Written by Carmilita Morante.

I am a community organizer in Lupang Pangako (literal translation ‘Land of Promise’) a scavenging community in Barangay Payatas, Quezon City (part of Metro Manila), host to the biggest open dumpsite in the Philippines.  For five years now I have worked in the community and been exposed to the struggle against its continued operations despite the law that prohibits its existence. I have long wanted to write my one-cent worth of opinion about how this issue is playing in the current electoral campaign. But it’s a tough assignment to fulfill amidst the plethora of political posters and deafening mobile propaganda teams proclaiming the credentials of politicos. Lupang Pangako brings the frenzy to another level as 9 May approaches.

First, there was the parade of politicos ‘investigating’ the illegality of the dumpsite operation.  Then a billboard was put up, loudly announcing an on-site housing project (never mind that it is a danger zone).  Finally came the announcement of a six-month ultimatum for the closure of the dumpsite.

With one week to go until the elections, Payatas residents are realizing the folly of giving even a little credence to such make-believe. But all roads lead to Payatas during electoral campaign.  Trapos of all persuasions and colours outdo one another with their version of anti-dumpsite speeches.

Dumpsite Politics

Ten years ago, in July 10, 2000, a portion of the dumpsite collapsed on the houses below, killing as many as one thousand (though government acknowledged only about 260) and injuring hundreds more. The dumpsite was closed for a while, but was reopened after Manila nearly turned into one huge stinking metropolis.

The landslide of trash sealed the reputation of Payatas community.  It became the poster town of Philippine poverty. Anywhere in the country, its residents have come to be regarded as wretched, dirt-diggers, second-rate citizens resulting in deep-seated discrimination that runs even among their own skin.  Not a few opportunities were lost for many just by mentioning their address.  It has become a social stigma even for children, enough for the local high school to be renamed after a famous Supreme Court justice, Cecilia Munoz-Palma.

This issue is far from simple.  With vast amounts of money at stake the management of Payatas has proven to be a very difficult economic and political issue to address. The dumpsite is an industry worth millions of pesos, with the big players obviously raking in profits from its operation – government, private contractors and landowners.

Lupang Pangako is the section of Payatas nearest to the huge mountain of trash that has now reached the height of a ten-story building. There are nearly 12 million people in Metro Manila, they generate a lot of waste. Everyday around 500 trucks of waste arrive at Payatas. Many here eke a living from the dumpsite as scavengers, or as cleaners, sorters, packers, guards, drivers and helpers in the junkshops scattered around. Official statistics put their number at 5000. From a total population of 20,000 in Lupang Pangako, that makes one of every four residents in this part of Payatas dependent on the dumpsite for survival. The population of Payatas as a whole was listed as 119, 053 in the 2010 Philippines census. Although, around half a million people live around the outskirts of the dump. These people are the D, E class that make of some 90% of the electorate. In order to secure office sheer weight of numbers dictate that politicians have to capture their vote.

Everyday, thousands of scavengers work eight-hour shifts, amidst extreme heat and stench, wearing government-issued uniforms and IDs (paid by them of course).  On a lucky day, they earn P150 (£2.18), enough for dumpsite meals and modest family dinner back home.  Most days it is just P50-100. Poverty dictates that the children of scavengers are likely to follow their parents into the same profession. Poverty is an issue of national importance in the 2016 election campaign. The reality of the issue can be seen in Payatas.

In 1990 Lupang Pangako was officially declared as a relocation site for hundreds of informal settlers living in Quezon City by then City Mayor Brigido Simon Jr.  To this day, the relocates keep their Community Mortgage Certificates in their treasure chest, like they would a land title. The original residents of Lupang Pangako lament that  ‘we were here first, before the dumpsite’ they are nostalgic about their lost view across the ravine which is not filled with trash. In 2015 a number of homeowners associations in Payatas filed a write in the Supreme Court against IPM Environmental services Inc., the official private garbage disposal contractor of the Quezon City Government, claiming that the contractor was encroaching on their land and affecting their health. Their petition was denied although this decision has subsequently been reversed. Residents claim that excess dumping is a threat to their health. The average life expectancy of Payatas residents is 40. The life expectancy for the Philippines as a whole is 68.5 years.

The truth of the matter is that the dumpsite keeps on expanding, eating up the community like a monster, uprooting people on its path, with crumbs of ‘compensation’ courtesy of the big players represented by government run Payatas Operations Group.  Residents are edgy, watching out whose turn it will be to be displaced next time.

New faces, new hope?

‘Is there an alternative to these stooges’, one irate mother said.  Her house was the last structure standing in the dumpsite expansion area before the government, fronted by the police and a demolition team, decided otherwise.  ‘After what they did to us, I don’t think I have the appetite to vote again’, she said. But she believes in a couple of the new political faces. She was in fact campaigning for one whose brand of politics she can relate with. She belongs to a group working to access housing rights for danger zone families.  They have decided to endorse Leni Robredo of the Liberal Party as Vice President, who they believe is more trustworthy than others,

Rightly or wrongly, Payatas people are disenchanted election promises. The promises made never come to fruition. They continue to live and work on the edges of existence. Their children face the same fate. But on election day they will be at the polling precinct just the same, with their own list of preferred candidates, hoping against hope that they will make a difference in their lives.

Carmilita Morante has worked with civil society groups that champion the rights of the poor in the Philippines for a number of years. She currently works with the urban poor in Payatas, Quezon City, Metro Manila. She describes herself as a woman, a mother and an activist. Image credit: CC by Hector Garcia/Flickr.

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