Scent of victory for environmentalists as Brazilian landfill dump closes
ONE of the world’s largest open-air landfills – a vast, seaside mountain of trash where thousands of people have made a living sorting through debris by hand – will close today after 34 years in malodorous service.
A long-time symbol of ill-conceived urban planning and environmental negligence, Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho dump is being transformed into a vast facility that will harness the greenhouse gases generated by the rotting rubbish and turn them into fuel capable of heating homes and powering cars.
Environmentalists had blamed Gramacho for the high levels of pollution in Rio’s once pristine Guanabara Bay, where tons of run-off from the garbage had leaked.
Less clear is what will happen to the more than 1,700 people who worked at the site, scaling hills of fresh, fly and vulture-covered trash to pluck recyclable plastic, paper and metal from the 9,000 tons of detritus once dumped there daily.
Known as “catadores” in Portuguese, the trash pickers will receive a lump-sum payout from the city, but there’s no place for them at Gramacho’s replacement, the high-tech Seropedica dump, where most of the garbage is already being sent.
“When you first get here, you’re like, ‘Ick, I don’t know if I can do this,’ but then you get used to it and you make friends and you find it’s good work,” said Lorival Francisco dos Santos, a 46-year-old, who spent 13 years at the landfill.
Gramacho’s closure was postponed several times, and has been criticised for finally taking place just weeks before the United Nations’ Rio+20 conference on sustainable development. It also comes as the city gears up to host the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
“We’ve been telling the catadores about it for years, but somehow they never believed it would really happen,” said Gramacho director Lucio Alves Vianna.
Gramacho sprang up on unstable, ecologically sensitive marshland overlooking the bay in 1978 and, for nearly 20 years, functioned with little or no planning.
There was no lining on the floor to prevent leaks of the toxic waste that was routinely dumped there, and the liquid waste from organic materials drained directly into the water, helping make much of the bay unsafe for swimming.
In 1996, the authorities stepped in, ending child labour at the site, registering the catadores and restricting the kind of waste the dump took in to just household waste from Rio and four outlying cities.
Bulldozers have started covering the dump with thick layers of earth.
Now, the 321-acre facility has grown into a literal mountain of garbage overlooking Guanabara Bay.
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