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Latin America Biggest Landfill Is Coming to an End

01/05/2018 - 12h06



It is almost midday with light rain in Brasilia, Brazil's capital city. A group of people quickly approaches a dump truck full of household rubbish in the Estrutural region, less than 18km from the presidential palace and Congress.

Men and women surround the truck, waiting for the household waste to be dumped in the landfill site. Some of them take risks due to competition while hanging onto the back of the truck.

There are elderly and young people and children who are the first ones to climb mountains of waste, on a daily competition, in order to grab plastic, cans and other recycled rubbish.

Stinking waste is in the air. Waste is dragged and compacted by a tractor which comes in less than twenty minutes.

That is the daily routine of the biggest landfill site from Latin America and one of the biggest in the world with 40 million tonnes of waste with 2 square kilometres in area - larger than Ibirapuera park in the city of São Paulo.

From the top to its base (below ground level), a mountain of waste (55 metres) equivalent to an eighteen-storey building high has increased day by day with no adequate protection.

However, this routine is coming to an end on 20 January. It is not the first attempt, though. It was supposed to be closed 20 years ago.

The landfill from the Estrutural region was created irregularly, after building the city of Brasilia, at the beginning of the '60s when the Prosecutor General's Office was putting pressure against the site.

The Department of Justice declared the end of landfill in 2011 but it has failed to enforce it. According to the National Policy on Solid Waste, the deadline for ending irregular landfills finished in 2014. However, nothing happened.

The government in the Federal District says that has conditions to enforce the end now due to a new landfill, which started operating in the region of Samambaia with a model for reducing waste discarded, and the rent of warehouses and the purchase of equipment for recycling waste.

There is also an official document signed with the new date. "Under no circumstances, it will be postponed", said Heliana Kátia Campos, director-president of SLU (Public Cleaning Service), governing body in charge of waste management.


The possibility of closing the landfill has been promoting a sort of "cold war" between government and waste pickers.

Nowadays, there are around 1,200 people working in this landfill site without fixed time or days. Waste pickers, however, say that the number is even bigger due to the lack of control, reaching 2,000.

Opinion is divided into the group. Some do not believe in the end of the landfill.

"it will not be closed. The government kicks the can down the road and we kick together", says Leopoldina Pereira, 57, laughing in front of a shack she built to rest during working intervals.

Others have been afraid of having no work to do." There is no point in leaving here, if we don't have any place to go", complains Dica Viana, 54, wearing a uniform and a t-shirt on her eyes and mouth like a mask.

According to the government in the Federal District, as soon as landfill from Estrutural closes, the waste pickers will be sent to five warehouses of recycled waste in different parts of the city.

Each of them should receive R$360 ($110) per month and up to R$350 ($107) for each tonne of recycled waste in compensation. The income generated from sales will go to each waste picker and cooperatives.


The access to the landfill site is easy. Although there is a fence surrounding the area, children can enter and work, which is illegal.

Three children were found by Folha working on the site on 13 December. Wearing gloves and holding bags, they were the first to climb the new mountains of waste dumped by the trucks.

Children were working at the sight of the staff from SLU and the Valor Ambiental company, which also operates in the site. According to SLU, an average of 15 children were found working on landfill per month.

Nevertheless, research carried out by the Local Safeguarding Children Board, covering the Estrutural region, reported 268 children working from 4 to 17 years old in just one week in 2016.

Valor Ambiental company has not made any comments to it when asked, whereas SLU has informed that there is a social worker observing the site every day. But it is not possible to find solution all the time.

"The social worker talks to the parents and guide them when she finds children working, but children often run and hide or parents refuse to cooperate", says SLU.


Poverty has been a challenge for the city of Estrutural where waste is one of the main livelihoods. The region has the lowest income families from the Federal District (a little more than twice the minimum wage).

"No children want to work but they have to because of social vulnerable conditions," says Coracy Coelho, co-founder of Coletivo da Cidade, which offers leisure activities after school for children whose parents work in the landfill site.

Wanderson Silva, 22, for instance, started working in landfill when he was 12 years old.

"My mother has been working here ever since I started working to help my family." I could never change this situation. I didn't want to stay here, but I don't have another job", says Wanderson, who works from 7am to 6pm.

The routine is really dangerous. A boy of 14 years, who was working with the father, was hit by a truck and died in September.

The driver informed the police he had not noticed that he had hit the boy because many waste pickers were hanging onto the back of his truck. There were at least 10 accidents reported from January to October in 2016.

There are other problems, in fact highly visible ones. There is just one fence, which has separated the Brasilia National Park, nature reserve with 420 square Km, from the Estrutural landfill site.

"The local fauna and flora have been threatened by waste. Rubbish has fed vultures, which have caused great imbalance in the park," explains Juliana Alves, the head of the park.

The main impact, however, is caused by the emission of greenhouse gases and the lack of adequate treatment of leachate, a liquid pollutant caused by waste breaking down.

"This toxic pollutant filters down into the bottom of the landfill site and reaches the park, being at risk of liquid pollution when it enters groundwater."

The Prosecutor General's Office from the Federal District and the federal government fined up to R$ 24million ($7m) for these dangerous situations.

"People who live in the Estrutural region are at risk", says Roberto Carlos Batista, a public prosecutor. A school was closed due to leakage of methane gas in 2012.


According to the government, the idea is "to cover" exposed waste with layers of soil.

Immediately after, the Estrutural landfill may perform another function: receive construction and demolition waste as rocks and sand. A power station will operate in the field.

Meanwhile, the 1,800 tonnes of waste dumped every day (around two thirds of total waste production in the Federal District) may have its destination diverted.

One third has been dumped in Samambaia landfill since the beginning of its operation in January 2017 with a model for soil protection, treatment of leachate and control of greenhouse gas emissions.

It is expected that the structure of 76 hectares is able to receive the volume of waste. Out of the total, 32 hectares are for compacting the rubbish.

It is difficult to predict how long a landfill site is supposed to last. If the recycled waste continued to reach only 60% of the population of the Federal District, landfill would last nine years more.

The government in the Federal District claims that has negotiated for buying two areas of land with 30 and 40 hectares alongside the landfill site in order to expand it.

In addition, it is also planning to increase the recycled waste by 100% in 2018. " We hope to find a solution for at least three decades", says Kátia Campos from SLU.


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