Smoky Mountain has Aquino down on the dumps

IMELDA MARCOS tried to move the people of Smoky Mountain. Corazon Aquino plans to move the mountain. Those are two solutions to the most odious (and odorous) symbol of poverty in the Philippines.

Smoky Mountain is a smoldering mass of garbage near the heart of Manila. Rising like a volcano, 80 feet high, covering 40 acres, it serves as both a shantytown and job lot for 20,000 men, women, and children.

As dark puffs of methane smoke rise up from the spontaneous combustion of garbage under the hot tropical sun, these scavengers pick through the oozing trash to find objects to sell. The stench stops the breath and lingers on clothes for days.

The irony: The scavengers earn an above-average income by recycling Coca-Cola bottles, plastic bags, animal bones, and tin cans. One or two have found diamonds in the stinking rough.

This unusual slum has existed for decades but hit the international spotlight only in the past few years. Foreign photographers and television reporters, who flocked to Manila to cover Mrs. Aquino's rise to power, found an easy image in the squalid, Dickensian dump to show the human degradation caused by Ferdinand Marcos's ruined economy.

``The misery of Smoky Mountain is a dramatic contrast for visitors after they see the 3,000 pairs of shoes once owned by Imelda Marcos,'' says the Rev. Benigno Beltran, a Roman Catholic priest who works with the dump's residents.

``From the point of view of the Aquino government, the mountain is just a symbol of national disgrace,'' Fr. Beltran says.

For well-off Filipinos, sensitive to foreign opinion and hoping to emphasize a modern Philippines, the symbol of disgrace has been too much. In an Asian nation in which public honor is fundamental, the symbol had to go.

Since January, the government has made plans to close all seven open public dump sites in metropolitan Manila, the worst being Smoky Mountain.

Already, dump trucks no longer come to the top of old Smoky. Instead, the dozens of trucks that collect the garbage of Manila's 2 million residents now bring their fresh shipments to the mountain's edge.

As each truck unloads, a whistle blows and a dozen scavengers pounce on the falling trash. They use metal rods to locate potentially valuable items, tossing these over their shoulders into large baskets hanging on their backs. Within minutes, the pile is picked over, and another truck pulls up.

Mario Ngo, who has worked the mountain for 16 years and has seven children, says he earns at least $1.50 a day. That is more than he would earn if he lived in the rural provinces. And life in Manila, he says, is very entertaining.

In March, the Japanese government donated 116 covered garbage trucks to the Metro Manila Authority, which comprises four cities and 13 towns. Before the new trucks went into operation, they were sprinkled with holy water in a blessing by a Catholic priest. And an asphalt road was laid down in March to the top of the mountain, where Manila Mayor Gemiliano (Mel) Lopez Jr. has built a chapel, a 60-foot metal cross, and a center to retrain scavengers for new jobs.

In recent weeks, Metro Manila Gov. Efren Cruz began an appeal for $120 million from foreign donors to plan two new landfills well outside the city. The landfills would receive Manila's 3,400 tons of daily garbage.

The plan includes relocating and retraining all the Smoky Mountain scavengers, as well as recycling the garbage into energy and fertilizer, by 1992.

The Aquino administration's appeal to raise foreign money includes a slide presentation that makes a big promise to make Metro Manila ``clean, sanitary, and scavenger-free.''

Mr. Cruz, who as Metro Manila governor holds the position once held by Imelda Marcos, says the real problem is not the mountain itself, but how to get rid of a large colony of well-paid garbage pickers. Several times, Mrs. Marcos ordered forcible removal of the residents to sites outside the city. But they all came back. Aquino has promised no forced relocation.

Leveling the mountain and finding a new dump site is easy, says Cruz. The bigger problem is finding alternative work for the people.

``The people tell me, `OK, we are scavengers and everyone looks down on us. But we are earning a livelihood,''' says Cruz.

Eliminate Smoky Mountain, Cruz says, ``and we are going to have 20,000 social problems spread all over Manila.''

The fact is that recycling is so lucrative that many scavengers scour the streets for garbage - even before the trucks do. Smoky Mountain is as much a recycling center and a community as it is a dump site. Residents have even issued their own identification cards and established a pecking order for garbage picking.

If the city levels the mountain and dumps garbage elsewhere, warns Beltran, the number of scavengers' pushcarts will increase and they will penetrate farther into Manila's suburbs.

Beltran says the mountain is best left alone. ``Smoky Mountain will always exist. That is what I told government officials. We can find funding for the livelihood projects and housing,'' he says.

Meanwhile, as the machinery of government grinds slowly on, ``there's money in garbage.'' So says a Smoky Mountain resident, Honorad Reyes, who recycles about 500 tin cans a day for 1 cent apiece. ``If the city of Manila were to sell all these salable materials, the garbage collection would be a self-liquidating project.''

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