People of the stigmaBy Juan Mercado
Cebu Daily News
They’re dubbed cartonero in Spain. Portuguese call them catador de materiais recicláveis. Until the First World Conference of Waste Pickers, in 2008, they were called “recyclers” “ragpickers” to “scavengers”.
In Metro Manila’s garbage dump Payatas, names didn’t matter to Michael, recalled the late painter Joey A. Velasco. The 13-year-old boy foraged for his family’s food alongside hundreds of pickers from over 1,800 tons of trash unloaded daily.
With 11 other slum kids, Michael modeled for Velasco’s oil painting Hapag Ng Pagibig. “Table of Hope” depicts the 12, clustered around a squatter’s makeshift dinner table, with the Master from Galilee.
“Papag” is cooked from scraps recovered from rubbish, Michael explained. Discarded food bits are winnowed from dead cats, shards of glass, sometimes human cadaver parts. “It tastes sour…At least it fills our stomach. But it doesn’t last until evening.”
The stench drifts into Iloilo City from the dump in barangay Calajunan, Mandurriao town. In Cebu’s “Smokey Mountain”, medical waste, dead dogs, sometimes aborted human embryos, are embedded in the refuse.
We used crude rakes. And it would take 20 minutes to sort out, from rotting litter unloaded by a truck, “recyclables” glass, metal, caps, etc, recalls Fr. Heinz Kuluke. Adults got up to P150 for a day’s work, “barely enough for rice.”
The Society of Divine Word priest lived among 160 families in squalid huts next to the stacked refuse. “Many of my companions were children as young as 6. They would get P30.”
“There is no future,” says a 15-year-old scavenger.
“The future depends on what you do today,”. Mahatma Ghandi counseled. This June, the Japan Social Development Fund provided a US$3-million grant to help 6,000 dump workers in five cities and towns.
Administered by the World Bank, the fund will go for equipment and training to improve working conditions of waste workers, including recycling cooperatives in Metro Manila. Health and safety would be given priority. The non-profit Solid Waste Management Association of the Philippines is the implementing agency. The project “helps address the plight of one of the most marginalized groups in society—men, women and children earning a living from garbage,” noted Motoo Konishi, WB country director.
Pressure for such initiatives is building up. Migrants fleeing rural penury flood into slums of today’s 122 cities – plus 16 towns that flip-flop Supreme Court decisions brand as “cities”. Blurred priorities sap limited budgets. Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo battles to curb local officials who would ladle honoraria to themselves first.
Mounting rubbish threatens to overwhelm obsolete systems. The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act ( Republic Act No. 9003) requires local governments to convert open fly-infested cesspools into sanitary landfills and adopt solid waste management practices. Many LGUs lag.
Waste picking is “the one industry that’s always hiring.” Pools of jobless and inexperienced workers cluster in urban slums. They have few options, especially in countries with patchy social welfare nets. Nonetheless, meager garbage dump income helps street children, orphans and migrants. Recycling lengthens city landfill lifespans. In poorer cities, they’re the only solid waste removal service. These are modest but have real benefits. But in traditional economic tallies, they don’t appear.
How many waste pickers are there? The data is patchy, given the ebb and flow of workers into dispersed sites, with few demarcations. The World Bank uses a 1 percent to 2 percent of population rule of thumb. Population here surged past 93.2 million in 2010. Would there be 1.2 to 1.8 million who sift roach-infested muck for the next meal?
Most huddle in makeshift huts that abut dumpsites. Exposure to rotting material, lack of water, toilets and medical care jack up infectious disease rates. They slash life expectancies. In Mexico City, the average lifespan of a dumpsite waste collector is 39 years or 30 years shorter than the national average. In Port Said, Egypt, one out of three babies, born to garbage dump families, die before reaching age one.
No similar Philippine study has been conducted. Yet, one glimpses stark disparities in life expectancy tables for in economically deprived provinces. Life spans in Tawi-Tawi, Basilan or Maguindanao are two decades shorter than those in La Union or Cebu. Hunger and malnutrition relentlessly translate into premature graves for “people of the stigma.”
These structures trap thousands into unseen but all too real detention camps of chronic hunger, anemia, TB or blindness from lack of vitamins. Lack of schooling weld escape hatches shut.
“Life is the threshold at which other hopes begin.” Abbreviated lives in refuse dumps are an obscene scandal. No nation worth its place under the sun will accept life sentences of perpetual insecurity for its people
Kids who sift through garbage today are shackled into waste picker status like their parents before them. Soon, they will start families. Their children, too, will be locked into those cesspools unless they are given a chance to break free.
Half a world away from Payatas, Smokey Mountain and Mandurriao, 130 heads of state are meeting in Brazil for the “Rio+20” summit. Some flay the draft statement as feeble, a “48-page suicide note” for sustainable development.
Concentrate on the poorest, the rubbish brigade here would urge.
“The poor are not another race of creatures bound on other journeys,” Charles Dickens wrote.
“They are fellow passengers to the grave.”