Editor's Letter: Beyond Waste

By June Carolyn Erlick 

Everyone in Bogotá was talking trash that Christmas season. Pure garbage.  

The streets—at least most of them—had just been cleared of the bags and bags of trash that had lingered on the sidewalks for days, but the smells lingered in the air. My friend Adriana whipped out her Smartphone to show me what the city had looked like a couple of days before. “He ought to be thrown out,” she snarled, referring to Bogotá’s Mayor Gustavo Petro, who had sparked the garbage fiasco by switching garbage collection from a private to a public service. The city wasn’t ready. People were angry.

Garbage, trash, rubbish, debris, detritus, waste: the authors in this issue all have different names for the stuff. And as Latin America increasingly becomes a middle-income continent, there’s likely to be more of it. With more consumer goods comes more consumer waste.

As I prepared this issue of ReVista, some have asked me if Bogotá’s garbage crisis inspired the theme. Yes and no.  After Christmas, I traveled with a group of friends to the Chocó, an isolated and impoverished region on Colombia’s Pacific Coast. Christmas decorations abounded, and I noticed they were almost all crafted from used tin cans, old newspapers, discarded textiles and found wood objects. No one called it recycling. Trash was to be used and used again.

I thought back to Bogotá and how men, women and children with horse-drawn carts had tried to keep pace with the mountains of garbage, recycling and selling what they collected. And then my mind sped to another country of which I am very fond—Guatemala—where my friend Nancy McGirr started a project originally called “Out of the Dump” to teach children working as waste pickers to take photographs of their environment.

Returning to Cambridge, I was surprised to learn that the worldwide organization for waste pickers—WIEGO—is actually based at Harvard. Because of its efforts, thousands of workers in Latin America and beyond have organized in ways that are beneficial for both themselves and their environment.

Like my friends in Bogotá, I began to talk garbage, well, at least about garbage. Someone reminded me that a friend had done a film about trash pickers, cartoneros, in Argentina.  And then I remembered the smell of orange peels that had graced the staircase at DRCLAS for many months; artist Kyle Huffman had created an installation from recycled natural materials. 

Harvard students came back from trips to Latin America to enthusiastically tell me about recycling efforts in local communities; the word got out I was interested in the garbage theme, and Peace Corps volunteers and NGO leaders got in touch with me. 

The issue of garbage in the region is complicated and  Latin America is becoming a laboratory of what to do about it. As Bogotanos found out, the issue is intimately bound up with that of governance. It’s not immune from corruption and power wars. It provides smelly subsistence to thousands of workers who are beginning to be organized. Garbage also provokes civic action—as the crisis in Bogotá all too well demonstrated. 

It creates leaders—people like Albina Ruiz in Perú and Evelyn Mansilla in Guatemala, whose voices are heard on these pages. And from the garbage emerge works of art and film and music—and yes, those lovely Christmas decorations in el Chocó.