Another Green (Justice) Revolution

Of the many worlds that American audiences saw on film, few would be as far removed as that of Egypt's garbage pickers, the Zabbaleen. Yet, Mai Iskander's film, Garbage Dreams was enthralling and moving enough for it to win awards and attract audiences. What was so compelling about the film? Shot for over 2 years in the informal settlements of Cairo, Garbage Dreams follows three waste collectors as they live off the city's trash but hope for a more stable future. Through the film, a tragic backdrop unfolds -- the government begins to hand over waste handling to giant international companies and the Zabaleen begin to confront the annihilation of their jobs.

The beauty of Garbage Dreams is that it is transcends itself. It is really the story of nearly 10 million waste handlers all over the developing world. Think Brazil, the Philippines, Romania or India -- waste pickers of various kinds are the backbone of recycling operations in these countries. Most of them are socially and economically marginal, but are organizing themselves politically. In Bogota, in 2008, the world's first conference of waste pickers kick started a process that is constantly evolving. As recently as COP 15 in Copenhagen, a delegation of global waste pickers pressed forth their right to be recognized as cooling agents.

There is another way in which Garbage Dreams transcends itself as the story of 3 struggling Cairo trash handlers. The loss of livelihoods it hints at is becoming a reality in many parts of the world. My own home, Delhi, is an example. Although the municipality picks up waste from community dump sites and takes it to landfills, it does little else. The recycling is all done by the waste pickers. If you simply dump your trash in one of Delhi's many community dumps, all mixed up, they will remove the last magnetic pin in it, efficiently recycling it. An estimate suggests they recycle about 20% of the city's waste daily, save enormous costs to the municipality and citizens (who pay nothing for these services). Almost 100% of the anything that can be recycled -- a huge achievement by any standards. Their work is one of the reasons why an expanding city like Delhi has been able to get by with the same three un-engineered landfills for over a decade.

But they're not about to be rewarded for helping green the city's systems. As Delhi races to become what it calls a "world class city," all kinds of waste recyclers find themselves left out in the cold. Like the boys in Garbage Dreams, giant waste companies who have been formally contracted to handle the city's waste are dislocating them. About 50% of them interviewed for a study in 2006 mentioned they experienced a loss of income that was directly related to the entry of these private companies. The choice is not for cities like Delhi to stay unchanged, but to be inclusive in their change, improving the city for everyone. One of Delhi's 2 major municipalities, the elite New Delhi Municipal Council, has shown how. It has, quite simply, contracted out all waste collection from the doorstep to waste pickers. This way, they get formal work and earn a safer living. The bigger municipality, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, has done away entirely with such actors and their right to a livelihood.

About 150,000 people -- nearly 1% of Delhi's population -- are facing the heat.

But the characteristic of Indian democracy is that even the poor are able to often organize and protest. The non-profit I work with, Chintan, spent hours talking to waste pickers, organized into an association they named Safai Sena (meaning the Recycling Army). They demanded we help them get environmental justice. At the same time, we also learned about a New York-based organization, WITNESS, that helped grassroots groups use video to fight for their rights. Given that waste pickers in India are typically illiterate, video seemed to be a democratic way for them to self-represent. They were also excited about a film that they would be part of. When, after weeks of training by WITNESS and Video Volunteers, the movie began to be shot, a waste recycler largely directed it. Another waste picker, being interviewed for the film, spelt out his logic for talking on film. "If you make a film," he said, "then you will show it to them. Then at least they'll know what is happening." He was already seeing the film as a tool to wake up the government.

As WITNESS collaborated to create a product that could force change, I often thought about film as a new weapon for environmental justice by marginal people. Even in a country like India, where a third of the population is poor and millions illiterate, new media and simple, inexpensive cameras can help cut through traditional inequity and institutional barriers. At the end of a long day of shooting, just as we were winding up, an interviewee stated something quite matter-of-factly. He said, "Privatization of waste is our death sentence." If we hadn't been rolling, this powerful indictment would have gone unheard. Why should it? Why should voices from the ground remain local?

Films like Garbage Dreams and our own, quite different one, Counterbalance, are becoming an important part of a larger movement, where there are poor defining what green means to them, as legitimate actors in greening the world. They are using film to press for inclusive growth and green justice-directly or with collaborators. They are also able to engage with distant audiences, creating new constituencies of support despite this otherwise disempowered condition. The poor and the marginal of India -- or any other faraway place -- certainly won't travel the world. But with a quick click on a link like this, hundreds of people will be able to listen, perhaps even act, on their urban tale, without the burden of carbon emissions from flying anywhere.

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