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Mining For Gold That Does Not Glitter – OpEd

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Growing hunger in the Philippines is pushing some families not to eat three meals a day.

But in this country’s dumpsite area, hunger can be filled. Not from restaurants but from trash that glitters like gold.

Every cock’s crow, come rain or shine, Nana Sepang and her three kids crawl out from what they call home-a four square metre shanty made of torn sacks and rusty metal sheets.

With half sleepy heads, they trudge a stone’s throw away towards the Payatas garbage dump. There, along with several thousand other scavengers, they search for gold that don’t glitter — paper, carton, plastic, styrofoam, bottles, scrap iron bits and food. Sepang and her kind, whom social workers claim to be about 150,000 in this capital city, personify what wordsmiths call “dirt-poor scavengers”. But to environmentalists, they are unsung eco-heroes who clean, recycle and eat out from the filth of the city’s 10 million people.

Even as the world recognised World Environment Day last August 15, there was and is no celebration by these scavengers. Every day is like any other day. “We pick garbage, sort it, pack it and sell it for a living”, Sepang retorted, poking on the newly-dumped trash by an eight-wheeler truck with hook-ended metal rod. “Garbage is gold to the people here,” Elma Macasantos of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), said referring to the Payatas dumpsite. In May 11, 2000, some 97 people died and 157 others were lost when a flashflood and fire wrecked havoc on the makeshift tents and shanties. After the tragedy, the scavengers have since returned. “About 65,000 people live here and depend on trash for a living,” Macasantos added.

In the dumps, the sociology of trash is simple. The rich make it, the poor deal with it.

Even as they build their lives and homes out from other people’s filth, Manila’s scavengers are not viewed as eco-heroes by the societies they live in.

The Roman Catholic Church, the rich and the middle class of Manila have referred to them as “dirty, ignorant and too eager to let their bodies be blasted by water canons because they never take a bath”. They are, for the most part, regarded as little better than the trash they handle.

But Alvin Sotero of the Earth Savers, an environmental NGO disagrees. “The efforts of Manila’s scavengers in recycling trash and cleaning the city’s increasing garbage is priceless. Who among the us can do what they do, what will Manila become without them,” he asked. The scavengers earn about US$4 ($5.62) daily in the 12 hectare dumpsite.

For years, the dumpsite and the Smoky Mountain which was closed in 1995, have become poignant symbols of the country’s poverty.

Sotero said the thousands of people who make their living at the giant dump, sleeping and eating in amid the stench and swarms of flies came from the impoverished provinces of the country.

“It is a pitiful sight to see women and children probing other people’s trash for a living. Without them, Manila would rot in its own filth. Unknowingly, they are the city’s environmental heroes,” he added.

Matthew Westfall, an urban development specialist with the Manila-based Asian Development Bank, says the people in the dumps are part of the changing face of poverty-a vast population shift taking place in much of the world, from the joblessness and hunger of the countryside to the comparative wealth of the cities.

But for most of these migrants, that comparative wealth is found in places like this dumpsite. In Asia, where cities of 10 million people or more are spreading as fast as anywhere in the world, this urban landscape is replacing the fields and trees of the villages for an increasing proportion of the population.

“In 1990, the region’s cities needed a total of US$38 billion a year to provide urban services like water, sanitation and transport. In 20 years that figure is expected to rise to an impossible US$292 billion,” he said. Scavenging is hazardous employment. It is poverty driven, undertaken by the most vulnerable people — often women and children.

In the process of sorting through trash, scavengers expose themselves to serious health hazards such as injuries from broken glass and cans and are disproportionately exposed to disease-carrying pests that breed in garbage. Indeed, health is a luxury scavengers cannot afford.

Government urban planners would do well to develop intricate strategies to reduce the vulnerability of scavengers to natural or man-made risks.

But with a government hounded by post administration corruption, that is a far-fetched reality.

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

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