No longer the promised land

By Luz Baguioro, The Straits Times, 12 July 2000

Rubbish heaps in the Philippines, on which thousands of people live as scavengers, have become breeding grounds of filth, disease and crime

MANILA—They are the Philippines' version of ghettoes, where hundreds of thousands eat, sleep and make a living in a sea of trash.

The products of an acute lack of modern waste disposal systems, these garbage colonies are a stinking symbol of much that is wrong with the Philippines.

The stench is a powerful reminder of the government's failure to eradicate poverty, which still mires a third of the country's 75 million population.

Spawned by an economic boom in the 80s that spurred people to migrate to the cities, these communities built on muck have become breeding grounds of filth, disease and crime.

Residents, however, have no complaints. Rent is free and there are tonnes of trash to mine every day.

A lot of good things can be found in the dump. On lucky days, we can find gold, money, said a former scavenger at Smokey Mountain, a garbage dump site in the central Manila district of Tondo shut down in 1995.

My kids started young to help augment the family income. Having dropped out from primary school, they could not get a job besides scouring the dump, junkshop owner Rosario Navarro said in a television interview.

What are thus regarded as a smelly mess are mines of opportunity for thousands of families.

Scores of people, including children as young as three years old, poke with metal sticks or rummage through heaps of trash with their bare hands for copper wire, bottles and other recyclables in dump sites throughout the country.

And there's plenty of refuse to rummage through.

The Philippine capital alone churns out 6,000 tonnes of garbage a day, of which only 4,400 tonnes are collected by a fleet of 600 government-owned trucks and privately contracted vehicles.

The rest of the trash ends up in rivers and other waterways or vacant lots.

Some scavengers reckon they earn around US$6 (S$10) a day from selling what they gather, but others seem luckier.

In the Promised Land village, a garbage colony in Manila's northern suburbs, some shanties boast a television set, washing machine, fridge and a gas stove.

Mainly for this reason, the government has failed to dissuade people from living on the dumps.

The reason is obvious. They earn their livelihood on the dumps and they would rather risk their lives to eke out a living, said defence chief Orlando Mercado, who also heads the national disaster coordinating council.

The municipal government of Quezon tried to evict the squatters living on the Promised Land dump site after an avalanche of garbage buried dozens of shacks a year ago.

No one died from that incident, which encouraged scavengers to sneak back a few weeks later as city authorities watched helplessly.

Even the government's plan to turn Smokey Mountain into a housing complex, complete with a shopping centre and a recreational park, has come to naught.

Former President Fidel Ramos shut down the dump in 1995 in a bid to turn a national scar into an international star.

Today, most of the pink and green apartment blocks built atop the trash heap stand empty.

Former Smokey Mountain scavengers said the development had robbed them of their livelihood.

Besides, they said, they could not afford the monthly rent of 700 pesos which the government charges.

A temporary garbage station was recently set up near the area by the municipal government of Manila, luring thousands of former scavengers to return to their trade.

Politics and limited funds also conspire against the government's attempts to eradicate the garbage colonies.

A giant incinerator would have provided a perfect solution but a recently passed clean-air law has barred the burning of trash.

Officials reckon at least US$200 million is needed to put a proper waste system in place, which they secretly admit is not a priority.