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Stories of Change - The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura

Author: Francesca Garland
Published Date: 4 September 2015

At SIX we think it is important to tell stories where social innovation has impacted people’s lives for the better. Our Stories of Change series tells you the stories that inspire us from around the world.

“The world sends us garbage. We send back music.” – Favio Chávez

In Paraguay, 34.7% live below the poverty and the situation is far worse in marginalized areas. Cateura, a small town on the outskirts of Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, is a slum built on one of the largest landfills in South America. Approximately 500 recyclers work at Cateura, where more than 1,500 tons of waste is deposited daily. The majority of people sustain themselves through trash picking, earning very little and children are often driven into early labour- more than 40% of children do not finish school. The lack of adequate education, coupled with the deep-seated poverty in the area guarantees dismal prospects for the population. 

This destitution sparked the launch of the ‘Recycled Orchestra of Cateura’ in 2006 when Favio Chávez, the director of the orchestra, joined forces with Nicolas Gomez Cola, a garbage collector, with the aim to provide a better future for young people in the area. 

The ‘Recycled Orchestra of Cateura,’ performs with instruments entirely made out of rubbish from the landfill: cans, rope, pots, buttons and spoons and other debris, which people have discarded, are transformed into guitars, saxophones, violins, cellos and other instruments. The group, formed by young people and children living in the community, perform a wide variety of genres including, classical, folk, Latin and Paraguayan. Chávez stated, “people shouldn’t strive for material things, they should strive for knowledge” and the use of waste transmits this philosophy and has had a huge impact on the community. Music doesn’t just produce a sound but it instills in the children a new positive mentality.

The musicians 

Juan Manuel Chavez, better known as Bebi, plays a cello made from garbage collected from the landfill: an oilcan, an old spoon and a tool used to tenderize beef. Bebi’s passion for music, fuelled by this innovative project, has helped him develop new skills and find a new meaning to life. 

Similarly, Maria Eugenia Benitez Penayo plays with a violin made from a fork. Maria’s love for her instrument is clear: “When I play my violin I feel a great satisfaction. I love it because you can convey everything with it. You can tell if you’re angry, if you’re happy, if you’re sad, if you’re in love. You can convey everything.” This demonstrates the much-needed escape, which an instrument can provide to children. Maria summarizes perfectly the outstanding success of this project, in keeping the children safe, stating: “I think that a lot of kids in my country haven’t found the meaning of life. They get into drugs and alcohol because they don’t know what to do with their lives. Music is something that helps avoid all these things.” Playing music is keeping the children out of trouble and there are currently more than 200 children involved in the music school of Cateura.

The orchestra has drawn a huge amount of media attention and has toured worldwide. Ada, a 14 year-old violinist said, "Going to other countries has opened my mind so much,” showing the opportunities the project has given to children to broaden their horizons.

The local impact

By thinking outside the box, this project has sparked change in the area and has instilled ambition and pride in a place riddled with poverty, crime, violence and pollution. This project is a testament to the power of music, and the hope that it can bring to a community. Furthermore, it teaches the children about the importance of recycling in the fight against climate change, a key issue in modern day society. As Favio Chávez truthfully pointed out, “There’s very little we can do for kids who have such a harsh life. I don’t think music can change that immediately or fix real problems such as hunger and health issues. However it does help educate children so fewer of them are victims of these issues.”

Even though bottom up projects like these are often unable to solve the wider issues, each instrument is a step forward in changing the lives of young people. It has completely renovated the area. Now, when one types "Cateura" into a search engine, the page is full news on the orchestra, rather than being flooded with facts about poverty.

According to Luis Szaran, the director of "sonidos de la tierra," “even trash can become an educational tool that could change someone’s life and the lives of others,” which is clearly evident in Cateura. Its success is clearly shown in the moving 2015 documentary, "Landfill Harmonic". 

Have a listen to the orchestra performing in Amsterdam.

The global impact

This project has not only changed the lives of the people in Cateura, but has also become the catalyst for change in Europe. This project was so successful that Ecoembes, a non-profit company, launched in 2014 the Music of Recycling project in Spain, in which children, who are at risk of social exclusion, are trained to create an orchestra of recycled instruments.

The social initiative aims to give children who are at risk of social exclusion, a second chance through education based on respect for the environment and music. It is a great opportunity for young people to develop new skills and build on their creativity. These children learn how to produce their own instruments from waste, and in the future, they may be selected to be a part of the Ecoembes Recycled Instruments Orchestra.