Christmas tree becomes symbol of hope in Brazilian landfill

When a photojournalist took this image of a boy pulling a Christmas tree out of a mountain of foul trash, he didn’t expect what would happen next.

An illegal landfill seems an unlikely setting for a holiday story, but when a photojournalist captured 12-year-old Gabriel Silva pulling a Christmas tree from a mountain of foul trash, the image quickly went viral.

Silva lives with her mother and two older brothers in a small earthen hut next to the landfill in the town of Pinheiro, in northeastern Brazil.

It’s a disturbing landscape of rotting garbage and discarded plastic, where dozens of waste pickers fight over leftover food with vultures, cats, dogs and cattle.

Silva was with his mother on November 8, rummaging through the trash like he does most days after school, when he dug up a blue plastic bag with a small artificial Christmas tree inside.

“I had never had a Christmas tree before,” he said.

His face has an impenetrable expression in the image photographer Joao Paulo Guimaraes captured of that moment, as if the young, shirtless garbage collector didn’t know what to make of this discovery: it intrigued the child in him, but would do nothing to feed his family.

But then the image went viral on social media, and the little plastic tree turned into an unexpected Christmas present.

Silva and her family’s mud-floored cabin now has a giant, sparkling Christmas tree inside – not the one from the landfill, but a gift from a benefactor who was moved by the photograph.

This is just one of the many gifts the family has received.

“We have clothes, mattresses, baskets of food. Thank goodness we can do very well for Christmas this year, ”said Silva’s mother, Maria Francisca Silva, 45.

There was also money, thanks to online collections – a boon for Maria Francisca, who earns around 600 reais ($ 149) per month selling recyclable materials from the landfill.

The family hopes to realize their dream of building a real house soon.

They have already achieved a long-standing wish, thanks to a first donation of 500 reais: to install a hydraulic pump to bring up the water from their well, replacing the rope and the bucket they used before.

But Silva’s favorite gift is a bicycle he received from a teacher at his school.

Silva spends much of her free time in the landfill with her mother.

“I prefer to take him with me. If I let him run in the streets, he could take drugs, do things that he is not supposed to do, ”she said.

” He’s a good boy. He always helps me.

The episode made Silva a local celebrity.

“Every day people want to take a picture of me, ask me things,” he said. Guimaraes, a freelance photographer who works with AFP, lives in the neighboring state of Para.

He got the idea to take photos at the landfill after seeing a video of residents chasing after a garbage truck carrying garbage from a supermarket.

“It was just crazy. There were probably 50 people chasing him, ”said Pinheiro public defender Eurico Arruda, who shot the video.

“This dump is like something out of the apocalypse. There is fire and smoke everywhere, vultures, dogs. It is the lower rung of destitute poverty.

Arruda, who has set up a cooperative to help garbage collectors advocate for their rights, says he hopes the Christmas tree photo will raise awareness of the plight of people like the Silvas.

The local government has already pledged monthly social benefits of 100 reais ($ 24) for garbage collectors, and has pledged to build a legal landfill next year that complies with sanitation regulations.

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