Sunshine on a Cloudy Day
Few people could be prepared for the experience of visiting the deplorable human conditions being realized every day in garbage dump communities around the world. This sad phenomenon has emerged out of advances in recycling refuse and selling recoverable commodities into a secondary market. Where ever there is a tragic economy to be exploited and sustained, the shrewd and desperate are poised to squeeze a living out of any circumstance.
All over the third world in garbage dumps, both urban and rural a sub culture is flourishing. Some of these communities are of such a scale as to stagger the imagination and they remind us once again of how desperate and adaptable humans are in their struggle to survive. Unlike in the West where historically voluntary associations and charities have succeeded in creating some social safety net for the poorest of the poor, in the so called undeveloped world, it is every man, women and child for themselves scratching out a living in dangerously toxic environments.
In some of the largest dumps in the world such as Egypt, Brazil and Manila the sheer volume of trash produced daily has resulted in a social calamity that has grown beyond any vision these governments have to solve it. The result is to ignore and neglect the worsening situation and pretend the problem will be address later. It never is.
I have visited a number of these dump communities and Abandoned Children’s Fund supports programs to feed families stranded in these dumps, and to help create avenues of escape through education projects, feeding programs and funding micro enterprises for these families. It doesn’t take much effort for me to recall memories of the swampy, wretched filth these children wake up into and play in every day and consider normal. The abominable smell and the images of barefooted children running in the garbage and swimming in oil stained and garbage contaminated water are things I can’t forget. They compel me to continue to look for ways to help them.
My few poignant experience with these dump children, made me think I had a pretty good grasp of how miserable people can be made until I visited the Smoky Mountain II dump and was guided by our project partners to a section of the dump where several hundred families are perpetually engaged in the maintenance of illegal, small scale charcoal ovens. This is where I entered another one of lowest days, another step of decent into the inferno for me. I hope here to briefly describe my private horror, though I assure you I am not capable of sufficiently mastering the language to convey the measure to which I was disturbed. Though I know I can do little to adequately communicate the plight of these people, I continue to try, as they need as many voices advocating for them as can be mustered.
Like many such tragic circumstances the roots of the problem can at least in part be traced back to economic realities. The fuel of choice, used in many part of the third world, is not oil or gas as that’s too expensive and beyond the power of the purse. Instead it’s often charcoal.
Wood of any kind that is properly baked converts the cellulose to carbon and renders it a usable slow burning fuel for third world cooking arrangements. One of the reasons deforestation is such a growing problem throughout the third world is in part due to illegal harvesting of wood for charcoal production. Not only do small time charcoal makers create the hazards of flooding and erosion in the highlands (where the wood is clear cut) but the process of charcoal production creates toxic air quality problems for the whole region.
In many countries small time charcoal making is illegal but the practice is so widespread most attempts to control it through regulation is futile. In the Philippines the wide spread use of charcoal as the cheap fuel of choice by local eating establishments, grills and cafe’s, is a ready market for the production of cheap, crudely produced charcoal. This is not the charcoal briquette you’re used to in the American market but wood from any source (bamboo, scrub forest harvests or scrap wood from garbage dumps) that has been processed by small charcoal venders.
It was the disposed wood products, scavenged from the rubble of the Smokey Mountain II garbage dump and transported to the smoldering char village a mile into the guts of the dump that served as the raw material for our teams visit to this modern day replica of Dante’s Inferno.
The families, mothers and children whose photos you see captured in this posting do not live here because they want to. Like many people the world over, they find themselves in circumstances that, from their perspective, are beyond their control. They either do not know how to change their station in life or know that there is anything better they could experience and so they are in a way trapped. Trapped not only by their own lack of education and knowledge of alternatives, but trapped in a web of exploitation and inertia. In their mind there is very little hope or likelihood that anyone or anything will come long and save them from the horrendous inhumanity they endure.
I will focus primarily on one family the Baraga family. Olivia, the mother of 5 children keeps what she knows as a home which is comprised of a few scavenged poles held together with hemp, cardboard and cloth walls and corrugated tin for a roof, in the heart of the Char village. There is no father present and the children wander freely, coming and going at will in the forsaken reaches of Smokey Mountain II’s vast tropical heat. Her youngest son, Ernesto clings to her shins and skirt, with his boney blackened fingers and wire like tensile arms. Ernesto ignores the stomach pain his parasites cause him and looks around manically with his brown friendly eyes, looking for candy, bread, or food of any kind.
Olivia has been in the char camp for a couple of years, Ernesto almost his whole life. The two things that caught my attention immediately were; the dominant feature in this surrealist landscape the deathly suffocating billows of smoke and paradoxically how present and alive in the moment, these two are. I would have imagined that living in this hellish cloud would produce an almost stupor like state. Instead there is an intensity of life and awareness of the moment, not limited to its suffering. There is something about living on the razor edge of survival that brings the humanity of these people to the surface and makes their struggle for survive vivid and tangible.
Nothing is taken for granted here. These people live by scavenging, stealing, borrowing and begging and they have no alternative to maintaining a keen attention to the moment. For them every moment holds the opportunity to find or grasp a passing treasure and there is a spirit of vigilance to every possibility. One senses their presence in an unexpected and inexplicable joyfulness.
It is here that I struggle to try and communicate the distasteful reality of the smoke in this village. There are so many poisonous elements being cooked and smoldered in the charcoal ovens it’s impossible to know what is being inhaled, but it doesn’t take long to decide it’s better to inhale through the mouth than the nose as the smell is so disgusting and repulsive the nose almost refuses to work.
There is in the vaporous pall, a mixture of decay, rancid pungency, a biting acrid pinch in the lower respiratory tract forcing a gagging cough and an annoying tickle of pain. Things that are dead and rotting and molding ‘off-gassing’ particles mix in the pestilent smoke and cause the nerves to wince and recoil.
Accompanying the constant offense of smoke is the all present shroud of carbon particles, coating everything with its stain of dusty blackness. The ground, the walls, every inch of exposed skin gives witness to this defining coat of inky dust. Baths are not available in this world, where the only water available is for drinking and it only comes into the household at the price of nearly 25% of a day’s labor. Not a drop of water is squandered here in this darkened wasteland on anything as impractical as cleansing.
I accompanied Olivia and Earnest to the ovens where they devote the working hours of the day in an ancillary service to the charcoal makers. Olivia works for the nail concession. Her job is to pick through the fresh charcoal when it has been cooked and gather the nails from the crumbling wood. Many of these boards are disposed at the dump from construction jobs with an abundance of nails still in them. Olivia’s chore is fingering through all the charcoal and gathering the iron nails and selling it to the nail brokers at a price per kilo. It’s tedious work but at least it doesn’t require heavy lifting but the bad news is, it must be done right in the smoldering charcoal bed.
The crowded residents of this little quarter acre of hell on earth are technically squatters on this forsaken lifeless patch of carbon on the back side of the dump. Though nearly 65,000 families live in the larger Smokey Mountain Dumpsite, only several hundred are consigned to this nasty part of it. While the residents of the larger dump are occasionally harassed by members of the syndicates who extort them for what small amounts of money they can for “rent money”, no one would bother to try and convince the char coalers they need to pay to stay.
Lately there have been meetings organized by the municipal government to address what can be done to relocate these folks and they have appointed their own representatives to give voice to their interests in the meetings. The government would like to relocate these squatters to other locations but they have resisted any attempts to being forcible removed and held out in the bargaining with a demand to be relocated to another place only on the condition they can carry on their vocation.
I will conclude this story by describing an experience that occurred as our team was leaving the pit area and making our way back to the teeming thoroughfares of Smoky Mountain proper. As we came up a small rise I noticed a water vendor with a series of large 5 – 10 – 20 gallon open buckets and tubs of water on some kind of wheeled wagon. She was dispensing water through siphoning tubes to people who were buying their daily ration. I know enough about the under-developed world to know never to drink anything that’s not in a sealed bottle; the consequences can be very upsetting for a visitor. But here were customers crowding around these open jugs and purchasing their ration of drinking water. Who knows what the source of this water was?
As I took in this moment of free market capitalism, I saw the coins exchanging hands and suddenly I noticed our friend Olivia approach the water vendor and fill her 2 gallon jug with water and pay the water woman. After Olivia had left I inquired into the cost of the exchange and learned that Olivia had just spent almost 30 cents to purchase two gallons of drinking water for her family. That represents about 20 – 25% of her daily income . . . just for water to drink.
Soon after I went back to the hotel I was staying in and I became aware of the putrid odor of garbage and sewage-mud and repulsive smoke that had penetrated my clothes and I inquired into whether the hotel had a Laundromat. I was told where to go downstairs to get my laundry done before flying out of the Philippines the next morning and I delivered my bag of clothes to be washed. Due to a misunderstanding with the manager of the laundry, I mistakenly ended up with my few articles of clothing, washed, starched, ironed and folded, and courteously delivered to my room as a rush order. The cost for my little misunderstanding surfaced the next morning when I was checking out and learned I had a $100 laundry charge.
Yes it was painful to have to embrace the $100 error out of my own pocket but more painful for me was the realization that I had just paid the equivalent of one year of Olivia’s daily drinking water cost. While my suitcase was packed with clean clothes, Olivia and her 5 children were consigned to a small patch of barren black dust, where there are no baths (other than an occasional dip in the contaminated Manila Bay) where the acrid, smothering clouds of toxic smoke, dominates every waking moment with its lung ravaging effects.
While we were visiting Smokey Mountain we were introduced to a group of Christian workers, who have undertaken to create a pathway of escape for the dump children, through providing them with a sound education. These dedicated workers, mostly university graduates themselves, go in every morning into the Smoky Mountain Dumpsite and pick up the children who are enrolled in their clean and tidy school.
They bring the children out of the dump and across town to their school and expose them day after day to the more normal environment of a clean and functional schoolroom. Here they begin to realize that there is more to the world than the vaporous misery they live with every day. There is a future, and a hope of entering that future by learning the fundamentals of a good education. Through diligent hard work and learning, these children now have a path forward, away from the chains of the hell they know as a neighborhood.
We are presently in negotiations with this group of dedicated Christian workers to see if we can fund an outreach further into the Smoky Mountain II dump community and into the charcoal workers tents to reach Ernesto (and many little girls and boys like him) and see if we can enroll them into a classroom that has beyond its windows and walls a bright a