Unfazed by powerful political opponents and a pervasive culture of violence, 2013 Goldman Prize recipient Nohra Padilla organized Colombia’s marginalized waste pickers to make recycling a legitimate part of waste management.
What was it like growing up as a recycler in Colombia, and how did you become a leader in the fight to transform the system?
I was 7 years old when my mother started taking us with her into the streets and to the dump to search through trash piles for recyclables as a way to earn money. My family had been displaced because of the violence in Colombia and needed a way to survive in Bogotá, and this was a way for us all to be together while we worked.
The working conditions at the dump were bad, and we would spend our days covered in garbage surrounded by rats and cockroaches. But nobody bothered us there, so it was peaceful and we were happy. When I was 16 they closed the dump where we and many other families worked, so we were all forced to start looking through trash in the streets. But many people didn’t want us in their neighborhoods because we were dirty and poor, and they would chase us away, attack us and call the police.
We had to form cooperatives to protect ourselves and continue recycling, and I became a de facto leader because I had worked in the streets before and wasn’t afraid, unlike most of the others. As I grew older I took on more and more responsibility, and our organization grew larger and stronger.
What have been your goals throughout this struggle and what do you view as your greatest achievements?
Our original goal was to improve the working and living conditions for recyclers and to protect our rights to continue recycling. We wanted legislation that would recognize and formalize our work so that we wouldn’t be vulnerable to the police and other social persecution.
We needed the population to understand the environmental impact of recycling – that our work benefits not just us but the entire country. The government has since accepted the necessity of recycling and Bogotá is now required to implement a recycling system that will preserve the natural resources of our country.
Now other cities in the country are being asked to strengthen their recycling programs as well. We have transformed the image of recyclers and won the acceptance of society, and Colombia is now the first and only country in Latin America where recyclers have constitutional protection to continue their work.
Where have you found the greatest opposition to your work?
Our biggest opponents have been the private waste management companies, which have a lot of money and political power and view us as competition. I’ve been threatened, and my computer and important identification documents have been stolen.
In Colombia, there is a history of removing leaders who work for the people and are fighting for change by throwing them in jail. I was locked up for eight days in an attempt to discredit my name and association.
The government recently made a decision to give the recycling contracts to the thousands of recyclers in the city instead of the private companies and so the companies are resentful, and some have gangs that carry out their business by force – so I still feel my safety is at risk.
What’s next in your fight?
In the immediate future, we’re working on getting a recycling center up and running that would be owned and operated by recyclers. We had been renting a center that was the property of the district, but it’s important to us that we have our own place to help us move toward complete independence.
In the long term, I want to take our message to the rest of Latin America and the world to help other countries that have not been able to achieve what we have. Colombia is now considered the continental leader in organizing and developing legal strategies for recyclers, and we want to use our position to help in places where recyclers still work in very inhumane conditions.
Our ultimate goal is for recyclers to be universally respected and seen as part of a productive and beneficial process in their country and society as a whole.