Q. How did waste pickers in Brazil start organizing themselves into cooperatives?The establishment of sustainable business links in the recycling chain has been a dream pursued for waste pickers in the informal economy in Brazil. Since the early 1990’s waste pickers have been organizing themselves into cooperatives and other solidarity based associations. These cooperatives are social enterprises in which a business venture – waste collection, sorting and/or semi-processing – is built based on the cooperative principles of workers ownership, internal democracy, workers education, direct action, political autonomy, and gender equality. They strive for achievement of both economic and social goals.
Since the early 2000s, Brazilian waste pickers have also started to organize themselves in secondary level cooperatives called “redes” (networks in English) with the aim of selling of recyclables and/or semi-processing of materials in bulk. These networks also provide capacity building opportunities on both technical and managerial aspects. In 2001 over 1,200 cooperative organizations in Brazil came together to form the National Movement of Recyclable Waste Pickers (MNCR).
Q. What is Redesol and when was it established?Central Cooperative Solidarity Network of Workers of Recyclable Materials of Minas Gerais (Redesol) is a network of cooperatives and cooperative-like associations of waste pickers in Belo Horizonte, capital city of Minas Gerais State, established in May 2010. The idea of forming Redesol stemmed from discussions carried out at the Municipal Waste and Citizenship Forum of Belo Horizonte (FMLC-BH), a multi-stakeholder platform formed in 2003 to discuss municipal recycling system .
The Municipality of Belo Horizonte has included a solidarity based association of waste pickers, Association of Collectors of Paper, Cardboard and Recyclable Material (ASMARE), since 1993 as a service provider in its municipal recycling scheme. In the aftermath of the 2000 economic crisis in Brazil, the number of unemployed rose and the streets of Belo Horizonte saw an increase in the number of people collecting recyclables as a source of income. With support from the municipal government and NGOs, new cooperatives and other solidarity based associations of waste pickers started to be formed in the city to access recyclables. Inspired by the success of ASMARE´s partnership with the city, the new associations identified the cooperative model as a way to cope with rising unemployment.
As cooperatives of waste pickers in Belo Horizonte had increased from one to ten, the multi-stakeholders platform FMLC-BH was formed including representatives from the city government, cooperatives, local NGOs, and foundations to discuss how they can cooperate in the municipal recycling system. One important step for the creation of Redesol was the affiliation of two founding cooperatives with UNISOL Brasil (Central Cooperatives and solidarity Entrepreneurs), a federation of cooperatives and solidarity enterprises, which provided the main tenets on solidarity economy for the newly formed cooperatives.
Various partners provided technical and financial supportfor their registration as a legal entity, provided advice on strategic planning and governance issues to get Redesol off the ground in 2010.
Q. How does Redesol work in practice?Currently Redesol has 14 affiliated cooperatives and other solidarity based associations engaged in collecting and sorting of recyclables and also processing of certain types of waste into crafts. The size of the cooperatives vary from 10 to 40 members and the total number of direct workers in Redesol is over 250.
One of Redesol´s primary goals is to enable joint commercialization of recyclables as a way to circumvent middlemen and thus increase income of its affiliates. It also provides technical support services to improve the productivity and to ensure democratic governance of its affiliates. Under its Constitution approved in 2011, Redesol abides to the principles of social and solidarity economy. Each affiliate cooperative is asked to sign a letter of commitment when joining the network. Their governance structure is as follows:
- Administrative Committee: in charge of financial and administrative management
- Supervisory Board: oversees the work done by the administrative committee
- Management Committee: comprised of representatives from each affiliate cooperative which deliberates about the projects and actions undertaken by Redesol which meets twice a month
- Thematic Working Groups: formed with members from their affiliates plus a member of the management committee and from the technical staff
- Social Enterprises: they are the cooperatives or cooperative-like associations affiliated to the network.
Some of Redesol’s affiliates have contracts with municipalities for service provision on collection and/or sorting of recyclables. They may also access the “recycling bonus”, a monetary incentive paid by the state government for the environmental values created though retrieving recyclables that would otherwise be dumped.
Redesol has managed to access funds from a Federal Government programme called “Cataforte” which provides technical assistance and equipment to many recycling cooperatives throughout Brazil. Redesol has a strong commitment to workers´ education and well-being. Its most recent projects include: literacy courses offered in partnership with “Banco do Brazil Foundation; health risks mapping in partnership with the global network WIEGO; implementation of the “Catafácil” application to manage their production; and many others.
Q. What are the challenges and opportunities for Redesol?Redesol’s affiliates come not only from the Municipality of Belo Horizonte, but also from neighboring municipalities. They have distinctive characteristics in terms of size, level of organization, support they receive from municipalities, organizational backgrounds, etc. One of the main challenges is to provide the support needed that is in line with the different characteristics of these diverse affiliates in improving their presence in the waste management chain, working conditions and technical and managerial capacities. Another challenge worth mentioning is the need to change the current cooperative law which heavily taxes cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy enterprises hampering their abilities to compete with big middlemen in the recycling value chain.
Balancing out social and business functions are one of the most pressing challenges for cooperatives in general. For informal economy workers’ cooperatives, this is particularly acute given the history of marginalization they face. Thus policies are needed on: promotion of access to capital, infrastructure, technology and a legal environment that is enabling for cooperatives recognizing their specificities.