Santana do Parnaiba, Brazil
By Paulo Whitaker
Today’s Brazil is synonymous with great promise, as the country of the future with tremendous economic potential. But in terms of our care for the environment, we are far from being a global example.
Although we are the world champion in recycling aluminium cans, we still have many polluted rivers and cities, and our rainforests are being devastated to make room for soybeans, cattle and sugar cane. Recycling cans is high thanks only to the thousands of poor who survive by collecting them.
Roberto da Silva is one of those people – poor and unemployed. Years ago the Tiete River was teeming with fish, but while Roberto gets his food today from the river too, it’s not by harvesting live fish from its waters but rather by fishing tons of plastic PET containers from the river polluted by South America’s biggest city. He collects containers in Santana do Parnaiba as they come floating downriver from Sao Paulo 20 kms (32 miles) away, and sells them to a recycling center.
For the average 700 kg of plastic per week that he pulls from the river, Roberto makes about $4,000 a year. He works with a partner, Esmeraldo, in a tightly coordinated division of tasks. Roberto paddles his makeshift boat down the river, picking up plastic PET containers, until the boat is full. He then returns to the shore where Esmeraldo takes the boat to offload the cargo, as Roberto returns to the river in their second boat.
The containers have to be emptied of any liquid that might increase their weight and give a false reading. I was impressed when Roberto said to me, “It’s not right [to sell the plastic with false weight] and we have to work correctly. We are poor but not thieves like our politicians.”