Monday, 17 September 2012

From Crisis to Co-operatives


Over the last few years, Europe has experienced a severe financial crisis, with countries like Greece and Spain facing skyrocketing debt and unemployment. More than a decade ago, a similar situation was unfolding in Argentina. In 2001, the country suffered a debilitating economic crisis and, as a result, defaulted on its foreign debt and stopped pegging the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar.  When the peso to dollar conversion jumped suddenly to three to one, many Argentines lost two-thirds of their savings overnight.
Banks closed.  Companies went out of business.  And fully one-quarter of the population was left without work.  Tens of thousands of those people, in desperation, started to make their living from garbage.  Working as “cartoneros,” which means “cardboard people” they sorted through trash to find recyclable materials to sell.  Thus was born Buenos Aires’ informal recycling system, which still exists today.
Eilís O’Neill has more on how the cartoneros, who originally struggled to exist on what they could make on their own, eventually organized into cooperatives in order to help each other and to demand that the government support their efforts.
This documentary was produced by Eilís O’Neill  in Buenos Aires. Documentary editor is Shannon Young. Technical production by Jeannine Etter. La Plataforma provided music for this documentary.
In 2001 Argentina suffered one of the worst economic depressions since the 1930's, surprisingly this traumatic period went unnoticed by most as 9/11 and the Invasion of Afghanistan diverted attention. I'm also certain that the fact this occurred in South America a region that at the time (late 80's through the 90's) was prone to economic collapse and street protests. Venezuela had food riots in Caracas, the old Dictatorships failures to secure living standards saw all of them chucked out the Presidential palaces etc.

Which as the above documentary demonstrates is quite shameful. Not only was it a case of ignoring a whole nation in severe difficulty, it also means that the rest of the world may have missed out on a very important example of the people power and the tenacity of ordinary people to Organise in the face of extreme adversity and societal collapse. 2001-02 saw ordinary shop floor staff occupying and reopening abandoned factories (for those who haven't already seen it I recommend The Take a documentary about factory occupations) and others still became Cartoneros "Cardboard people" they would and still do sort through rubbish for recyclable material to sell.

You may be wondering, isn't that what the homeless do all over the world? And the answer is sadly yes, but what makes the Cartoneros different is that they began to organise themselves into Cooperatives and establish routines and preferred buyers for certain materials, which enabled individual Cartoneros to work fewer hours, take days off and  improve their health and housing.

In fact several have become so large and well established that a number of them like El Ceibo now own their own sorting areas and factories.

They went from this

To this
But beyond the specific example of sorting recyclables the Cartoneros show the world the power of organisation, by hard work and solidarity the unemployed living on the very fringe of formal society have managed to improve their own conditions and become important institutions in Urban Centres.

In particular the Documentary makers think the Argentine experience will be of use to the Greeks (probably should of recorded it in Greek then) as not only do the two nations share similar triggers for their woes (the Argentine Peso was pegged to the US dollar for years) but the severity of both financial meltdowns means both nations faced a breakdown in formal society.

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