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October 12, 2007

The 'ghost train' of Buenos Aires

The Fall issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) features a superb article by J. Malcolm Garcia about a local train in Argentina's capital reserved for trash scavengers and the recent decision to close it down at the end of this year.

Above, Gabrielle Weiss's film, "Foreign Exchange: Ghost Train."

Here's Robin Moroney's summary of the VQR piece, from yesterday's Wall Street Journal.

    Argentina’s Ghost Train for Trash Scavengers Will Vanish

    The decision to close a local train in Buenos Aires reserved for trash scavengers reveals a split in the city between those who want to forget the financial crisis of the mid-1990s and those who have yet to recover from the economic shock. Scouring the city for trash and selling it to recyclers has been a last resort for the unemployed for a decade, reports J. Malcolm Garcia in the Virginia Quarterly Review. The depreciation of the Argentine peso in 2001 made the trade especially attractive, since pricier imported materials increased the demand for cheaper local scrap.

    As the number of scavengers, or cartoneros, rose the city took steps to accommodate them, in part to spare commuters from having to ride on trash-filled trains. The government rewrote its contracts with waste-disposal companies, who had complained that cartoneros were stealing trash. The disposal companies began to be paid according to the cleanliness of neighborhoods. Mr. Garcia says cartoneros have effectively become the bottom layer of Argentina’s recycling industry and significantly reduced the amount of waste going into landfills.

    Dubbed the “white train” for its initial color or “ghost train” for the barebones carriages’ skeletal appearance, the scavenger trains never appeared on an official timetable. For a middle class starting to recover from a decade of turmoil, the train is an unsightly reminder of poverty, says Mr. Garcia. The city’s new mayor Mauricio Macri, who has the support of much of the city’s business community, has accused the cartoneros of ruining the city landscape, stealing trash and not paying taxes. The train’s operator has said the white train will stop rolling by the end of this year. Suggested alternatives include trash-carrying trucks riding alongside regular trains and more conveniently located trash warehouses.

    Mr. Garcia says the cartoneros believe the train’s disappearance will end their livelihood. But at an impromptu protest he attends, he sees little evidence the cartoneros will be able to organize to effectively campaign for its preservation.


The complete VQR article, replete with photos, is here.

October 12, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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Thanks for the mention, Joe!

Posted by: Waldo Jaquith | Oct 12, 2007 5:29:31 PM

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