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Manilas Garbage Dump Offers Lifeline For Poor

Down in the slums cottage industries thrive as thousands of people, including children, sort through baskets brought down from the mound.
by Karl Wilson
Manila (AFP) Mar 07, 2006
Every day, well before dawn breaks over Manila, a small army of human scavengers make their way from the squalid slums they call home to the gates of the city's biggest garbage dump. Armed with headlamps and wicker baskets they make the slow walk to the top of the Payatas dumpsite on the outskirts of Manila.

Rising some 30 to 40 meters (98 to 131 feet) from the valley floor the mound of garbage covers 10 hectares (24.7 acres) and takes in sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.

It also overlooks the old Payatas dump site which was closed at the end of 2000 after an avalanche of garbage smothered the life out of a squatter camp, killing more than 200 people.

Just after 4:00 am the first trucks start to arrive carrying their precious cargo which will be picked over by teams of scavengers looking for anything they can recycle.

Over the next 17 hours some 430 to 450 garbage trucks will deposit an estimated 1,200 tones of garbage at the site.

For the 30,000 residents who live around the garbage-mountain it is their only source of income.

The teams of scavengers who pick over each truckload of refuse are lucky if they make two dollars a day for their efforts.

Down in the slums cottage industries thrive as thousands of people, including children, sort through baskets brought down from the mound.

Rusted inner springs from discarded mattresses are used as fences around shacks made from scrap pieces of wood and iron sheeting. The fences are used to dry paper and plastic for recycling.

Foam rubber is washed and dried before being glued in strips to make mattresses. Covers are made for around 12 pesos (about 23 cents) each and the finished product sold in local markets for 100 pesos or more.

A broken concrete bridge crosses a narrow river where boys wash plastic in putrid water. It is dried and bundled up and sold for recycling.

In one yard are piles of discarded backpacks that will be washed, repaired and later sold in markets in the poorer districts of Manila.

Drinking water is brought in by truck daily and sold to residents and some dwellings have electricty.

-- 'Stinking timebomb' --

A study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) last year estimated some 150,000 residents of this sprawling metropolis of 12 million people are dependent, in one way or another, on the city's 7,500 tones of household garbage that is collected daily.

But the very weight of the refuge is posing a problem for city planners, leaving Manila with what congressman Orlando Andy described recently as a "ticking, stinking time bomb".

The eight legal dumps that serve the 17 cities and municipalities that form metropolitan Manila are now at maximum capacity and should have closed two years ago.

The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), which is responsible for the disposal of the city's garbage, say the dumps cannot be closed until alternative sites have been found.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB), in a study released last year, found that less than 10 percent of the city's garbage is recycled while much of it is either dumped illegally on private land, in rivers or straight into Manila Bay.

Former environmental secretary, Michael Defensor, recently said Manila's garbage output could double within the next five years

"One of the problems Manila has is that there is no comprehensive, overall waste management plan for the metropolis," one foreign waste management consultant, who did not want to be named, told AFP.

"On a local level many of the mayors ... are taking the problem seriously but there is a lot of politics and money involved," he added, saying corruption was a major barrier to solving the problem.

-- Community care --

The political dithering is a lifeline for Payatas scavengers. The community that has sprung up over the years is poor but close knit. Everyone knew someone or lost a relative in the avalanche nearly six years ago.

The German government has established a clinic at the site where medicine is given out freely to residents. The biggest health problem here is tuberculosis.

The only school at the site is a pre-school set up by the British-based Asian Students Christian Trust.

With its white and blue walls it stands out among the drab shacks sitting at the end of the only stretch of concrete road in the dump.

Called Cashew the school has 180 pre-school students between the ages of three and six and employs eight teachers.

Opened in 1998 it stands in the shadow of the old Payatas dump.

For many of the parents education holds the key to their children's future.

Even on Saturday's children can be found at the tiny two-storey school seeking tutorials in Math and English.

Josephine Artayte, 41, has five children and has lived at Payatas for 23 years, earning 100 pesos (almost two dollars) a day to sort garbage.

Her five children aged between 18 and five are still at government-run schools nearby and her youngest goes to Cashew.

"I tell my children that education is the way forward for them. I don't want them working here. There is a better life away from Payatas," she tells AFP.

-- Safety measure --

The mayor of Quezon City, Sonny Belmonte, whose precinct covers Payatas, has taken an active interest in the 30-year-old site ensuring strict safety is enforced by all those working there.

According to the dumps senior environmental specialists, Rafael Saplan, no children are allowed to work on the dumpsite. Only 200 to 300 scavengers are allowed on the site at any one time where they are given 20 to 30 minutes to pick over each truckload of garbage.

Slopes are 30 to 40 degrees rather than the unsafe 70 degrees that was a feature of the old site. Pipes have been installed to drain water and methane extractors placed over the dump.

A small power grid serving the site is powered by methane gas extracted from the dump. And the council has installed an overall safety plan and administration system to make sure the dump is efficiently and safely run, Saplan told AFP.

What will become of the old dump?

At present the council is busy planting grass on the slopes and is establishing a nursery that will provide trees and shrubs for the site.

Saplan said there were no plans for the dump as yet although there have been some suggested of turning it into a park while there is some talk about a golf course. "I honestly don't know," he said.

Now with the new site reaching capacity and amid moves to close Manila's dump sites, the people of Payatas face an uncertain future. But as resident Jacqulin Caracter says: "The future is in the hands of God."

Source: Agence France-Presse

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