Residents of Manila’s Happyland slum put faith in Duterte

Slum dwellers believe that this incoming president will make their homes permanent

The gleaming skyscrapers of Manila's Makati Malate district can be seen from the slums of Tondo, but there is nothing shiny about the alleyways where children play in piles of rubbish and filthy shacks are packed by the river.

Container lorries carrying cargo from the harbour rattle past as a man sets fire to a pile of rubbish, watched by a group of children. This is the slum area known as “Happyland”, which comes not from any sense of joy, but as a translation of the Bisaya word for “dump”.

The irony continues in the “Aroma” slum, which true to its name has a strong odour of compacted waste rising off the rubbish which is everywhere, as scavengers and stevedores work desperately to make a living.

The Philippine capital is home to an estimated four million urban poor, many packed into places like Smokey Mountain, a landfill that officially closed in the 1990s but is still busy. There are 80,000 people per square kilometre, most of them without access to running water, education, healthcare and employment.


There is no waste disposal system, and the river where the children play is clogged with filth and a serious health risk.

Here are plenty of posters for the country's new president Rodrigo Duterte. He came here immediately after his inauguration and held a solidarity dinner with the poor, a gesture that only adds to his enormous popularity in a district where he won by more than 115,000 votes.

He promised the poor of the district they could sleep in the Malacanang presidential palace and pledged to use earnings from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation to pay for healthcare for the residents.

"He's a very good president. He will fight drugs and corruption, and say no to criminals and rapists – that's number one," said mother-of-six Marietta Tacoralde, who lives in a shanty house off the main road in Tondo.

Everyone is cheerful and friendly, but she concedes that life is hard for the people here in Happyland. The family has a small shop selling a small range of household goods.

The whole community gathers around to hear her answers, and at the mention of Duterte’s name, there are plenty of thumbs-up signs.

More than 1,000 years old, Tondo is the biggest of Manila’s 16 districts and is located in the north of the city.

Many here make their living working at the San Miguel brewery warehouse, but most of the jobs in the area are casual employment. “We need jobs here. At the moment, we are all working on a casual basis, but we want full-time conditions,” she said.

Another woman, who gave her name as Yolanda, said Duterte was a “super president” who she was confident would make their homes permanent. Few people own the rights to the land on which their houses are situated.

“I hope he will help us to live here permanently. At the moment local politics is stopping this from happening. We trust Duterte 100 per cent that he will deliver on his promises, he is strong,” she said.

“The house quality is not good. We had to build on top of other garbage, which is not a good foundation,” she said.

Also they are firetraps. Last month one person died, eight were hurt and 200 families were left homeless after a blaze in Tondo.

There have been several programmes to rehouse the informal settlers from the slum, but people keep coming back after taking the payment, as there is work at the docks for them.

Yolanda, who is in her 20s, has six children, like a lot of the women in the area. There are many families with 12 or 13 children, she said.

The 80 per cent-Catholic Philippines has one of the highest birth rates in the world and contraception has not been widely available, until the passing of a Reproductive Health Bill two years ago which allowed wider distribution of condoms and other forms of birth control.

Duterte's crackdown on illegal drugs is popular as many of Tondo's residents are hooked on shabu, or methamphetamines, and the violence linked to the drug trade is one of the reasons why the murder rate is so high in this district. Just two weeks ago, a member of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) and his cousin were shot dead in Tondo after an argument in a restaurant.

Getting to the slum areas of Tondo is not easy, and is a slow process. Manila has the worst traffic congestion in Asia and drivers are also wary of driving into the slum because of its dangerous reputation.

The Philippines’ gross domestic product expanded by an average of 6.5 per cent until 2015 and there is ample evidence of this in the upscale shopping malls of Fort Bonifacio and the business district of Makati. But the lengthy drive from Bonifacio Global City to the slums of Tondo is stark evidence how bridging the wealth gap is going to take an enormous effort.