Grinding and brief existence for landfill scavengers in Philippines

The shocking conditions of a community of people in Manila who live on a landfill and the teachers, administrators and humanitarians, including donations from Etihad, who are trying to help.

Scavengers push a cart loaded with reclaimed wood through the muddy roadway of a squatter's village at Smokey Mountain, a landfill in Manila so named because of the toxic fumes that billow from the site. 
Mike Young for The National
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Children with grimy faces play on muddy tracks lined with dilapidated shanties, made up of plywood walls and rusted iron roofs. Mounds of putrefying waste pile up around them, while some older youths push a rickety cart piled high with bags of scavenged trash up the road.

This is everyday life for the squatters who reside on Manila's dumpsites, where they grind out an existence by picking through the heap for salvageable scraps.

The original "Smokey Mountain" rubbish tip - so named because of the toxic fumes that billowed out from the site - became synonymous with the depths of poverty in the Philippines. Bowing to public pressure, the government closed the landfill site in the early 1990s, and evicted the residents into low-cost housing projects nearby. Yet, many found it impossible to find other incomes, and eschewed a new beginning in high-rise apartments to re-erect their slums on another dumpsite nearby, known as Pier 18.

To this day, the problems persist. Diseases such as hepatitis, tuberculosis and typhoid are rife. When combined with the constant exposure to toxic waste, it means the average life expectancy for the area's inhabitants is just 36.

Thankfully, there are some who are attempting to disrupt this cycle of deprivation.

The Philippine Community Fund (PCF) School sits in the shadow of the original "Smokey Mountain" pile. Built two years ago, the facility is a four-storey quadrangle structure, made out of 74 shipping cargo containers that had been dumped on the nearby docks.

Within the school, there is a palpable contrast with the squalor of the dumpsite. The National was able to visit the facility alongside an Etihad Airways corporate social responsibility team delivering airline blankets, school uniforms and bags of rice to the youngsters.

The visit coincided with the school summer holidays in the Philippines, but around 50 children were there for remedial classes. The school choir was also in attendance, brought in to perform for the delegation of staff and volunteers from Etihad Airways.

During term time, almost 500 children ranging in age from 6 to 13 are taught at the facility. All of these students come from the poorest families who inhabit the dumpsite area or a public cemetery in nearby Navatos.

While primary and secondary education is free in the Philippines, there is a very high dropout rate (60 per cent) from state-funded primary schools.

Arlene De Vera is head of development for the PCF, a British charity founded in 2002 to improve the lives of the slum dwellers.

She explains that these inhabitants have such a marginal existence that parents rely on their children to be breadwinners, augmenting the family's meagre income by picking through refuse.

To help ease the dropout rate - it's only two per cent in the PCF school - they offer canned food and rice as incentives to keep the pupils in attendance.

"There were instances in the past where the parents get sick or don't have enough money, they require the children to go to work in the dumpsite and so they're absent from class," De Vera earnestly explains as we sit in one of the classrooms, taking shelter from the sweltering humidity in the cool breeze of an electric desk fan.

"We came up with the food for school programme, so [the children] don't have to feel guilty about coming to school if your family doesn't have anything to eat."

Transport to the school is also another cost the charity has to bear.

"The families we are dealing with really have no extra money whatsoever, even to get them to school. All the money they have is for food," she says.

While the children seem happy and healthy, De Vera says there are behavioural issues arising from their tough existence outside the school.

"Whenever they come to school, they are like kids. But out there it is a jungle.

"We make sure the school provides a haven to them. We make sure no one shouts at them. They are treated like normal kids. In the area where they live, the norm is for them to be macho, it's a jungle you have to fight."

School principal Anita Sarnicula outlined other concerns.

"It is tough to motivate the children to study," she explains. "In their minds, they are still out on the dumpsite.

"These are not normal kids. They all belong to less fortunate families, so we do sometimes experience difficulty in handling them."

Sarnicula was formerly a guidance counsellor at one of Manila's top private schools, before deciding she wanted to help the poor.

"It's a struggle at times, but I love PCF as I feel I'm making a difference," she says.

The charity is also bettering the lives of some of the parents, offering them an alternative to waste picking.

In one of the structure's upstairs classroom, some of these adults operate sewing machines to transform crisp packets, ring pulls from soft drinks cans, and toothpaste tubes into an assortment of bags, purses and jewellery, which are sold to help fund the project.

Susan Tabler, one of the volunteers who joined the trip, works closely with the Emirates Environment Group in the UAE to gather materials for these workshops.

She says the school's eventual aim is to be self-sufficient through its recycling business.

"The PCF is at that critical stage, where there is huge potential for ultimately becoming self-sustaining, where it can really wean itself off the constant donations," says the American.

"The vision is for the livelihood project to have their own facility and building, where they can have expanded training facilities, where they can bring in more workers.

"If we could grow out of being a charity, and really be a community business - that's very definitely the goal."

Meanwhile, any charity is gratefully accepted.

During the presentation ceremony, the choir perform Filipino folk songs, followed by a version of Tomorrow from the musical Annie.

The kids then line up in the school courtyard to receive their donations from the Etihad staff.

"Thank you" exclaims one child in Tagalog as she is handed one of the striped airline blankets. "At long last, I have something to sleep on."

De Vera says she was always impressed by the children's indomitable spirit.

"In many ways, the life they live on the dump is like rats," she says.

"But we hope with education, we can lift these kids from poverty. We hope they will learn valuable life skills, then finish college and eventually find jobs.

"Filipinos are very resilient people," she goes on. "The good thing about the children is that they become so strong, and are able to smile and sing through their difficulties."

Hugo Berger is a features writer for The National.