By Chris Arsenault
BRASILIA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Like thousands of other waste pickers who toil for long hours in the toxic air of Latin America's largest rubbish dump, Jose da Silva is wondering how his life will change as Brazil's government plans to close the facility outside the capital.
Da Silva followed his father's footsteps into the dump when he was 13, a common practice for pickers, or "catadores", who search the landfill for recyclable materials to sell.
"There are eight or 10-year-old kids working here," said Da Silva, who has thick scars on his neck and stomach, as a young girl played at driving a broken-down car at the guarded entrance of the Estructural landfill, less than 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Brazil's presidential palace.
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For Da Silva and other pickers, scraping a living from trash has meant working amid bad smells and dangerous gases but it has also enabled them to save enough money to buy their own homes.
A PLACE TO CALL HOME
Most of the pickers live in Cidade Estructural, a community across from the dump which has an estimated 40,000 residents.
The community began as an illegal settlement for workers on the dump, said Katia Campos, president of the Urban Cleaning Service of the Federal District (SLU), the government department responsible for regulating the facility.
"Today, it has become a regularized city," Campos told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.
Da Silva even has an official property deed, something that residents of similar communities across Brazil often lack.
Campos said government agencies are working to protect the land and housing rights of recycling workers who live in the area, despite the planned closure of the Estructural landfill.
She said the site was going to be shut down because of environmental and other concerns, but gave no details on when the closure will happen.
Since it opened some 50 years ago, the dump has accumulated an estimated 30 million tons of rubbish, making it the largest landfill in Latin America, according to data from the University of Brasilia.
Waste pickers said they expect the site to shut next summer, though discussions on this have gone on for more than a year.
LOOKING FOR WORK
"I live close by; I am worried about the closure," Rodrigo Candido de Souza, a recycling worker, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation while taking a break from picking.
"We make a living with this," he said. "I would do any job that pays and has dignity."
Pickers earn about 40 reais ($12.40) per day collecting materials from the dump that can be sold to recycling operators, 18-year-old Joao Ferreira told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. That often exceeds Brazil's minimum wage of 880 reais per month.
The pickers are mostly informal workers who sell recyclables on a piecemeal basis and lack the government protections of official employment. There are an estimated 3,000 pickers laboring on the site, workers said.
At the landfill, pickers are on site 24 hours a day and fires burning discarded material smolder all night.
"It's a hard job," said Ferreira, who would like to find work in construction but, with Brazil facing its worst recession since the 1930s, few companies are hiring.
"People (working at the dump) don't believe in their potential to enter the labor market considering the high level of unemployment in the country," said Campos, the state official.
Government agencies are working to bring informal recycling workers into cooperatives that provide uniforms and safety equipment, she said, but this is not an easy process.
COMMUNITY IN TRANSITION
While many pickers like De Souza and Ferreira said they don't particularly like living near a rubbish dump, a community has developed in Cidade Estructural and residents are uncertain about what might happen to them when the site eventually closes.
"I have seen this neighborhood grow over the years," said one resident, Sebastian Jorge Lima.
"The dump is the biggest employer around here. It's going to affect a lot of people when it closes," Lima told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as he drank "casacha" sugar-cane alcohol at a makeshift bar opposite the dump. "I'm worried people will move."
Jose da Silva said several dozen pickers met government officials recently to talk about the impending closure and what the future holds, and more meetings are planned.
He believes about half of the residents will return to Brazil's Northeast, home to most of the first pickers who migrated to the capital in search of work in the 1960s. But he still sees cause for optimism about the future of the area.
Even if people leave, residents like him who have property titles could see an increase in the value of their homes.
"The image of this place will get better," Da Silva said.
"I intend to open a store below my house when the dump closes," he said, heading into the gated site to begin another day of work. "It won't be a city of rubbish anymore."
(Reporting By Chris Arsenault, Editing by Jo Griffin; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)