A Manila Trash Heap Called Home

Families of scavengers live on `Smokey Mountain,' a dump in the Philippines that sustains the poor

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

``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.

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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.

Her greatest fear now, she says, is that the government may try to close the 40-year-old dump. ``The people here will oppose it,'' she says. ``This is where we make our livelihood. If they drive us away, still we would come back. What we need is only security - to know we won't be evicted. Even that would be enough.''

Repeated efforts by the martial-law regime of Ferdinand Marcos in the early 1980s to shut down the infamous garbage heap and relocate the residents were unsuccessful. Each time they were removed, the inhabitants slipped back to rebuild their warren of wood and scrap-metal shacks and returned to work on the mountain. Last year, the government of Corazon Aquino announced that dumping would cease in September, but the bright yellow municipal garbage trucks still roll in today at two-minute intervals.

A multimedia exhibit entitled ``Fantasy Visions of Smokey Mountain'' drew widespread local media attention and hundreds of visitors to the Philippine Cultural Center in December to see artists' and architects' conceptions of how to transform the dump into a city park, but government and private agency officials insist that the problem is more complicated than it seems.

Smokey Mountain is one of six municipal dumps for this burgeoning capital of 13 million people. Each month, Manila generates more than 100,000 cubic yards of trash, according to Rogelio Uranza, public services chief of the Metro Manila Authority. Uranza estimates that the massive dumps rise an average of half a yard each month.

BUT community organizers say that the problem is not the garbage. It is the chronic poverty that, by government estimates, leaves more than 60 percent of the population below subsistence levels. Most of the people in the two squatter communities on the slopes of Smokey Mountain come from rural areas, where deepening poverty and a simmering armed insurgency combine to drive people into the relative security of the city.

``It's not just a matter of removing the eyesore and the foul smell, but also of rehabilitating the families who were originally displaced in the provinces and who have no other livelihood,'' says Jesus Sison, director of People's Assistance for Rural and Urban Development, a Manila-based, private development agency that supports self-help projects among the urban poor.

Angel Carlos, the head of the Urban Poor Coordinating Network, says that more than 3.5 million people are now living as illegal squatters throughout Manila, according to a recent survey carried out by the volunteer network in cooperation with the National Housing Authority. More than 30,000 people sleep in city parks, and 70,000 live in small, covered wooden pushcarts parked on downtown sidewalks each night, he says.

Hundreds of thousands also live illegally in tiny shacks that line every river and railroad track running through the sprawling coastal metropolis, but Smokey Mountain has become the symbol of their plight for the general public - a popular singing group has taken the name Smokey Mountain - and for the poor themselves.

Nonetheless, Smokey Mountain residents are proud of the fact that they are self-supporting, and have found ways to reclaim what others throw away.

Recycled plastic and cardboard sell for two pesos (seven cents) per pound, while reusable metal may fetch three times that amount, local vendors say. On a good day, a scavenger can make up to 70 pesos ($2.45), more than the daily wage for most factory workers. Some of the more enterprising scavengers have even found ways to add value to the scraps they find.

One man sits in the blazing sun weaving large baskets out of discarded bits of rattan. Others carve Christmas decorations and other holiday ornaments out of leftover hunks of foam plastic, and some make picture frames from wood leavings.

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