Landfill Harmonic, The Recycled Orchestra.

Published on December 3, 2012

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The world generates about a billion tons of garbage a year. Those who live with it and from it are the poor – like the people of Cateura, Paraguay. And here they are transforming it into beauty. Landfill Harmonic follows the Orchestra as it takes its inspiring spectacle of trash-into-music around the world. Follow the lives of a garbage picker, a music teacher and a group of children from a Paraguayan slum that out of necessity started creating instruments entirely out of garbage. Landfill Harmonic is a beautiful story about the transformative power of music, which also highlights two vital issues of our times: poverty and waste pollution.

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The story develops in one of the poorest slums in Latin America. Just outside Asuncion, Paraguayans capital; Cateura is the city’s trash dump. It is built on a landfill. Here, people live in a sea of garbage. And they live from garbage. Every day, tons of rotting detritus spill from trucks and people swarm over it to pick the pieces of trash that are their livelihood.

The people of Cateura may be the poorest of the poor but they are proud and the life of their slum is vibrant. Family bonds, rivalries and friendships are intense.

Surrounded by stories of drug-violence, alcoholism and destitution, they make herculean efforts to reaffirm their life and dignity.

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A few years ago, one of the garbage pickers, “Cola”, an untutored genius of the slum, got together with local musician Favio Chávez to make instruments for the children of the slum. There was no money for real instruments so together they started to make instruments from trash – violins and cellos from oil drums, flutes from water pipes and spoons, guitars from packing crates.

With children like Ada and Tania and with the support of many in the slum, Favio slowly put together one of the world’s most unlikely orchestras. It is entirely made of garbage. They call it “The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura”.

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Favio

Favio grew up in Carapegua, Paraguay, a small village two hours away from Asuncion (the capital). Favio has worked since he was 9 years old, his early work experiences helped him to be the creative man he is today.

He learned to play the guitar at an early age and at 11 years of age he became the choir director at his church. Favio studied environmental technology, and in 2006 he started working on a recycle program at Cateura, where the main landfill of the country is located. Observing the needs of the kids in that area, he decided to open a music school, that was the beginning of his Recycled Orchestra project.

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Nicolas

Nicolas, grew up in Emboscada, 50 Kilometers away from Asuncion. His father died when he was 7 years old and that’s when he had to start working to help his mom who was left with 9 children.

After doing 30 years of hard labor work in construction, he decided to move to Cateura where he was lucky enough as he said, to start working as a trash collector & recycler. This gave him a daily steady income, he says “there would always be garbage and that means I will always have a job”. It is in Cateura where he meets Favio. Together they start the construction of the recycled instruments.

Most of the kids in the Orchestra are from Cateura or close by areas. Cateura is a village essentially built on top of a landfill. Garbage collectors browse the trash for sellable goods, where children are often at risk of getting involved with drugs and gangs.

The Orchestra has offered these kids and teenagers a new alternative to the life their parents had. The film follows the story of several kids and their families.

It started with a violin. Then Favio and Cola started creating more instruments made out of recycled wooden pallets, paint cans, oil thin cans, forks and coins. Soon the would have enough instruments to form an Orchestra.

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Chávez got to know these kids and their families over 8 years ago while working on a waste recycling project at the landfill of Cateura. In this area more than 40% of children don’t finish school because their parents need them to work. Being an environmental engineer but with a musical background, one day he decided to help the children by teaching them music lessons. The idea was simply to keep the kids from playing in the landfill.

“At first it was very difficult because we had no place to rehearse and we had to teach in the same place where the parents were working in the trash,” said Chávez. “The children knew nothing about music and it was very difficult to contact parents because many of them do not live with their children.”

Eventually, parents began to see that playing music was keeping their kids out of trouble, some even reclaiming children they had previously abandoned.

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Soon there were more children wanting lessons than there were instruments, so Chávez and Nicolas “Cola” one of the garbage pickers experimented with making some out of recycled materials from the landfill.  String and wind instruments are made with oil tin cans, forks, bottle caps, and whatever is around.  “Eventually the recycled instruments were improved, and in many cases, they now sound better than the wooden Made In China instruments the more able children play on.”

The recycled instruments serve another, more practical purpose: The kids can safely carry them. “For many children, it was impossible to give them a violin to take home because they had nowhere to keep it and their parents were afraid they would be robbed or the instrument would be sold to buy drugs.”

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The Orchestra had remained unheard of for many years. The launching of the Landfill harmonic short teaser on the Internet triggered a social media events that changed this. “More things have happened in the last 7 months, than in the last 7 years on our lives”.

The Orchestra has grown from just a few musicians to over 35. Their recent fame have peak the interest of the families and children of the community in such way, that many children are now enrolling for music classes. The music school of Cateura, does not have their own building yet, but teaches music and how to build recycled instruments to more than 200 kids of the landfill.

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