Women in the small village of Tacarigua de la laguna in Venezuela are turning to recycling to earn a living. Tacarigua is a long coastal lagoon covering 9,200 hectares along Venezuela's Caribbean coast, a three-hour drive east of Caracas. The lagoon has areas where freshwater meets saltwater, but most of it is separated from the sea by a sandy strip 28 kilometers long and about 300 meters wide. Garbage washed onto the shore and littering the roadside has been a problem for years.
"Here, we women organized ourselves in a small company to collect what we used to see as garbage," said María Auxiliadora Uriepero, who has six children and eleven grandchildren. She stood in the doorway of her half-built house of cinder-block walls and zinc roof, which currently serves as a warehouse for her sacks of discarded bottles. Uriepero calculates her earnings by the number of items she can recycle. "I need to collect about 58,000 bottles in order to fix up my house. Wherever I see a bottle, I pick it up. My whole family does the same. We already have 90 sacks full." The bottles are sold to recycling companies.
Some 5,000 residents, here and in neighboring Belén, make their living from fishing and tourism on the nearby beaches. But unemployment is rampant. The national park, created by decree in 1974, covers 39,100 hectares that include the lagoon and shoreline and the sandbar that separates it from the sea. In 1991, 20,000 hectares of adjacent sea were added. It is one of the sites protected under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, named for the Iranian city where the pact was signed in 1971.
On a narrow street, in the shade of mango trees, and just a few meters from one arm of the lagoon, Vilma Gutiérrez walks several kilometers along the beach and collects and separates glass, plastic and aluminum. She removes dirt and labels from 1.5-liter plastic soda bottles.
"I'm no longer ashamed that people might see us and say 'there goes that garbage lady.' The people in the government [of the northern state of Miranda] have taught us that it isn't garbage, it's secondary raw material, which we can use to run our association, 'Corocora Mar y Sol'," Gutiérrez said.
Uriepero's group, the Flor del Mangle, and Corocora Mar y Sol are two recycling microenterprises. The former is incorporated and the latter is registered as a partnership. The Miranda state government is promoting the creation of more such entities to help tackle the twin problems of unemployment and waste.
"We are developing this project to boost conservation of the park as a biodiversity preserve, and for food security, while we are also supporting vulnerable groups of citizens and creating ecological awareness in the area," Evelyn Pallota, the state government's environmental director, told Tierramérica.
Corocora Mar y Sol proposed acquiring baskets appropriate for collecting materials, as well as uniforms, gloves and facemasks. And perhaps even a small truck, Guittierez said, adding that she might hire her husband to drive.
Milagro Liberón, a local school teacher, is setting up a location that will serve as a collection center and will provide training and logistical and legal support to the groups of collectors. Working with her is Eduarda Román, whose patio faces an arm of the lagoon, where she feeds the iguanas, turtles and herons that come by.
Nothing is wasted at Román's house. Leftover food scraps go to the compost bin to help grow papayas and mandarin oranges. Her neighbors "have begun to separate the solid waste in their homes and then they call so that the collectors come by to pick up a bag of this or that," she said.
Liberón works with papier mâché and teaches others how to make crafts. Which means that beyond the recycling collection enterprise, the women can take the next step, which is eco-design: making artistic and utilitarian items with some of the collected materials.
In addition to support from the state government, the British Embassy in Caracas has donated scales to weigh the materials, and the U.S. glass bottle manufacturer Owens-Illinois provided a glass grinder and purchases the group's output. The factories receives about 100,000 tonnes annually to recycle, or about 30 percent of the raw material. The women are paid $140 per tonne.
The Tacarigua area is part of the Barlovento, a fertile 4,600 square km plain irrigated by the Tuy River and its tributaries. In colonial times it was filled with cocoa plantations worked by slaves from Africa.
"We launched projects like Tacarigua to raise awareness, train environmentally responsible citizens, prevent pollution of the lagoon, beaches and fields, and generate jobs that allow people to take the first step up and out of poverty and marginalization," Pallota said.
--Solutions staff and Tierramerica network, a Latin American news service.