The recyclers, a shadow proletariat, roam the streets of the Colombian capital every day to rummage through the garbage cans of those richer than them and sort out the waste that they will sell for a handful of pesos.

An army of destitute men, women and sometimes children, often migrants from neighboring Venezuela. Face of this poverty to which all the presidential candidates of May 29 promise to attack, in a country, fourth economy of Latin America, among the most unequal in the world.

In 2020, they were 25,000, listed by the town hall, to have this life of work as their main source of income. More than 170 associations represent them. But many have no legal existence.

– Human traction –

On average, these recyclers earn between 12,000 and 18,000 pesos (between 3 and 4.25 euros) every day, Alvaro Nocua, an official of the “Give me your hand” association, told AFP.

Black bob on his head and a youthful smile, Jesus Maria Perez, 52, roams the streets looking for trash. This former Venezuelan chef has been living alone in Colombia for five years.

“This life is hard, but it’s my only option to survive,” he confesses. “I have no papers, so I cannot be registered”.

Recovering plastics, glass bottles and cardboard, he struggles to meet “day to day” his daily target of 40,000 pesos (9.50 euros).

He piles up his treasures in his DIY wooden cart. No horse or donkey to pull it. The town hall, led since 2004 by left or center-left mayors, prohibits it in the name of the fight against animal abuse.

It is therefore with human traction – few can afford a motorized machine – that the recyclers work, pulling their machine at arm’s length for kilometers.

Sometimes it’s families. The parents rummage through the garbage, the children wait on the cart.

Bogota produces 7,500 tons of waste every day, 16% of which is recycled thanks to the little hands that do the trash.

The future of the planet here is above all the poor who take care of it, while 78% of Colombian households did not recycle or properly separate their waste at home in 2019.

“The materials collected are then processed and marketed to the industrial sector,” explains Mr. Nocua.

– Intermediaries –

In Bogota, at nearly 2,500 meters above sea level, there is also sometimes rain and cold. Jesus then puts on his raincoat to protect himself from the gusts.

After kilometers, last stop in front of a modern building in the city center to sort the contents of a final container.

Then head to the “warehouse”, a hundred square meters serving as a waste shed in a popular district in the south of the city. The smell takes you by the throat. Cardboard, paper, plastic, glass… everything is separated, stacked, stored.

Forty-something with a marked face but a clean look, Martha Munoz is the patroness of the place. “Many of those who come here are homeless, it allows them to have a small income,” she explains.

“I was able to raise seven children thanks to this warehouse. They all have a job now, one is a lawyer, the other an engineer,” she says.

Martha is one of the many intermediaries who then resells, with a margin of up to 20%, to the fifteen major sorting stations in Bogota.

In 2013, the capital’s waste pickers obtained official recognition, which allows them to receive, via approved associations, part of the sanitation taxes collected by the municipality.

The shock of the pandemic in 2020, and the severe confinement imposed, was harsh. Hundreds of collectors then demonstrated against their dramatic situation.

That day, with 25,000 pesos collected, Jesus will not be able to cover his daily needs. Once the rental of his room in a boarding house and the costs for parking his cart have been deducted, he is left with a thousand pesos. “Not enough to eat…”, says the man who had to leave his country because of inflation.

To complete, Jesus sells sweets and garbage bags in front of a neighborhood supermarket, to raise 10,000 pesos (2.36 euros) and be able to eat his “first” real meal of the day.

In the evening, he goes back to his dilapidated room, in a district of prostitutes, to cook himself a dish of rice on a makeshift stove. His dream? “To be able to go to Chile next year”, where his only son lives.