It’s a startling sight in one of Latin America’s biggest cities: a rickety wooden cart pulled by a mangy horse through traffic-choked streets. And if Mayor Gustavo Petro has his way, the 2,890 owners of Bogota’s horse carts will soon give them up as his government works to modernize this city of 7.5 million.
In one of the more inventive programs to remake a big city, horse-cart owners, who roam Bogota picking up trash that they sell to recycling centers, are being offered an $11,000 subsidy that they can use to buy a small truck, start a small business or secure affordable housing.
For decades, the horse-cart recyclers, known as zorreros, worked with little interference. But in a city that sees itself as a model of urban mobility, with rapid-transit bus lanes and cycling paths, residents have grown impatient with the zorreros and their carts. Motorists complain that they slow traffic. Animal rights groups say forcing horses to haul up to 600 pounds of garbage on city streets — sometimes without horseshoes — amounts to abuse.
Petro, a former leftist guerrilla whose city has one of the world’s largest gaps between rich and poor, says the plan is a way to give the zorreros and horses a bit of dignity.
“This problem is not just poverty, it’s about social inequality, which has been growing for decades,” he told reporters this year. “We’ve been trying to get a solution where everyone wins: the animals, the hard-working poor, our growing city, our society.”
The horse carts are a fixture in Bogota’s swankiest neighborhoods, where they vie with Audis and BMWs on narrow streets. The recyclers, who often work with their entire families, stop in front of apartment buildings to pick through garbage and haul away what they can sell. A day’s work can mean 1,500 pounds of recyclables, netting — on a good day — perhaps $40.
“Paper, cardboard, junk,” Jose Barreto, 44, muttered as he oversaw a group sorting through metal wire and breaking down cardboard boxes.
Barreto leads a zorrero crew that often meets in the Ernesto Samper Mendoza neighborhood, near the heart of the city, to unload their carts. Their tired horses, some bony and with matted manes, rest while chewing on corncobs and grain. The owners joke with one another as they kneel among the garbage, sorting trash from recyclable bits of metal, paper and plastic, preparing to haul it to recycling centers on the city’s outskirts.
“All my life I’ve been working in this,” said Barreto, standing next to his chestnut-colored horse. “I didn’t even study. I went right into this.”
The transition Petro is pushing has not been easy. The zorreros said no to the city’s previous efforts to get them to give up their horses and carts, demanding something in return. Even now, fewer than half of zorreros who originally requested trucks had received them as of last month. About 550 zorreros who initially expressed interest in the program have failed to trade in their horses or hand in documents required by the city.
“There are some people who are going to be holdouts,” said Andres Ruiz, a 32-year-old recycler who recently received his new truck. “Some people just don’t like the new program, and some people don’t have the time or money to take a safety course or learn to drive. The question is, what is going to happen to those people?”
About 600 zorreros are waiting to receive trucks, said Adriana Iza, who heads the program. Her work has been complicated by scam artists posing as zorreros and the extra time needed to care for the sickest horses.
“There are some horses who arrive in such awful conditions, weak and sometimes sick, it’s clear they’ve been mistreated and neglected,” Iza said. “Then there are those people who are buying horses illegally and come to us pretending they’ve been a recycler for years.”
Norman Rivera, who works for the local Friends of the Planet Foundation, said that despite laws passed by the city to regulate the work of zorreros, the horses suffer.
“Even though there’s all this regulation, it’s not enforced,” said Rivera, who blames politicians, police officers and the lack of animal shelters for horses. “It’s only this current administration that has taken this problem seriously.”
Through Bogota’s $18.6 million program, recyclers trade in their carts and horses at designated locations around the city. Since February, the city has received 2,033 horses, and 1,788 of them have found new owners through an “Adopt a Friend” program, Iza said.
Among those who made the trade is Jorge Neira, 44, who has been working as a recycler since he was 4. He recalled being the target of name-calling and jeers by some city residents, many of whom equate being a zorrero with being a criminal.
“Hopefully, this program is going to reduce the stigma of being a zorrero,” Neira said as he placed blocks of wood into his new truck.