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Brazilian catadores collect waste materials in urban garbage dumps, often sleeping alongside the trash from which they eke their modest living. Increased urban migration and exploitative middlemen only compound the problems of this economically stressed group. Dona Geralda Marçal, a catadora since age 8, has developed a new approach and an infrastructure to connect these garbage workers to the training and social services they need to become self-reliant professionals. Through her efforts, catadores move from extreme vulnerability in garbage dumps to socially secure, economically viable, and environmentally conscious citizenship.

This profile below was prepared when Dona Geralda Marçal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.


Brazilian catadores collect waste materials in urban garbage dumps, often sleeping alongside the trash from which they eke their modest living. Increased urban migration and exploitative middlemen only compound the problems of this economically stressed group. Dona Geralda Marçal, a catadora since age 8, has developed a new approach and an infrastructure to connect these garbage workers to the training and social services they need to become self-reliant professionals. Through her efforts, catadores move from extreme vulnerability in garbage dumps to socially secure, economically viable, and environmentally conscious citizenship.


Dona Geralda’s approach is rooted in the firm personal knowledge that catadores can find success on three levels: as social individuals, as entrepreneurs, and as responsible citizens. First, drawing from her life experience, she helps catadores organize to meet their own social needs. She has developed ASMARE, a model association of garbage workers involved in collecting, sorting, and recycling waste on the streets of Brazil. As members of the association, catadores commit to a code of professional and personal practices that not only elevate their sense of self-worth, but also enable them to obtain counseling, health services, and education for themselves and their families.

Business ventures and economic stability are the second main thrust of Dona Geralda’s work. Links with private companies and municipal authorities optimize collection activities and secure space for the catadores to process and store their collected materials. This infrastructure allows catadores to bypass exploitative middlemen and get fair market prices for their products. Their increased income, combined with access to facilities and services to help them move from homelessness to permanent housing, enables catadores to develop new skills and ensure better opportunities for their children.

Finally, Dona Geralda prepares catadores for active citizenship, tackling tenacious problems like pollution and waste management. Their recycling work has the potential to greatly improve environmental conditions, and working with ASMARE, they push for sensible waste management policies that make the most of this potential. As they gain an awareness of their impact on large-scale problems, catadores awaken to their professional worth and civic power.

Dona Geralda’s work with catadores uniquely synthesizes psychological, social, economic, and environmental pursuits, and redefines catadores as a vibrant, self-sufficient, and socially engaged segment of the Brazilian population. Dona Geralda has replicated her model throughout her home state of Minas Gerais and is poised to bring her approach to other Brazilian states where urban migration is exacerbating the problem of homelessness and the vulnerability of catadores.


During the 1980s, rapid urban migration and a series of economic crises led to the severe marginalization of Brazil’s urban poor. Entire families were forced to live on the streets, and thousands of people, including children, began to collect waste materials to survive. Since then, these catadores have spread throughout the country, and their numbers are swiftly rising.

Catadores face severe economic pressures, and many are homeless. They often sleep on the street, because collection is usually made at night, and because they have no other way of protecting their collected materials from theft. Homelessness exacerbates their lack of access to other basic social needs such as health and education. They face disdain from the general public, who tend to resent catadores for separating their garbage in public spaces. Their precarious situation also makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation by middlemen. Despite efforts like the church-sponsored Pastoral de Rua to provide relief on a case-by-case basis, catadores remain among the highest-risk groups of the Brazilian population.

Despite the enormous challenges they face, catadores are positioned to make a powerful impact on waste management and pollution in Brazil. Of the more than 200,000 tons of waste produced daily in Brazil, only 1 percent is recycled. Every year the amount of waste grows by more than 5 percent, and few landfills can safely store it. Only 61 of the 851 municipalities in Minas Gerais have sanitary landfills; the remainder use only open dumps, sometimes covered with a thin layer of earth, that can release dangerous gases as their waste decomposes. The need to reduce waste through recycling is great, and catadores currently process or collect fully 90 percent of the nation’s recycled materials. While fewer than 100 of the 5,500 city governments in the country have formal recycling programs, 3,800 municipalities have catadores who collect and sell recycling material.


To help catadores organize to meet their social and economic needs, and to push for a waste policy that made the most of their valuable labor, Dona Geralda founded ASMARE in 1990. The organization was formed as an immediate response to an initiative called “Operation Cleanup”, which forbid catadores from collecting garbage on the streets of Belo Horizonte, a city on Brazil’s east coast. In their place, city government hired a private company to collect recyclable materials, creating a monopoly that greatly reduced economic opportunities for independent garbage workers. Through ASMARE, the first association made up exclusively of catadores, these workers could influence and develop a municipal policy for waste collection that encouraged their efforts toward recycling.

Dona Geralda sees membership in ASMARE as a first step toward professionalizing catadores and ensuring their access to basic social services. Affiliation is a garbage worker’s first step to developing pride for his or her profession, understanding and exercising his or her rights as a citizen, and recognizing the importance of his or her work for the environment. As members, catadores receive technical training and capacity building, covering hygiene, recycling and its production chain, and local environmental laws. Members are also required to obey ASMARE’s rules: these include prohibitions against sleeping or separating materials in the street, consuming alcohol or drugs, or transporting stolen merchandise; they also require affirmative tasks like ensuring that their children are in school, finding housing, helping with warehouse cleanup, and taking part in ASMARE meetings.

ASMARE supports its catadores with several benefits, including legal assistance, medical and dental support, life insurance, microcredit for housing construction, and improved salaries, as well as a dividend bonus divided amongst the members. To offer alternatives for garbage workers’ children, the association also forges partnerships with private schools; more than 18 students now attend schools they never had access to before ASMARE. The organization also offers night school for adults and workshops for children, and runs a small pharmacy and market with reduced prices for all its members. Their Cultural House offers a café, stage, kitchen, art gallery, and a store selling products made from the materials that ASMARE members collect.

To streamline and professionalize the work of its members, ASMARE maintains three facilities: the first contains spaces for each catador to sort materials, the second organizes and stores the collective production, and the third produces recycled paper. The association acts as an exclusive purchaser, buying materials from the individual members, storing it, and selling it in large quantities. This frees catadores from worrying about where material is stored or how to sell it, and allows them to dedicate their time to collection. With large amounts of materials at their disposal, ASMARE can negotiate higher prices than the garbage workers could obtain individually, thus increasing results for all members.

Through a program in partnership with the Social Assistance Secretariat, ASMARE also offers courses on recycled material and their use in producing a range of goods. Catadores who once lived on the street facilitate the courses, helping their students find new opportunities in trades such as woodworking, recycled paper, and clothing. The association even hosts a workshop preparing members for Carnival; the organization sponsors a Carnival group in which they use costumes and instruments made from recycled materials, demonstrating to the public how waste can be made into something beautiful, generating income and transforming lives.

The association currently supports 380 full members and 1,500 family members. It processes 500 tons of all types of recyclable materials per month, significantly expanding recycling services for the residents of Belo Horizonte. It also has more than 400 partner companies, where catadores collect materials on a daily basis. It maintains partnerships with organizations from a broad range of sectors, including direct service organizations, private banks, and all levels of government.

Drawing on these partnerships, Dona Geralda has already replicated her model in 33 Brazilian cities in the state of Minas Gerais. She organizes 20 meetings per month in schools, using theater to engage and inspire new audiences. To develop and replicate her model, she created the Neruca Institute with financial support from the InterAmerican Foundation and the Banco do Brasil. She plans to link the institute to groups of catadores across Brazil to form a national waste processing industry directed by independent catadores.

Dona Geralda supports the work of the Neruca Institute through national advocacy efforts like the National Movement of Catadores and the National Commission of Catadores, which discuss the participation of catadores in the national context of solid waste management. These organizations helped the profession gain official recognition in the Ministry of Labor and Employment’s Brazilian Classification of Occupations. They recently won a national recycling policy privileging associations and cooperatives of catadores, and they are now pushing for rigorous, government-sponsored professional training for garbage workers.

Dona Geralda has built the world’s first complete production chain entirely owned and managed by catadores, launched in September 2005. The epicenter is a plastic recycling plant that involves seven other cooperatives from the region and benefiting more than 3,200 people. Her goal is to develop ASMARE’s capacity to work in final processing, which holds the highest profit potential for recycled goods. When she achieves this, ASMARE will be able to manage all stages of the production chain, from collection to manufacturing, and provide a stable source of economic opportunity for thousands of catadores across Brazil.


Dona Geralda Marçal was born into a poor family in Belo Horizonte. She lost her father at the age of 3, and began to work as a catadora at the age of 8. She started living on the street at the age of 16, when she had her first child. After spending most of her life as a homeless garbage worker, she keenly remembers the experience of prejudice and disdain, the inability of some people to distinguish her from the very trash that she collected.

In 1988 the Pastoral da Rua helped change her self-perception and opened up new possibilities for her future. Her involvement with the Pastoral began through leadership training sessions for catadores emphasizing their rights and the importance of their work. Through these sessions, Dona Geralda and others began to develop an organizational model that would strengthen their activity and increase their production potential while addressing social issues.

After a wave of threats by municipal inspectors who took money from the homeless, Dona Geralda met with ten catadores and created ASMARE with the help of the Pastoral de Rua. When it first opened in 1990, it occupied an empty lot, but little by little it gained strength and support from the community. In 1993, the municipal government finally recognized that catadores provide a service to the city, and ASMARE crafted an agreement with the municipal Urban Sanitation Superintendence. Since then, Dona Geralda has been working through ASMARE to secure social integration and economic independence for catadores.

Dona Geralda and her work are widely recognized in Brazil, and her work increasingly attracts international acclaim. In 1997, she received the Ford Foundation Conservation Award and won the Public Management and Citizenship Award granted by Fundação Getúlio Vargas and the Ford Foundation. In the same year, ASMARE was among four Brazilian organizations honored by LIFE, a UN program to encourage the promotion of urban environmental quality. Dona Geralda also helped organize the First National Congress of Catadores and meetings of hundreds of garbage workers throughout Latin America. In the past decade she has organized and led dozens of presentations, conferences, events, and training programs for catadores. Dona Geralda is on the coordinating committee of the National Movement of Catadores and is looking to consolidate and replicate her model throughout Brazil.

With all these achievements, perhaps Dona Geralda’s most striking quality is her refusal to let accolades interfere with her humble and modest orientation. She identifies first and foremost as a catadora, and she is a living example that growing up as an illiterate garbage worker does not mean that one cannot attain a secure, self-sufficient, and socially responsible life.