Living in Bin – Philippines

It’s more fun in the Philippines – The advertising slogan is mocking the around 200’000 people in Manila who live in and from garbage.

Living off the land, growing chickens, children playing outside and running barefoot… A dream for many families. People in Tondo have all that, but surely not the way most people would dream of.

Tondo, the largest district in Manila and one of the most densely populated areas in the world (at 69,000 inhabitants per square kilometer), became famous for a landfill called Smokey Mountain. Scavengers roamed the landfill, looking for treasures to sell to Junk shops, foraging through food trash to clean and boil good pieces and resell them as „pagpag“ to the poor community around them. Pagpag means to „shake off“ in Philippine and refers to shaking dirt and maggots off the foraged food before recooking and reselling it.

Smokey Mountain became a stigma in Manila due to its fame and government urged to shut down the site and relocate the people. The site has been officially closed after over 40 years, the mountain (the landfill) is now covered by soil and appears to be a green hill in the concrete surroundings. The site has been renamed to Paradise Heights and housing units have been built for the people there.
When visiting the area, the efforts are visible. The regional responsibles try hard to improve this place. A health centre has been built and also a school, allowing the kids there to have an education, while before they had no chance in getting to the next school a few miles away.
On the hill, a few families live and grow vegetables, fruits and breed chicken. Almost idyllic, if it wasn’t for the poor conditions they still face there.

Yes, the landfill has been closed, but the people living there are still poor. The scavengers have moved over to the two newer slums respectively dumpsites near the harbour, an area built on reclaimed land from the sea and compacted garbage, paved with rubbish. Electricity and running water are not available everywhere and people live in between the garbage that is disposed there every day. The bigger slum is named „Happyland“, after the Visayan word „Hapilan“ for smelly garbage. The irony if this name is as bad as the conditions there. In addition, the smaller area with many food stalls is named Aroma.

Most of the Scavengers are also squatters, living in makeshift houses between the dumped garbage. They sift through the garbage, 10 hours a day to separate sellable stuff from the rest. Hundreds of kilo of recycling material passes through the hands of the many scavengers, and the profits are maybe 2-3 Dollars a day. Other families peel Garlic for gastronomy purposes. The garlic is delivered to them, they peel and pack and have it picked up by the restaurants again.

It is not known for sure how many people live in those slum areas. Most of them also don’t have any papers. Numbers vary from 30’000 to 600’000. Alone in Manila, 50% of the 11 million inhabitants live in poverty, around 4 million live in slum areas. 20 million in all of the Philippines. Alone in Tondo, the dumpsites span over two million metric tons of waste.

There is no proper waste management in the Philippines, and government seems reluctant to do anything, or helpless. Of course, this is a vicious cycle. The garbage provides an income for scavengers and the city has a place to dispose their waste, out of sight from the clean city areas. To change this, scavengers need a voice. But without valid papers or an education, or simply being able to read and write, this will never be an option.

Various NGOs work in the area, missionaries, private as well as international NGOs aim to improve the conditions of the people in the slums of Happyland, provide education, income and help to get them registered. But with thousands of people in these slums, this seems to be a never-ending endeavour. Nevertheless, the kids in those streets seem happy. They run around barefoot on the soft pavement made of garbage, trashed food and even dead rats, they play games, play hide and seek and are trying to enjoy a normal childhood. They have dogs as pets and guardians and chickens to provide eggs and meat, and cocks to engage in cock fights or to sell them for this purpose. They are fighters since birth, long before they even realise, they are (and have to be).

Of course, we could pray to some higher power to magically make all of this disappear, but that would be too easy. We have to act, to change this, every single one of us.

First step: consume less and consume more conscious. Do you really need 2 plastic straws in your cocktail? (Do you really need straws at all?)
Do you really need a new plastic bag to carry around all the newly purchased stuff? You could bring your own bag from home… or shop less and only what you really need.
All of us, we can reduce our impact when it comes to trash and plastics. And we can support NGOs who are helping those who can’t get out of this life on the dumpsites themselves.

Drop me a line if you want to donate some money to the nGOs in charge there, I will gladly provide you with some adresses.