Rafey landfill, located in the Cienfuegos district of Dominican Republic's second-largest city Santiago de los Caballeros, receives up to 1,800 tons of waste per day . Since the 1970s, the area of Rafey has served as the principal site of waste disposal of Santiago and provided impoverished families from the city with a subsistence source of livelihood. From 1991 onward, displaced people constructed homes in the Santa Lucía neighborhood (called “La Mosca”), collected food to sustain themselves and picked recyclable materials such as glass, metal, boards, plastic and other objects that could be reused or sold.  The number of waste pickers (pejoratively called “buzos”) significantly increased after the year 2000, when industrial workers who lost their jobs started to seek to make a living from recycling. In the following, up to 2,500 people engaged in waste picking at the site, until in 2008 some of them returned to other jobs. However, the Haiti earthquake in 2010 again brought the arrival of numerous displaced people to Cienfuegos and many of them temporarily started to live from waste-picking . Work at the dumpsite took place under often dangerous conditions, with a high risk of accidents and health diseases. Rafey was also notably known for its high number of underage waste pickers, mostly stemming from the neighborhood. As it was found in 2009, children between six and ten years old were working up to twelve hours a day in Rafey. 
In 2005, the municipality of Santiago announced the conversion of the uncontrolled open-air dump into a sanitary landfill and considered adopting incineration and energy recovery technologies. It first started to implement infrastructural and environmental improvements together with the Japanese Development Cooperation and private actors. However, with the beginning of 2008, a new development program was launched to stress the social dimension of development interventions and a socially inclusive recycling model was pushed forward. A number of socio-economic measures were launched in the neighborhood of Santa Lucía, where Rafey is located and most waste pickers lived, as part of an integrated development project financed by the Galician Development Cooperation .
Between 2008 and 2011, a waste management center with trucks and recycling facilities was installed in Rafey and became operated by the waste picker community. In addition, the development project promised water, sanitation and health service improvements, training and economic capacity-building, and the strengthening of civil society organizations. With the support from the NGO Fundación Solidaridad, a recyclers association was formed in Rafey (“Asociación de Recicladores de Rafey”) and rapidly became a crucial actor in decisions about the neighborhood and landfill reorganization. Also, the formation of a national waste picker movement was encouraged by RedLacre (the Latin American waste pickers network) and civil society organizations. Waste pickers described the start of organizing as a decisive moment to unite individuals and gain voice as a community. The municipality provided them with authentication cards, entitling them to access the landfill and public health programs .
Since 2010, the new municipal government however initiated significant changes in the waste management of Rafey. Following a controversial public bidding for an energetic valorization system, the landfill became managed by the US-controlled company Green Wheels Dominicana. In 2012, the company Lavo Investments was subcontracted for the first construction phase of the plant. In 2014, Lavo started to operate in Rafey, occupying the site that was planned to become a sorting center and appropriating equipment that had been donated to the recyclers association by the Galician Development Cooperation. As Lavo had a low recycling rate, waste pickers could nevertheless continue to make a living from informal recycling .
The privatization caused a series of protests by the waste picker community of Rafey and its association. In one protest, 350 waste pickers demanded outstanding payments for the past month and blocked the entrance to the recycling center . Confrontations between waste pickers and armed private security at the end of 2014 left a total of 18 waste pickers injured.  Shortly after, one waste picker became shot dead by private security . In spite of that, waste pickers continued to protest and pick recyclables at the landfill. Even when chased away by gunshots, they usually returned one or two days after, as they had no other way to gain income . As a response, the company drastically lowered the offered payments for recycled material, while it kept waste pickers from retrieving material from the area, making it impossible to sell it elsewhere. A Lavo representative argued that after the taken investments, the landfill was now fully under the control of the company and it could, therefore, decide upon all the conditions .
The municipal government did not intervene. Waste pickers renewed the protests in 2015, demanding fair pay and the right to work. They also demanded the annulment of the contract between Lavo and the municipality, stating that it would use its monopoly to dictate the prices for recyclables.  In a protest in front of the town hall, waste pickers handed over a public letter to the media and denounced the repeated threats, violence and systematic power abuse exerted by the company. They lamented to have not only become excluded from the management of the recycling center but also displaced from all recycling work at the landfill. They furthermore pointed to the fact that Lavo had not complied with their actual project plan, which was to establish an energy recovery system, but instead was monopolizing all recyclable waste in Rafey. Hence, the recognition of waste picker rights and their inclusion into the recycling work, as promised in previous years, never became a full reality .
The situation for waste pickers turned further to the worse with another government change in 2016. The new mayor announced the conversion of Rafey into an energy hub and “eco-park”, which would produce renewable energy from waste, wind, and sun. According to the official discourse, this would moreover bring innovation and improvements in environmental quality and public health and, for that reason, it was necessary to break with the traditional scheme of waste picking. From 2017 onward, the recycling plant became operated by Cilpen Global, another company linked to Green Wheels, as part of a new public-private partnership with the municipality. It received a concession for 20 years, announced to invest RD$ 400 million (US$ 7.4 million) and began to process all arriving waste with automated machinery, drastically reducing recyclable material available for waste pickers in Rafey. This now posed an existential threat to hundreds of waste pickers, who were at the risk to become completely displaced .
In June 2017, the Rafey landfill caught fire, which caused air pollution in the entire city and other provinces. Santiago’s mayor called the fires a terrorist act and accused waste pickers of having set them on purpose. He ordered the immediate eviction of the area through the police and requested the arrest and repatriation of undocumented Haitians by the migration department. 421 waste pickers became violently expelled, even though they publicly rejected the accusations, stating that they would never burn their own source of livelihood and that their families would be the most affected ones by toxic smoke . Already in previous years they had pointed to mismanagement at the site and warned about the risk of fire, and not claimed that waste seemed to have been dumped on top of the flames, leading to the further spread of fire. Waste pickers thus blamed authorities to have intentionally mismanaged the fire in order to legitimize their expulsion and militarize the zone . Various media, however, shared the official story of the authorities, which led to further discrimination against waste pickers. The security company received the order to shoot after intruders inside the landfill . Desperate waste pickers nevertheless reentered the area and reported to have become attacked with shots. They also stated that the fires would continuously become re-inflamed in order to maintain the situation .
The recyclers association launched protests at the recycling plant, demanding employment, compensations of RD$ 40 million (US$ 740,000) for leaving the site, and the continued access to recyclable material. Shortly after, protests were also held at the seat of Cilpen Global and an open letter was sent to the heads of the company and the municipal government. The group declared that their indignation was not directed against the modernization of the landfill, but against the abuse of power and lack of recognition of their rights by the company and the government . Several meeting requests were declined by the company. Finally, a meeting became announced, but the president of the association became arrested in the night before and accused of sabotage. After eight days of arrest, he became urged to sign a document in which the association should agree to abstain from entering the landfill area and to stay away at least 500m .
In the following, the association denounced the repression and made the events public, calling the situation an organized plot to repress and criminalize organized waste pickers. The municipal government continued to accuse them of setting fires and contracting armed gangs to exercise control over the landfill. It moreover refused to meet and negotiate the situation together with the company and called waste pickers a threat to public health and the envisioned environmental improvements. Waste pickers, in turn, accused the mayor of nepotism and manipulation of the press . About 60 waste pickers of Rafey started a six-day demonstration march to the capital of Santo Domingo in order to demand help from the national government, which generated further attention from the media. They left a letter in which they demanded inclusion in the recycling work at Rafey, but again did not receive any official response .
The company in the meanwhile announced that “Dominican waste pickers” would be employed “to the maximum possible” in the new plant and thus find better work conditions than before. However, waste pickers regarded these statements as false promises and stated that there was no real effort to include all of them, and particularly no perspective for undocumented Haitian migrants . As of November 2017, only 50 to 60 former waste pickers were employed by Cilpen, while between 25 and 30 had became laid off for demanding a salary that had been promised by the government – but was regarded as too high by the company. The recyclers association pointed to the poor work conditions of the company’s employees and announced that they will continue to fight for their rights .
Even after that, some waste pickers continued to enter the landfill area, as security guards would let them pass from time to time, often for some payment. They now, however, find themselves in an even more vulnerable situation and under the permanent risk of becoming the target of violence, especially when the situation was reported by the media. Waste pickers also report that the municipal government has infiltrated their activities with spies and that they would now live in permanent fear of continuing the protests, which has, for example, made them cancel demonstrations in front of the town hall of Santiago. In addition, also informal waste pickers collecting waste in the streets of Santiago as well as informal street vendors would face increasing repression and discrimination by the police and the municipal government . This, altogether, has driven dozens of families without a source of income and means to survive. As it was estimated, more than 2,100 people – the expelled waste pickers and their families – were directly affected by the repression, while more than 10,000 people who resided in the area and often had small shops or businesses were additionally affected by the social crisis . As of 2019, the situation remained unchanged for many displaced waste pickers, as the landfill remains closed and protected by private security and the majority of them were without employment. Waste pickers reported to the media that they still had no other means to make a living for their families and would thus suffer from hunger .
Throughout this struggle, the waste picker community received support from Fundación Solidaridad and other civil society organizations. The Rafey Eco-Park Recyclers Association and the Dominican Waste Pickers Movement filed multiple charges. The National Human Rights Commission intervened and international waste picker networks such as RedLacre, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers (Globalrec), WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment – Globalizing and Organizing) as well as an evangelic pastor helped to call public attention to the humanitarian crisis and rights violations in Santiago .
This text was among others informed by a 2018 monitoring report of WIEGO’s “Protecting the Human Rights of Recyclers in Latin America” project, which aims to improve the conditions of waste pickers by documenting working conditions from a human rights perspective in order to influence legal frameworks and, in addition, report human rights violations to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.