Where 'home' is a vast mound of stinking rubbish


Some 4,000 people are living in unimaginable squalor on a huge bayside dumpsite, writes  DAVID MCNEILL in Manila

FEW SCENES more richly deserve the description hell on earth: teams of stick-limbed children and adults foraging through mountains of stinking garbage for scraps. At the end of each day, the scavenger colony retreats to rows of unsteady hovels parked either side of an open sewer, where children and pregnant women survive, literally, on rubbish.

Dickensian is the obvious adjective, but Dickens would have blanched at the 21st-century squalor of Manila’s huge bayside dump, servicing a city of 15 million. Victorian London never had a rubbish dump this vast, or the Philippine capital’s sticky 34-degree heat, which draws great black clouds of flies and ferments a methane-rich funk that rises from the garbage like steam from a fresh corpse.

Shocking as it is to find anything human here, 4,000 people call it home. In a world where life and death is measured out in quantities of plastic bottles, they are considered industrious, even lucky.

More remarkable still is the sight of a flaxen-haired British woman in a starched white shirt striding around the site, on first-name terms with many of them. Dispensing water, hugs and advice, Jane Walker (45) is known here as the “angel of the dump”.

“Where have you been?” she asks one scruffy boy before giving him a bear hug and extracting a promise from him to return to the school Walker’s organisation runs nearby.

A few days previously, the waste management company in charge of the dump had bulldozed a path through the shanty housing, displacing about 1,000 people and disrupting the school. The dispossessed are rebuilding, but are hampered by a shortage of nails. “I hate when something like this happens,” laments Walker. “The whole atmosphere is bad. Everybody is so stressed.”

Walker stumbled on the Tondo site 13 years ago while on holiday during a three-month break from the British publishing company where she worked.

“It was just the most incredible scene,” she recalls. “Hundreds of people milling over this site, picking at the garbage. I couldn’t forget what I saw, or leave the children behind.”

In 2002, she set up a school in a warehouse beside the dumpsite, registering her British-based charity, the Philippine Community Fund, the same year.

Today, more than 400 dumpsite children in crisp blue uniforms are enrolled, learning a modified curriculum that includes music, ballet and basic skills.

“Most of the children are illiterate when they arrive,” she says. “And malnourished.”

One task led to another. Hungry, sick children make poor pupils, so the foundation now has a medical centre. For many, the centre is the difference between life and death.

The dump dwellers must collect up to 9kg of old plastic bottles to earn a single dollar. If not felled by pneumonia, septicaemia, tuberculosis or intestinal worms, some fall prey to crime, sex traffickers or worse. A University of the Philippines study recently revealed that 3,000 people in one Manila slum had sold a kidney for between $1,440 (€1,033) and $2,469 (€1,772). Kidnappings by gangs who murder and sell body parts for profit are not unheard of.

The dumpsite has replaced the notorious Smokey Mountain, once synonymous with poverty in the Philippines. Shamed by international coverage of the 20,000 desperate people eking out a living there, the Manila government bulldozed Smokey Mountain in 1995 and moved some of the scavengers into public housing.

But many simply moved across the road to the new landfill, which is surrounded by slums and thousands of raggedy hovels that spill on to the Manila streets.

Perhaps a million more live on or near 700 other dumps around the country. “The harsh reality has not changed,” says Japanese director Hiroshi Shinomiya, who has just released the latest in a series of acclaimed documentaries about Manila’s dumpsite dwellers.

“It’s no different to when I went to the Philippines first.”

The problems in the background are vast and forbidding. Long one of Asia’s economic basket cases, the Philippines’ dire poverty is being worsened by recession. One-third of the population struggles below the official poverty line of $3 per day for family of five, while a handful of super-rich families dominate. The imploding economy sent 4,000 Filipinos a day to the airports last year; about one-tenth of the country’s 90 million citizens live abroad. The remittances they send home – $16 billion annually – keep millions more afloat, barely.

The Tanto centre, meanwhile, cures the worst cases of malnutrition and offers hundreds of children a way out of the dump – once they can be persuaded to quit scavenging. “They often feel guilty because they’re coming to school while their brothers and sisters have to go and work at the dumpsite,” says Walker. She offers tiny but vital incentives to stay: tins of food and bags of rice.

Still, the makeshift classrooms, in a sweltering warehouse filled with the stink of the dump, are less than ideal, so the charity is working on an alternative: a $1 million school made entirely from recycled shipping containers. Built on the old Smokey Mountain site, the construction has won praise for its innovative approach: cheap, eco-friendly and durable in an area plagued with typhoons and floods. By the end of this year, it will be ready for about 1,200 students, along with an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s biggest construction of its kind – if the money keeps coming in. “We’re just mopping up,” admits Walker. “But if we don’t do it, who will?”