Breaking Shackles

by Juan L. Mercado

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  “recycler”  “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 scrap  recovered  from rubbish , Michael explained. 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.”

Stench drifts into Iloilo City from the dump in Barangay Calajunan, Mandurriao town.  In  Cebu’s “Smokey Mountain”, dead animals, medical waste, sometimes aborted human embryos, are embedded in  dumped refuse.

With crude rakes, it’d  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 six”. They’d 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, Japan Social Development Fund provided a US$3-million grant to .help 6,000 dump  workers. in  five cities and towns.

Administered by 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 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 wages to curb local officials who’d  themselves first to honoraria.

Mounting  rubbish  threatens to overwhelm obsolete systems. The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act  ( RA t 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, specially in countries, with patchy social welfare nets. Nonetheless,  meager garbage dump income helps  out  street children, orphans to, migrants.  Recycliing  lengthens the lifespan of city  landfills. In poorer cities, they  provide the only solid waste removal service. These are modest but 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.. World Bank uses a 1- 2% 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  pest infested dumpsites. Exposure  to  rotting material, lack of  water, toilets and  medical care  jack up  infectious disease rates.  They slash life expectancies. In Mexico City, 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 the disparities in life expectancy tables for in economically-deprived province. 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 Vitamin. 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 it’s place under the sun, will accept  life sentences of perpetual insecurity for it’s 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 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.”

(Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

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