Any doubts we harbored that it was back to business as usual in Buenos Aires were quickly dispelled during the past week. The volatile mixture of garbage, recycling, cartoneros, local government, national government, private enterprise, and the Zero Garbage Law have been cunningly politicized by all parties way beyond what we encountered before we left a year ago, and the search for a stable or consistent description/evaluation of what’s really going on here is more elusive than ever. Thankfully, this trip is short, we have a lot to accomplish, and there’s less downtime for what can easily slide into debilitating speculation. We do know that there is now a strong rift between the cartonero cooperatives and former informal urban recyclers who have managed to make beneficial deals with the Macri government, and those who have been left out of or excluded from those agreements. Whether by design or circumstance, the solidarity that existed and was pretty evident last year between the garbage recycling groups, is being effectively chipped away at in what looks like a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy by local authorities. And, if that weren’t disheartening enough, Greenpeace, which has always been a powerful force in framing the recycling issue, shaping legislation, and supporting the rights and legitimacy of the cartoneros, is now publicaly at odds with positions being taken by some of its strongest former allies. If this sounds confusing, it is, and we turned once again to our most reliable source to help straighten the picture out for us – the people who worked for the DGPRU, but who left a year ago when the new government took power and effectively handcuffed their ability to continue their research and policy recommendations, to move into other positions in and outside the government.
On Wednesday morning we took a trip out to the edges of Buenos Aires (I’m being purposefully vague here) to visit one of the cooperatives that figured into the government’s ‘green point’ plans. We had spent a lot of time with them last year, when their future teetered precipitously on the whims of their neighbors, the steadfastness of their supporters (Greenpeace, being a major one of these), and the perseverance of the government to follow through with their promises. The picture has now dramatically changed. The group is being housed in new facilities, recipients of a constant supply of trucks hauling in recyclables from private companies and public waste. Uniforms identified the cooperative, and the haulers had their own logos emblazoned on their new trucks and uniformed backs. Things looked as though they were going very well indeed. How had things turned around so quickly? At the end of the day we met with Antonella Rossi, a former DGPRU employee who we had interviewed 3 or 4 times last year. We told her where we had been that morning, and her first question to us was, ‘what kind of changes do you see in X (the cooperative’s public face and voice) this year from last.’ We immediately understand that embedded in this question was the story of what had happened over the past year – the shifting of alliances and allegiances, the deal-making, the tacit and explicit support of the governmnt for the benefit of one group over another, the rifts and rivalries. We got the whole ugly scoop, but luckily we were too busy to let it bring us down.