Cairo”s garbage-pickers” dirty, “clever way of life” coming to an end

The community that garbage built occupies an abandoned quarry on the edge of this teeming capital, a hidden neighbourhood few outsiders ever see, by turns appalling and wondrous.

Sewage-mired alleyways clogged with drifts of old pantyhose, squashed rats and the rotting table scraps from millions of households thread their way to cave-like workshops where at least 20,000 people sort through the municipal waste of Cairo. At first whiff some scenes here can be shocking: Women and children wade shin-deep through filth piled in front of their brick houses, plucking out plastic bottles, used syringes and putrid food.

But linger a bit, breathing through your mouth and watching where you step, and what emerges instead is a sense of awe at what might be called the Silicon Valley of the garbage-scavenging world.

Using their nimble hands and primitive machines, the zabbaleen, or garbage collectors of Cairo, run a thriving if grubby empire that transforms other peoples’ offal into shoe heels, vases, coat hangers and scores of other useful items. In terms of low-tech innovation, the waste recycling done here is unmatched anywhere else on the globe. And it is all about to disappear, thanks to progress.

“They tell us that in the name of civilization we shouldn’t be doing this anymore,” said Bekhit, 54, one of thousands of zabbaleen whose livelihoods will vanish when Cairo contracts out its garbage collection to three European sanitation companies next month. “But garbage is all that we know. Garbage has built our schools, our small factories, everything else you see.”

Few people – not even Cairo’s socially scorned zabbaleen – disagree that Egypt’s sprawling capital is in the throes of a major sanitation crisis.

The urban gateway to such famous tourism destinations as the pyramids of Giza has been overwhelmed in recent years by immigration from the countryside. With a population now tipping 16 million, public services are swamped, and garbage fouls many streets. Trash fires add to already abysmal air pollution. And city managers, worried about mounting health hazards, have hired one Italian and two Spanish companies to clean up the mess to the tune of $30 million a year.

But the modernization of garbage handling in Cairo, while welcomed by many long-suffering residents, has opened a noisy debate about the fate of the city’s traditional cleaning crews, who daily pad up and down thousands of apartment stairwells at dawn, toting massive baskets on their shoulders and shouting “Bring out your garbage!”

“Over the last 50 years, the zabbaleen have developed the most refined, entrepreneurial garbage processing system in the world,” said Laila Rashed Iskandar, a community development expert who has worked with the city’s zabbaleen for years. “They recycle 80 percent of what they collect. Now the government is planning to landfill 80 percent. How smart is that?”

Indeed, when it comes to processing waste, cleverness is a zabbaleen trademark.

Impoverished migrants from southern Egypt, the zabbaleen are mainly Coptic Christians, an agrarian community that resorted to garbage collecting in the 1940s, partly because the majority Muslim population considers such a trade “unclean” and partly as a way to help feed their herds of pigs and other animals.

Since then, the informal garbage industry has become so competitive that about one-third of Cairo’s households are divided into “concessions” by the zabbaleen, essentially waste-mining claims that are passed down through individual families. Residents pay the equivalent of about $1 a month for the zabbaleen’s services. But not all trash is created equal; the zabbaleen may actually pay up to $600 a month for the valuable rubbish from five-star hotels.

Once carted to the zabbaleen slums, this torrent of muck goes through a boggling array of sorting and processing.

Families specialize in recycling y

Ano da Publicação: 2003
Fonte: Chicago Tribune
Autor: Kit Strange (Warmer Bulletin)
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