Informal waste pickers: stories of “rurbanization”

How can rural knowledge be used in the urban area to generate new forms of work? Which were and currently are the public policies that have an impact on this group?

Claudia Kenbel studies stories of rurban groups. Photo: courtesy researcher.

Claudia Kenbel, CONICET post-doctoral fellow at the Universidad Nacional de Río Cuarto (UNRC) [National University of Río Cuarto], Córdoba, comments that as she was taking her course of studies at University, Social Communication, she began to analyse the way in which communication supports the local growth of a city, the aspects that could enhance it, and the ones that could hinder it.

Her study in particular deals with the impact of these policies on socially vulnerable groups. “When I finished my thesis, I was awestruck by some stories of carreros [cart drivers]-people who work with carts pulled by horses- of several generations: people whose father and grandfather were carreros as well. After that, I had the chance to work with the stories of these rurban groups”, she states.


What is rurbanization?

In the field of Social Sciences, there are some hypotheses that suggest that rural traditions will gradually disappear and the urban phenomenon will replace them. Nevertheless, there are people and elements that persist in that rural scheme but live or work in the city, so they are neither urban nor rural: they are rurban. They bring elements from rural traditions to live in the city, and that is a contradiction to the process of urbanization, which seeks to organize and ‘urbanize’ them in a ‘civilized’ way according to a modern point of view.


How did you start studying rurbanization?

My thesis was based on the follow-up of the stories of the people who lived in the city and work with knowledge and elements of the rural world, for instance informal waste pickers that work with carts pulled by horses. The approach was qualitative: to understand why they work with horses and how they manage to work in the city. We refer to animals that are used to riding in the city, read traffic lights and go next to the cars: they are rurban horses. This study has been conducted with a team who has worked on this issue for more than ten years at the UNRC.


Which are the stories you included in your doctoral thesis?

We took three events that occurred in the city of Río Cuarto during the past fifty years, situations in which these people played a leading role. In order to choose them, we decided to take those events that impacted on the social sector we were working on. The three cases were the following: the centralization of the supply market, the overflow of the Río Cuarto river in 1979 and the people scavenging in Río Cuarto after the 2001 crisis


How was the centralization of the supply market?

In 1969, the creation of a unique market that concentrated all the activity was announced in the city, and that still exists. Before that, when the stalls were decentralised, there were several producers who lived in the areas of smallholdings, 10-15 km from the city, a place that nowadays is part of the city. In the morning, these people used to bring the vegetables from the smallholdings in the carts in order to sell them door-to-door. These scenes are full of stories: the carreros, for instance, tell that they would go with frozen vegetable and their mates used to sell grapa to heat the body. Then they were forbidden to work as they did it. They were supposed to work in a central market, in a stall they had to pay for and produce under certain regulations. After that, some of them managed to adapt to the new system, but many did not and they had to reorganize their lives from what they knew to do.


What about the second case?

In 1979 there was an overflow of the Río Cuarto river, which runs through the city. In order to avoid a flood, the local government decided to regulate the extraction of the dry materials from the river, such as sand. The workers spent a year and a half redirecting the river, just as it was asked. The official story, however, generally considers them as the source of conflict without taking into account that the river has its natural erosion and the fact that there are other people involved in the story, such as the managers of the companies that did business with the sand. When the workers finished redirecting the river, the local government did not recognize their work neither in a symbolic or economic way, and relocated them. They were sent to remove the sand of the river thousands metres away from the places where they used to work because the de facto government wanted to “beautify” the area where they used to live with their families. Their situation was really vulnerable, they had carts and horses.


Was the displacement of the workers obligatory?

Yes. The consequences remain and the lack of recognition from the municipality relates to the current situation. In 2012, some of the children of the workers of the 1979’s overflow led a protest because the government of De la Sota prohibited the extraction. And this is the issue of the river: the State considers it a public property that has to be preserved; the companies make use of the sand as raw material for the real state industry, and the workers who use the river consider it as source of livelihood and part of their way of life.


And the third fact?

In 2001, taking into account the national context, I decided to study the cirujeo [hobos’ activity]. The municipality of Río Cuarto has a “Programme of urban pickers” that works with families working as informal waste pickers. One of the most controversial issues is animal traction because they are not allowed to work in some areas of the city. We wanted to know how the lives of these people were reorganized with these new regulations that forbid them to go to certain places and the policies that have been established since the year 2000 to relocate several families.


What are you doing in Olinda, Brasil?

We are studying the public policies designed for social inclusion and popular cultures. Last year, the municipality of Río Cuarto asked our team to conduct a survey of families devoted to cirujeo [recover residues]. We update the information and analyse the public polices for social inclusion in Olinda and the way in which the people accept the programme that is similar to the Universal Child Allowance in Argentina and is called Family Allowance. Our aim is to observe how those policies were introduced from the point of the view of the people.


How do you define a family whose job is to recover residues?

There are two levels. The ‘scientific’ definition is related to rurbanization. Methodologically, those who work with elements and rural knowledge in urban areas are called rurban people. Not everyone who recovers residues has carts pulled by horses, there are people who work with carts pulled by themselves, with bikes, and a small part of them has a truck. A census performed in 2004, in Río Cuarto, showed that more than the 60% worked with carts pulled by horses. The second level analyses this fact from the point of view of public policies and is defined from a theoretical point of view. This is about families who work with the recovery, collection, separation and the sale of residues informally. This is called cirujear here, cartonear in Buenos Aires and vagonear in Brazil.


Claudia Kenbel is a CONICET post-doctoral fellow at the Centro de Investigaciones en Comunicación (CICom) [Centre for Communication Research] of the Universidad Nacional de Río Cuarto [National University of Río Cuarto]. She holds a a degree in Social Communication from the same university and did a PhD in Social Communication in the Universidad Nacional de Rosario [National University of Rosario].

  • By Ana Belluscio.