Thursday, October 06, 2005

Thinking outside the box 

Anyone who has traveled around Venezuela knows it has huge environmental problems. One aspect of that is the trash littering everything from city streets, to otherwise pristine beaches, to national parks to the nations highways. Travel the roads leading out of any major Venezuelan city and you feel as if you are driving through a refuse dump. It is a very unfortunate reality that Venezuelans of all class backgrounds tend to have a very low environmental consciousness and think nothing of simply discarding their trash where ever they happen to be.

One area that has as bad a garbage problem, if not worse, than any other area is the Libertador section of Caracas. It has gone through a number of trash collection companies over the past few years yet no progress has been made in cleaning this highly populated area up. The areas pro-Chavez mayor, Freddy Bernal, has been publicly berated by Chavez over this on several occasions.

So finally Bernal has come up with a new and innovative idea to deal with this seemly intractable problem:

Men, women and children lined up at a scale to weigh their loot: bags filled with old clothes and newspapers, bent bicycle wheels, rusted bed frames and discarded auto parts.

The junk was tossed into trucks by city workers and the people were given tickets to redeem for bags of rice, cans of sardines, vegetable oil and other food as part of an unusual government program.

"I think it's good people can hand in things they don't need for food, because that's what people need — food," said Maria Bonilla, a 50-year-old single mother who supports two children and a nephew on her job as a janitor.

She and other Venezuelans who came to turn in their trash in a Caracas slum last weekend said they felt grateful to President Hugo Chavez and his political ally, Mayor Freddy Bernal, who promoted the program as a way to clean up the streets while helping to feed the needy.

Chavez says he is leading a socialist "revolution" for the poor and has put billions of dollars in oil profits toward public works projects and social programs to build homes, fund health care programs and subsidize state food markets.

But a majority of Venezuelans remain poor, and many among the hundreds who showed up lugging bulging plastic bags and scrap metal said life remains a struggle despite some improvements. One man brought an old sofa that had been lying in the street.

Bonilla turned in a bag of clothes and a bag of newspapers weighing 18 pounds, and in exchange chose a bottle of cooking oil and a small bag of powdered milk.

"They only gave me a little bit, but it doesn't matter," said Bonilla, adding that it was a help since she has to support her family on $202 a month.

Some of Chavez's leading opponents accuse his government of running handout programs that help the poor just enough to win their political allegiance while not addressing deeper issues of poverty.

The leftist leader and his supporters insist major advances have been made and that within a generation they aim to eliminate poverty. The president, who has been in office since 1999, is up for re-election next year.

Gazing up at a hillside crowded with cinder block homes covered with barred windows, a city worker shouted into a microphone and loudspeaker: "Bring down all that trash!"

A poster with Chavez's smiling face was posted on a tent where adults lined up to trade in their tickets for food. A separate line of children snaked out in the courtyard, while salsa music blared over the loudspeaker.

"It's a lot of fun because we're all here," said 10-year-old Daniel Rios, who came with several friends and dropped off an armful of rusting pipes. The boy said his parents told him to get whatever food he could.

A few people emerged from the tent with long faces, saying they had hoped to receive more.

But 58-year-old Ermila Diaz came away smiling, carrying a box filled with packages of pasta, crackers, rice, beans and coffee after turning in bottles, newspapers and old rags. She said she still struggles to buy beef or pork on the small income she earns as a part-time seamstress, and her husband's meager pay working on-and-off as a security guard.

"Things are getting better, but there's still room for more improvement," Diaz said. As soon as she carried the food home, she said, she would be back with a second load of trash.

Will this be the idea that finally proves successful in helping clean up the garbage strewn streets? Only time will tell. But it certainly sounds like a very worthy idea whose time has come. It was this kind of out of the box thinking that devised programs such as “Barrio Adentro” that finally provided the government with a cost effective way to give health care to millions who lacked it. And when you’re a country with many needs and limited resources it is precisely that kind of thinking that is needed.


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