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Holy Week on the fringes of a Garbage Dump (Manila)

by | Apr 6, 2012 | Congregation of the Mission, Vincentian Family

PAYATAS: THE PASCHAL MYSTERY LIVED EVERYDAY

Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M. writes: “This Holy Week, I joined the liturgical services in Payatas (the largest garbage dump in Metro Manila where 60,000 people live around its fringe). I just came home from the Good Friday liturgies. Instead of the usual Siete Palabras full of pious words and clichés, the people of Payatas shared stories of their personal lives on the pulpit interspersed with prayers and songs from the choir. They talk of how the last words of Jesus come alive and challenge them to struggle in fidelity each day.

Stories of doubts, questions and joys: of doing odd jobs just to live, of vices and rosaries, of love and betrayals, of a mother’s death that made one echo Jesus words: “Inay, bakit mo ako pinabayaan?” (Mother, why have you forsaken me?). Was it supposed to be “Diyos ko (my God), bakit mo ako pinabayaan?”.  But she said: when one’s mother leaves you, God has left you too. One recounted another personal story; another sang a song of encouragement; while some groups of mothers and youth did a play which they themselves wrote – all representing what happens in daily life – violence and love, doubts and hopes, living and dying. What struck me are the lines of a child-actress from Lower Tres who said: “Nagdadasal ka ba? Walang Diyos sa lugar na ito. Hindi niya tayo pinupuntahan. Nakalimutan na niya tayo!” (Are you praying. There is no God in this place. He does not come here anymore. He has forgotten us.) To which another child-actress replied: “Hindi ako naniniwala sa iyo!”

Before going to these liturgical celebrations yesterday (and today), I accompanied a group of German friends and benefactors to the homes of these children, to the junkshops where their parents work, to the chapel where they worship on Sundays. The German lady was shocked to see their conditions. She could not believe there is a place like this in the world. In fact, I could see her teary-eyed most of the time. But when we were going up the mountain heap, she told me: “This place is hard but you know what? I could not understand why they are all smiling, why the warm welcome, why the happy faces.”

I told myself maybe this is the significance of the empty tomb. You do not yet see the Risen Lord. But he must be alive. My German friend left for Germany tonight as I am writing this. But I would like to tell her this: maybe this is the reason why they are smiling. Because deep in their hearts, they know that He is risen.

Let me share with you an article I wrote about 3 years ago on the life in Payatas which came to be published in a Dutch journal. It was subtitled: “The Leftovers of Capital” (cf. “Payatas: De megavuilnisbelt van Manilla,” Streven [June 2009]: 555-59).

“Have you eaten pagpag?” “But what is that?” Not even an ordinary Filipino would know what it is. “Pagpag” is the Filipino word for the verb, “to shake”. But in the context of Payatas – the largest dumpsite of the megacity Manila – “pagpag” is not a verb but a noun. It is a kind of food. Not the Asian ‘exotic’ type that you might be thinking of, but one which people throw away in the garbage bins of multinational fast food chains, say, a slice of chicken at KFC or McDonald’s, which lands at the dumpsite the next day. The scavenger who finds it “shakes it” a bit to take the dust off, or heats it a little over a burning coal if it is too cold to swallow, and eats it as his breakfast or lunch before going back to the rubbish dump to scavenge for dear life.

Are there many people doing this? Of course, the scavengers would not tell everyone about it. But in the context of the Philippines where, in the most recent survey, there are 3.3 million families which suffer from “involuntary hunger”, eating “pagpag” is a daily phenomenon among the hundreds of scavengers in the Payatas dumpsite. Here, some people literally eat and live on the waste of others, all leftovers of a quite effective but also selective ‘machine’ called the global capital.

For the past seven years, I have been helping my Vincentian confreres who live in Payatas in their weekend ministries. I celebrate the Eucharist in the different makeshift chapels around what looks like several mountains of garbage. After the Mass, I linger for sometime to talk with people, eat and laugh with them, listen to their stories of grief and bliss. On these weekends, I have blessed newborn infants, beautiful babies on cardboard coffins, small children who died of simple lung illnesses because their families could not afford even simple medication or old people who could no longer go home to their families in the villages, trapped as they are by the unfulfilled promises of the city. My confreres who take care of this dumpsite parish community do not only celebrate the sacraments. They also manage self-help programs, savings groups, land acquisition, housing projects and grassroots medical interventions. Once we had a drop-in center – a small swimming pool just beside the garbage mountain with water facilities so that the child-scavengers and all people working in the dumpsite, at the end of the day, can rest for sometime, eat some warm porridge or take some showers before going home.  Those who occupy a special place in these programs of the parish are the most vulnerable sectors – children, scavengers, the elderly, people with disabilities, women, etc.

I first came to this place in the 1990s when our parish was first set up. The dumpsite was still a large valley then. Now, it has transformed itself into high mountains of stinking waste and, on its top, people rush to salvage whatever their hands could lay hold of – a plastic can, an empty bottle, any paper or cardboard, a piece of metal, an old mattress foam or, if lucky, a piece of gold bracelet or silver necklace. At the end of the day, each person brings his ‘catch’ to the junk shop owner who weighs them and pays them according to kind: plastic (15 pesos per kilo = 30 cents); metal (50 pesos per kilo = $1); bottles (1 peso per piece); paper (5 pesos per kilo). On a lucky day, when one chances on a gold ring, she can sell it for as high as 1500-2000 pesos ($30-40). But that happens only once in a blue moon. In an ordinary day, a scavenger goes home with a meager 50 pesos (1$) or, if one is already skilled in the job, a little more than that – 200 or 300 pesos per day (5-6$). With such an amount, the “pagpag” is quite a big help since most also brings this extra food home to be shared on their family tables at dinner.

As if life is not hard enough for the dumpsite worker, there still exist real hazards of scavenging which are often taken for granted – the toxic wastes from industrial plants, the infectious rubbish from hospitals, the nauseating stench from the decaying garbage, broken bottles, sharp objects, etc. Most common among the illness of people living around the dumpsite are respiratory and skin diseases. Water contamination is also a real threat. La Mesa dam which is the main water reservoir of the greater Manila area is less than a kilometer away. Yet all these dangers to life and limb are forgotten, obliterated from one’s consciousness, as it were, in one’s struggle to merely survive.

Small boys of a young age climb up the garbage trucks without the driver’s knowledge in order to get to the garbage first. They call them “jumper boys”. In a dusty, uneven and dark terrain as the dump site, some of them are run over as they go up or get down these fast-moving and gigantic carriers of waste. Just last month, there was one who died. He was not the first. Over the years, there were several dozens like him. No one landed on the national prime time TV broadcast or headlines, much less on CNN or BBC. Like the waste on which they live on, these wasted lives (or their violent deaths) are also effectively excluded from society’s consciousness. On the 10th July 2000, after a continuous downpour of rain caused by a storm, the garbage stacked 50 feet high crushed a community of shanties right below the steep slope claiming more than 200 lives. As if it was not enough, the methane gas produced by the garbage heap caused instantaneous combustion triggering off burns and inhalation problems.

As response, the city government took tighter control of the garbage disposal facility. It created the Payatas Operations Group (POG) and in collaboration with a private company undertook the rehabilitation of the dumpsite. To prevent future trash slides, it implemented several measures: stabilizing the slopes, covering the garbage dump with soil, planting grasses on slopes to hold the dumped garbage, improving the drainage system, building of fences and tightening of site security. Recently, it also tried to transform the methane gas the garbage emits into electricity through an experimental biogas power plant. In January 2009, the Payatas Garbage Disposal Facility has earned a citation from the President of the Philippines herself for its pioneering efforts in solid waste management.

When one visits the site today, these are the programs that are showcased to the guests through an LCD presentation in a makeshift air-conditioned office built on top of the garbage mountain. The visitor is then given a guided tour through the sites where the programs are applied. Yet what is also hidden from view are the dark sides of the dumpsite life. One is the continuous dumping of waste, this time trying to fill up a third mountain. The government once passed a law to close all open garbage facilities around the Metro Manila by 2006 (Republic Act 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act). But already three years after the set deadline, there is still no serious talk of closing the dumpsite till now. There can be several reasons why this is so.

First, garbage industry is good business.  Every garbage truck that comes into the site to dump waste has to pay a substantial amount for using that facility. There are more than 500 trucks dumping at least 6000 tons of waste each day. Though garbage from public places and residential areas are taken care of by government taxes, those that come from hundreds of commercial establishments all over the metropolis need to pay. Even as the Payatas Waste Disposal Facility is supervised by the government, it is also a privatized entity. It is run by a privately-owned company who gets the government contract for running the dumpsite operation. And whose right business mind would like one’s promising trade to end? Not even in the name of people’s safety or ecological sustainability!

Second, Payatas is quite attractive to international funding institutions. The government is the first to cash in on this waste marketability. In April 2008, it inaugurated the “Biogas Emission Reduction Project” by authorizing PANGEA Green Energy – an international group based in Italy investing on biogas development – to extract, collect and process biogas emission, transforming trash to electricity. Planned to operate for 10 years over this 22-hectare facility, the project aims to reduce carbon dioxide emission by 116,000 tons a year, provide 42,000 megawatt of electricity in the area, and give employment to people in the locality. So far, so good! What is not said in this press release, however, are some crucial facts. Barely four months after the project’s inauguration, the city government already earned 7 million pesos ($155,555) merely as advanced payment from PANGEA for the authority given it to operate the facility. The investment is estimated to be cost P100 million. One could just imagine how much the government and the individuals involved will get in this 10-year contract. So how can the dumping stop when more waste is needed to generate more energy which also generates more money for the powers that be?

It was interesting to inquire whether locals who are the main victims of such arrangements want the dumpsite closed. I asked around. Ironically, quite many of them are not very enthusiastic – neither the scavengers nor junkshop owners and the informal economy sector that earns their daily bread from society’s waste. As the locals would tell you: “May pera sa basura” (there is money in the garage heap). In a country where people are encouraged by government policy to go abroad and take the dirty, difficult and dangerous (3D) jobs refused by the richer population of the world (and there are 8 million of us worldwide!), their local counterparts in Payatas are also not quite willing to let go of the waste which for years now have given them ‘life’ – despite the impending ‘death’ that it poses to their fragile existence.

Not yet for now – due to absence of other viable alternatives for their own survival. But will there be one in the near future when the Almighty Capital continues to rule the world? Or, are these excluded peoples who now feeds on the leftovers of society forever doomed to this mountain of stinking waste, thus, gradually being transformed to be leftovers themselves?

I left these questions hanging — without answers — three years ago. But looking at the dramatizations in the Church this Good Friday, my answer is “No”. The children in the play told me “No”. There is life beyond the bars — “may buhay sa kabila ng rehas” as the title of their play says. They talked to me about the “empty tomb”… and the life behind it. 

Happy Easter! 

Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M.

St. Vincent School of Theology

221 Tandang Sora Ave.,

Quezon City, Philippines

danielfranklinpilario@yahoo.com

April 6, 2012

 

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