A Manila Trash Heap Called Home
Families of scavengers live on `Smokey Mountain,' a dump in the Philippines that sustains the poor
A THICK swarm of black flies rises and falls rhythmically around 16-year-old Nora Botista as she probes the fetid mound of garbage with her long-handled steel hook. There is no sign of joy in her prematurely aged face when she pulls out a small brown pharmaceutical vial, though it will bring 10 centavos from the bottle merchant. The discovery is routine for the young scavenger. She has worked this smoldering rubbish dump, known as ``Smokey Mountain,'' each weekend for the past 10 years, ever since her mother fled their home in the impoverished countryside of southern Luzon, the main island of the Philippines.Skip to next paragraph
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``There was a quarrel in our family, so we left our village and my mother brought us to the city. We had no relatives here, so we came to Smokey Mountain,'' Nora explains with unaffected directness. She says her four sisters and brothers pick through the towering trash heap every day in search of resalable materials to support their mother, now an invalid with no other income. ``But I am lucky,'' she says with a shy smile. ``I come here on Saturdays and Sundays. During the week, I go to school.'' She ha s reached fourth-grade, she adds, but she may have to leave next year to help support the family.
Smokey Mountain is a 500-foot-high garbage dump spread over more than 15 acres in the coastal Manila slum of Tondo. Flames, fueled by the methane gas from an unending process of spontaneous combustion, sometimes leap out five feet into the air, and swirls of pungent, black smoke perpetually seep out of the giant tangle of torn plastic, broken glass, rotten food, rusting metal, and other unidentifiable junk. The ground is springy, like an Irish peat bog, and extremely hot on the feet.
HUNDREDS of children as young as three or four, wearing threadbare shorts and rubber sandals, wade around alone on the slippery slopes, probing the pile with handmade, short metal hooks to find scraps of plastic, bottles, wood, and bits of electrical wire. The older children wear knee-length rubber boots, torn cotton gloves, and long drab scarves wrapped around their heads, as they chase incoming trucks at the peak of the mountain to sift through the offal before it is pushed to the edge by one of the three great yellow bulldozers that rumble back and forth like army tanks on maneuver.
A three-hour tour of the site leaves a reporter flushed and choking from the heat, the soot, the smoke, and the stench, but, as Eduardo Mataac points out, the work can be dangerous as well as difficult. When he was 15, he was run over by a bulldozer.
``I was so tired that I couldn't stay awake,'' Eduardo says, as a small crowd of young men gathers around us, nodding their heads knowingly. ``I fell asleep in the garbage and woke up after the bulldozer went over me. I was under the garbage and was pressed into the ground, but it was so soft I wasn't crushed. I nearly lost consciousness, but I could still walk a few feet before I fell. Then I woke up in the hospital.''
The salvage work starts at six in the morning and usually lasts for 10 hours, according to 24-year-old Edna Salamat, who was born in the shadow of the mountain and has picked it all her life. It is all she says she knows to do. Like most of the 18,000 residents in the two squatter communities at the base of the mountain, Ms. Salamat has no formal schooling and no other skills. She has two children, five and eight years old, but they, too, work the mountain each day because she cannot afford the books an d uniforms needed to send them to school.