Life and death in a mountain of garbage

The woman lost six members of her family in the garbage avalanche. But there was no self-pity or anger in her voice when she spoke to the TV camera.  There was only a lingering sadness in her eyes, but an aura of resignation held that in check.  I remember her being inconsolable in early footage taken right after tragedy struck.  Now her only concern is to be able to bury the dead properly and to get on with the business of living.

In contrast, a world out there remains in shock, unable to comprehend the nature of a society that can suffer tens of thousands of its people to live dangerously in a garbage dump.  US President Bill Clinton has sent a carefully worded message of sympathy that expresses sorrow over the loss of many lives, but avoids even naming the incident. Pope John Paul II is the first foreign leader to condole deeply with the victims, but even this pontiff of the poor diplomatically avoids any direct reference to the scale of poverty that led to this unspeakable tragedy.

Meanwhile, in this nation of political analysts, a collective call has been sounded to crucify the public officials responsible for allowing this to happen.  Urgent questions are being asked: What happened to Erap’s boast that he would do correctly for Payatas what Fidel Ramos did shabbily for Smoky Mountain?  Why were the two task forces created by Erap for Payatas never convened?  Why was the Payatas dump never closed despite repeated orders to close it?  How do we stop people from building their homes beside a garbage dump?

These are important questions begging for answers.  Perhaps we may begin the search for clues by sifting through the political economy of garbage.  A few months ago, a Japanese ship unloaded container vans in Manila that on inspection yielded trash, most of it dangerous and non-recyclable.  The Filipino consignee was no doubt paid a huge sum of money by the Japanese shipper to receive and dispose of the garbage.  He was also very likely planning to sell the garbage to local scavengers and junk shops.  He stood to gain both ways.  But the shipment was foiled and an embarrassed Japanese government ordered the quick return of this disgraceful cargo to Japan.  The incident is reminiscent of previous attempts to dump foreign computer junk and used car batteries in our country, ostensibly for recycling.  The point cannot be missed: one nation’s garbage may be another nation’s livelihood.

The disposal of garbage has become one gigantic problem notably in wasteful societies driven by excessive consumerism.  In Japan, people pay special fees to get rid of discarded car tires and old vehicles.  I have seen mountains of such tires in various dumpsites in Yawata outside Kyoto.  Enterprising Filipinos scour these dumpsites for slightly used tires they can export to the Philippines.  On a more regular basis, these global scavengers work at various yards cannibalizing reusable engines and parts from discarded vehicles destined for metal recycling.  The salvaged engines and parts constitute the basis of what in our country has become the lucrative business in “surplus” or second-hand parts.

Payatas is only the Third World equivalent of Yawata’s dumpsites.  A nation’s level of development is also measured by the quality of its garbage.  Instead of reusable tires, our local scavengers retrieve plastic and paper.  Instead of metal junk, they recover tin cans and bottles.  But this is only the visible surface of a whole economy.

The transactions are lucrative, and often have political importance. The contract to collect garbage for the city government is huge and is usually bidded out to private contractors who usually connive with public officials to get the contract. The garbage collector must pay the owner of the dumpsite for the right to dump the waste on his property.

If it is public property, as in the case of Payatas, he pays back City Hall.  Even scavengers pay good money for the right to enter the property and sift through the garbage, and even more for the right to put up their homes inside the dumpsite.  Junk shops pay for what the scavengers retrieve, as well as for the right to maintain a post at the dumpsite.  The recipients in this case are the powerful gatekeepers of this “Lupang Pangako” (promised land) as this part of Payatas is called – the barangay officials and other local leaders, who look upon these rents are their just reward for supporting the right politicians.

In a society that cannot provide an adequate supply of jobs to its people, scavenging at garbage dumps is, for a great number of the poor, a rational way to earn a living and feed one’s family.  At the dumpsite, they can work at their own pace, they don’t need to dress up for work, or report to a boss.  They don’t need police clearances, they can bring their children to work, and they can even put up shanties near where they work.   These are considerations crucial to the poor in a social order that provides them nothing else.

Most of us can get so used to seeing this way of life that it no longer disturbs us until, precisely, something like the tragedy in Payatas strikes.  An event like this de-familiarizes poverty.  If it is to have any real meaning, it should awaken us to a re-examination of the systematic injustices that we have allowed to flourish in our society.

As an emblem of destitution, Smoky Mountain was scandalous enough.  Time and Newsweek never tired of featuring it on their covers.  But Payatas exceeds all the markers of Third World poverty and neglect.  I don’t know how a presidency that loudly pronounces its commitment to the poor can account for it.


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