Leila Novak

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1999
This description of Leila Novak's work was prepared when Leila Novak was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999 .


Leila Novak has come up with a way to address the social and economic needs of people who live in and around garbage dumps in small municipalities. Her approach meets the needs of families who scavenge for a living as well as the increasing desire of municipal governments to reduce the space needed for dumping garbage.

The New Idea

Cities everywhere are troubled by the existence of scavengers who, for whatever reason, subsist on society's refuse. Many good solutions have been proposed to change this complex problem of deprivation amid plenty; some have worked, but few have successfully built understanding and partnership between scavengers and those whose garbage is the scavengers' stock and trade. While there may be no shortage of pity for scavengers, there is little respect.Leila Novak uses concern in the surrounding community to make two fundamental, interrelated social changes. First, she gets the community to support the idea of giving children scavenging at the dump a practical and financially more attractive alternative. When the community agrees to Leila's plan she takes the second step, engaging the community's support for transforming adult scavengers into recyclers who use low-tech transportation solutions (e.g., a wagon train of shopping carts) to bring recycled materials to a site to be weighed and stored before they are consolidated and then sold to upstream re-processors. Leila's approach is particularly well suited to municipalities of fewer than one hundred thousand inhabitants that are relatively concentrated, such as suburban ring towns or towns in more remote, hilly areas. Her pilot projects in three municipalities are spreading to eleven more in her state, and she intends to introduce her methods to similarly sized municipalities in other states.

The Problem

Eighty percent of the municipalities in Brazil have populations of under 100,000. Ring towns that have survived for decades on eco-tourism are now experiencing unprecedented growth, bringing many of the problems facing larger cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. More remote municipalities are also growing, a result of increasing rural migration. Will these municipalities be able to manage growth in a way that also maintains industries such as tourism? In this context, garbage dumping is a highly visible, highly charged problem. But citizens' efforts to deal with garbage have been hampered by lack of money as well as the stigma that garbage dump scavengers are outcasts, the lowest of the low, carriers of disease. Moreover, scavengers have had little access to education or health services. Within the dumps, they are subject to a hierarchy which effectively prevents them from improving their lot. They sell what they gather to middlemen, who monopolize trade and profits.

The Strategy

Leila applies a litmus test to these smaller municipalities: She asks, "Are you willing to help the child scavengers by donating time and resources?" If the community agrees, then Leila sets up an education center at the dump and has the community donate clothes, food, and other items to a store she opens that is exclusively for the use of the children. They must enroll in public school and, after a half-day of school, come to her education center. Students are awarded "stamps" on each day depending on their work habits, attention, cooperativeness and other positive personal traits. Once a month she issues each child's allotment of stamps and they take them to the store to exchange for items they need. When neighbors see that the scavengers' children are making good use of the opportunities given them, Leila encourages them to adopt a recycling program that will engage adult scavengers. Adult scavengers are responsible for arranging their own transportation to the recycling center, where their collected paper, plastics, and metal are weighed and new stamps, different from the children's work stamps, are issued, their value based on the item's volume and potential value. When the center has enough volume to negotiate favorable transportation and commodity prices, it sells the material and distributes the earnings to the recyclers based on their share of the total number of tickets issued. Leila also encourages communities to be on the lookout for other value-added opportunities. For example, at the site of Leila's first demonstration program, in the municipality of Curumin, along the Fernão Dias expressway on the outskirts of São Paulo, she arranged to have Rotary International donate equipment for a paper recycling plant. Adult scavengers now carry out most of the work associated with this operation. Leila's approach has been adopted by four municipalities on the outskirts of São Paulo and she is currently working with eleven more municipalities and the São Paulo State Environmental Department. She has also entered into a partnership with São Paulo State University, which is systematically screening municipalities across the state to see which ones would be the highest priority candidates to implement Leila's approach.

The Person

When she was six years old, Leila's parents set up a childcare center in their home. By the time she was fourteen she was working at the center. Leila studied social work in college, and afterward, though she worked as a Benefits Administrator and Resource Manager for several multinational companies, kept up her work as a volunteer in childcare.In 1993 Leila and her husband moved to Atibaia, a well-known eco-tourism destination sixty-two kilometers from São Paulo. She began working at the Municipal Department for Social Advancement, where she first witnessed the harsh conditions faced by men, women, and children living at garbage dumps.