, since we have been recognized as a population group subject to special protection, and in view of our poverty and vulnerability.

In order to enhance the prestige of a waste pickers' job and to improve living conditions, the cooperative offers benefits such as:
  • Provision of formal elementary and primary education: In order to reduce the number of cases of illiteracy, study grants are provided. Ninety-eight per cent of our members are now able to read and write, 70 per cent have full primary education and 24 per cent have completed secondary education.
  • Training programmes: Members receive continuous training in areas of benefit to who they are and what they do in their lives: gender equality workshops, personal finances, assertive communication, pain management, healthy living environments, use of personal protection elements, time management, forms of partnership, cooperative spirit, customer service, waste management and so on.
  • Health programmes: Happy Smiles project (dental prostheses for waste pickers who need them). Screening of eyes (contact lenses for those who need them). Smear tests and breast screening (in collaboration with health provider enterprises).
  • Dream programme: If they are able to increase the amount of recyclable material they collect, waste pickers receive a money voucher so that they may fulfil a dream relating to their health, housing or education.
  • Food bank: By means of formal agreements, a basket of basic foodstuffs is given to each waste picker every fortnight.
  • Communal bank: Informal savings system within which saving is encouraged and loans are granted that would not be given under the traditional system, owing to their small number and low level of payment guarantees. This bank is managed by the waste pickers and they draw up the bank’s rules and regulations, as it is managed through the purchase and sale of shares.
  • Funeral policy: All members and their families (up to five members) are covered by a funeral policy.
  • Transport service for the collection of recyclable material: we have lorries available for waste pickers to collect recyclable material, from the sources where such materials are generated.

3. Tasks, challenges and threats

The most important challenge is to empower ourselves with the status of “public service providers”, which has proven to be the most difficult thing; the transition from informality to providing a service for which we are paid; this means that we must be disciplined, as competition in the streets is becoming all the tougher.

In view of the increasing competition among waste recycling enterprises, we acknowledge the need to improve our skills and services. The task is therefore to equip ourselves and be able to compete, something which is only possible if we receive training so as to provide a good service.

Spotlight interviews with cooperators is a series of interviews with cooperative leaders around the world, whom ILO officials have encountered in the course of their work with cooperatives. This article does not constitute an endorsement by the ILO.