‘Accept Half of Something, or Nothing at All?’ Brazil’s National Solid Waste Policy and the Coalition Politics of a Blue-Brown Alliance
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‘Accept Half of Something, or Nothing at All?’ Brazil’s National Solid Waste Policy and the Coalition Politics of a Blue-Brown Alliance


Brazil’s 2010 Pol�tica Nacional de Res�duos S�lidos (National Solid Waste Management Policy, PNRS) was a landmark legislative victory for a social movement of waste pickers (workers who collect and re-sell discarded materials), who have organized to overcome conditions of exclusion and marginality. The PNRS addressed both social and environmental aspects of waste management: it formally recognized waste pickers and assigned greater financial responsibility to the private sector for environmentally sound stewardship of the waste it produces. The policy was an important win for waste pickers and urban environmentalists, who I argue formed a blue-brown coalition that together supported the policy. However, by most accounts the PNRS seems like an unlikely success story. Stalled in the National Congress for the two decades prior, the bill faced strong resistance from private sector interest groups. Drawing from social movement theory concepts and using qualitative research methods collected through interviews and document analysis, this thesis interrogates what factors led to the unlikely passage of the PNRS, and whether the law’s supporters were able to achieve in practice the policy changes that they worked to pass on paper. I argue that a co-occurrence of three phenomena—agitations from civil society actors, a change in political tides under President Luiz In�cio “Lula” da Silva, and a shifting political strategy by the private sector—together enabled the law’s passage. However, because of the influence of corporate actors on the legislative process and a shifting political landscape under Lula’s successor President Dilma Rousseff, the PNRS was not implemented in a manner consistent with the goals of the blue-brown coalition. This outcome created divisions between waste pickers and urban environmentalists over whether to accept the policy despite its shortcomings, or reject it entirely. This thesis uses the case of the PNRS to illustrate the complicated prospect of achieving shared wins for labor and environmental interests. I analyze challenges to forming coalitions in the face of unfavorable political climates, the prospect of building labor-environment alliances, and obstacles to meaningful civil society participation in policy-making spaces. In sum, the thesis generates insights about the opportunities and challenges that face labor-environment coalitions, and how such coalitions may work to achieve shared policy goals that ensure a just and sustainable future.

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