Geography Professor Robert Thornett spent seven weeks last summer in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil researching innovations, thanks in part to a Virginia Community College System Paul Lee Grant. Among the results of the trip is a recent article on a new, innovative program for street recyclers in Brazil, titled “In Brazil, A City’s Waste Pickers Find Hope in a Pioneering Program.”
“The millions of impoverished people who sift through trash and landfills for recyclable materials have been called the world’s ‘invisible environmentalists.’ Yet many work in deplorable conditions and face exploitation from unscrupulous middlemen. In Curitiba, Brazil, city officials and social activists have launched a rapidly growing program of EcoCitizen (Ecocidadão) centers in which the waste pickers work out of city-sponsored warehouses and use their collective power to bargain for fair prices for their recycled goods. The Curitiba initiative is one of a growing number worldwide that seek to provide better working conditions and higher wages for waste pickers, while also aiding recycling and creating cleaner cities.”
In addition to visiting Curitiba’s EcoCitizen program, Thornett also visited several other innovations including:
SEG Engineering, a pioneering wind energy firm in Uruguay which has led the way in the country’s rise to achieving the highest percentage of wind energy in its energy mix in the world. Thornett interviewed Fernando Schaich, founder and director of SEG, at its headquarters in Montevideo and explored how wind turbines are installed and managed, how wind farm sites are chosen using computer mapping, how private landowners are compensated, and the future of wind energy across Latin America.
The Urban Farming (Parque Huerta) program in Rosario, Argentina, which has converted unused or abandoned urban spaces into urban farms, cultivated by a diverse array of citizens from the unemployed to professors to medical students. Thornett visited three urban farms around Rosario, accompanied by the program’s founder and an agronomy professor. He also interviewed the director of the city’s Seed Exchange which connects urban farmers with over 300 varieties of seeds to increase yields and promote crop diversity.
In addition, Thornett took a whale-watching boat trip in Puerto Madryn, Patagonia, Argentina, and took a tour of Itaipu Dam, the world’s largest renewable energy generator. He hiked to Iguazu Falls, the world’s largest waterfalls, inside a rainforest and took a boat tour of the Iberá Wetlands where capybaras, marsh deer, and caiman live. He explored the Jesuit history of Córdoba, Argentina, and took a tour of two favelas (slums) in Rio de Janeiro, where he also visited several competition sites for the upcoming Rio Olympics in 2016.
“South America is sometimes called ‘the explorer’s continent,’ it is much more diverse than many people realize, both in human and physical landscapes,” Thornett said. “There are many human-environment innovations coming from this region, partly because it has such diverse and rich environments to protect and also because it is a continent of developing countries always looking for new ideas to move forward.”