Giving a voice to the urban poor: the scavengers of Cochabamba

For Bolivia’s urban poor, it’s vital to adopt "survival strategies” to provide supplemental income that makes up for precarious and low wages.
March 02, 2018

In most developing countries, scavenging, or the recuperation and recycling of waste products, helps to bring in this critical additional income. The majority of those living and working in these scavenger communities are women, and their daily reality leaves them in a tenuous socioeconomic position. An IDRC-supported project helped empower one such community by working with women to establish a platform to work with local authorities on issues of policy, infrastructure, and urban planning.

In Cochabamba, Bolivia’s fourth-largest city, roughly 1,200 people spend their days scavenging the K’ara K’ara dump’s 600 metric tons of solid waste. Women of indigenous origin, who live in informal settlements in the surrounding area with their children and families, make up 80% of these scavengers. For many, this is their sole source of income, leaving them reliant on an uncertain economy.  

Due to Bolivia’s decentralized urban infrastructure, the local government maintains sole responsibility for the dump’s management — but insufficient resources and technical expertise led to serious health risks from air, land, and water contamination. This, in turn, created significant social conflict among the people living in and around the K'ara K'ara dump.

Through IDRC’s Focus City Cochabamba initiative, researchers investigated the environmental impacts of the dump on the livelihoods of these people — mostly women and their families — and other residents of Cochabamba. The findings have been used to implement an evidence-based Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan, which includes an environmental education strategy to lay the foundation for the plan’s long-term sustainability.

Among the first steps necessary to address this kind of social vulnerability and implement sound adaptation strategies is to legitimize an otherwise-informal labour force. The project accomplished this by emphasizing the important social and economic role of the scavenger groups. As a result, the community shifted from a passive culture to having an active and participatory role in environmental and infrastructure governance. Women in particular were demonstrably empowered, creating an association called “El Porvenir” and using recycled paper for the production of Christmas cards and handicrafts.

Other outcomes included the establishment of 700 battery-collection “green points”, and pilot projects such as workshops and training sessions that reached more than 2,500 people, including women from the scavenger communities, municipal technicians, policymakers, and school teachers.

 

Photo:Adam Cohn/ Flickr