They Call It Hap­py­land

Liv­ing off the boun­ties of pol­lu­tion

Asian Geographic - - Cul­ture -

many coun­tries, par­tic­u­larly in the de­vel­oped world, cli­mate change as a re­sult of man-made pol­lu­tion ex­ists as lit­tle more than a fright­en­ing prospect, even while widely ac­knowl­edged as an ac­cepted fact, em­pir­i­cally proven by modern sci­ence.

And yet, in many ways for some, it still seems re­mote, ab­stract even – some­thing that peo­ple hear about and talk about, but which can­not be seen or fully grasped in our daily lives. It’s out of sight, and out of mind.

But in Tondo, north­west of the city of Manila in the Philip­pines, cli­mate change and ram­pant pol­lu­tion are re­al­i­ties that res­i­dents live with ev­ery day.

Jennifer Mi­rador lives with her hus­band and five chil­dren, among them brothers Re­niel, 11, and Jerone, 14, in a house made of ran­domly as­sem­bled ma­te­ri­als, perched some­what pre­car­i­ously on top of the Ca­pu­long Bridge on Rax­abago Street. There is no elec­tric­ity, and the fam­ily must buy wa­ter by the bucket for five pe­sos (10 US cents).

The 70 or so pe­sos that they bring in once ev­ery three days, split three ways, is used to buy food In

The Ca­pu­long Bridge is no more than a cou­ple of me­tres above the Es­tero de Vi­tas, a trash-filled river that even­tu­ally emp­ties into the waters of Manila Bay next to the Har­bour Cen­tre Port Ter­mi­nal.

For Metro Manila, a city with a huge de­bris prob­lem, eco­nom­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties such as this are where a large por­tion of the cit­i­zenry’s garbage winds up, float­ing down the creeks and rivers, bob­bing below the Mi­radors’ one-room home.

And yet, it is this trash that pro­vides a life­line for Re­niel and Jerone, and for their 12-year-old cousin and neigh­bour, Nilo Lu­ma­won. A few morn­ings a week, be­fore go­ing to school, the three boys board makeshift Sty­ro­foam rafts, which they call “sty­ros”, us­ing square Sty­ro­foam pad­dles to push them­selves out onto the river.

There, among all man­ner of float­ing de­tri­tus of a so­ci­ety of nearly 13 mil­lion peo­ple (21.3 mil­lion in the greater ur­ban area), their quarry is plas­tic. Load­ing up as much as they can, they will then take what they have col­lected and sell it at one of the neigh­bour­hood’s many junk shops.

The 70 or so pe­sos (USD1.4) that they bring in once ev­ery three days, split three ways, is used to buy food. The boys say that they do this so they won’t have to ask their par­ents for money.

Of course, boys will be boys, says Nilo’s mother, Chabeng Lu­ma­won. “Aside from buy­ing snacks, they spend the money to play games at the com­puter shop,” she says with a laugh.

When asked about the risks of nav­i­gat­ing the river, the boys are mat­ter of fact. “I don’t think it’s dan­ger­ous. You have noth­ing to fear in the river,” says Jerone. “We’re used to it,” adds Nilo.

In fact, the boys are quite cav­a­lier about their sal­vaging ef­forts. How­ever, the boys’ mother, Jennifer, has her con­cerns, dat­ing back to her hus­band’s days of trolling the river for re­cy­clable refuse. “When my hus­band was a scavenger, he saw a body in the wa­ter,” she re­calls. “It was with­out arms and legs. The skin was start­ing to de­com­pose.”

The Mi­radors, the Lu­ma­wons, and their sur­round­ing com­mu­nity have ad­di­tional chal­lenges in with­stand­ing the fre­quent ty­phoons that bat­ter Manila, which, be­yond its pol­lu­tion prob­lem and large pop­u­la­tion of im­pov­er­ished peo­ple, also bat­tles poor in­fra­struc­ture and vul­ner­a­bil­ity to storms of dev­as­tat­ing power. On av­er­age, eight trop­i­cal cy­clones make land­fall in the Philip­pines each year. More­over, in re­cent years, sci­en­tists have noted that the storms have been strik­ing the coun­try with in­creas­ing reg­u­lar­ity and sever­ity – a phe­nom­e­non linked to cli­mate change. The worst was Yolanda – more widely known in­ter­na­tion­ally as Haiyan – a su­per ty­phoon that hit the city with un­prece­dented vengeance in 2013.

“Ev­ery house was de­stroyed,” Jennifer says of the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity of homes that, like her own, have been built us­ing mostly re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als, such as thin sheets of dis­carded wood and plas­tic, can­vas, and sheets of cor­ru­gated tin, with bald tires weigh­ing down the rick­ety roofs cov­ered with tar­pau­lin.

With Yolanda whip­ping up winds at one-minute sus­tained speeds of over 300 kilo­me­tres per hour, their rick­ety shacks could not keep them safe. Still, as their homes are near the port, they were some of the luck­ier ones in ac­cess­ing sanc­tu­ary. “When [the ty­phoon] hap­pens,” Jennifer con­tin­ues, “we have to sleep in the the ship­ping con­tain­ers. We all have to sleep in there, but there isn’t space for ev­ery­one.”

Both fam­i­lies, along with many oth­ers in the com­mu­nity, lost their homes to Yolanda. It takes a sin­gle day to re­build the struc­tures, some­thing they’ve done time and again over the years.

This con­stant re­build­ing – pick­ing up the pieces and putting them back to­gether again, in the most lit­eral sense – may soon end. The gov­ern­ment has an­nounced plans to relocate 200 fam­i­lies from the area sur­round­ing the bridge to Bu­la­can, a prov­ince to the north in the Cen­tral Lu­zon re­gion. At the time of writ­ing, this move was slated to be­gin af­ter Christ­mas 2016. The re­moval comes in the wake of con­struc­tion plans to build a new pump­ing sta­tion near the bridge.

In Bu­la­can, the fam­i­lies will have new houses, run­ning wa­ter, and elec­tric­ity. They will no longer be at the mercy of the ty­phoon sea­son’s con­stant floods. They will no longer live just a few feet above a river teem­ing with waste.

Al­though they are happy to move to a place they have not yet seen, in a prov­ince they have been told is beau­ti­ful, the boys say that they will miss liv­ing on the Ca­pu­long Bridge.

“I’m sad to be leav­ing here,” says Nilo. “I’ll miss the river. It’s where we take a bath and swim.”

Not far from the Ca­pu­long Bridge in Tondo is the tem­po­rary hous­ing com­mu­nity of “Hap­py­land” (the name comes for the Bisayan word “hapi­lan”, or “dump site”), an area where al­most ev­ery­one’s daily bread is earned through sal­vage work. From chil­dren to the el­derly, the peo­ple of this area make their liv­ing by re­cy­cling the things that the rest of the city throws away.

Plas­tic, glass, sheet metal, dis­carded electronic­s and tools – in Hap­py­land, all ob­jects are col­lected, bro­ken down, bun­dled, and sold by weight. It’s less a means of mak­ing a liv­ing than it is a means of sur­vival.

Chris­tian Obre­gon, 11, makes most of his col­lec­tions at Pri­til Pub­lic Mar­ket, just over a kilo­me­tre from his home in Hap­py­land’s GK Com­pound. The walk takes him about half an hour. The cross­ing of the chaotic free­way Ra­dial Road 10 wor­ries his mother, Lovely, 31, ter­ri­bly. For his daily sal­vage ef­forts, Chris­tian man­ages to bring in about 30 pe­sos (60 US cents). He gives half of his tak­ings to his mother, and keeps the rest for him­self.

Flood­ing due to the in­creas­ingly com­mon ty­phoons is also a prob­lem in Hap­py­land, says Lovely. Some­times, it doesn’t even take a storm for the waters to rise. “When the ty­phoon comes, we relocate to the barangay [com­mu­nity] hall. Our houses get flooded, some­times when there isn’t even a storm. The garbage stops the wa­ter from flow­ing.”

The trash is a prob­lem, Lovely agrees, but she doesn’t see things chang­ing any­time soon. “I would love it if it were cleaned up,” she says, shrug­ging, “but the peo­ple here are hard­headed. If you tell them to stop throw­ing the garbage out, they would just get an­gry.” The build-up of trash lead­ing to an in­crease in the sever­ity of floods dur­ing the in­creas­ingly in­tense ty­phoon sea­son isn’t the only cli­mate change-re­lated haz­ard the peo­ple of Hap­py­land have been left to deal with.

Nearby, the Rock En­ergy In­ter­na­tional Cor­po­ra­tion has a stock­pile fa­cil­ity wherein some 10,000 met­ric tons of coal are stored. In Jan­uary 2016, the com­pany was re­port­edly told to shut

In Bu­la­can, the fam­i­lies will have new houses, run­ning wa­ter, and elec­tric­ity

down the op­er­a­tion, but they car­ried on, de­fy­ing an as-yetunen­forced or­der from the Manila City gov­ern­ment author­i­ties.

As a re­sult, for the 500-odd fam­i­lies liv­ing in the GK Com­pound – crammed into small sin­gle-room struc­tures, not un­like those along the Ca­pu­long Bridge, with three to four fam­i­lies of­ten shar­ing a home – skin and res­pi­ra­tory diseases have be­come com­mon­place. “Some­times Chris­tian gets a fever, cough, colds,” says Lovely. “It’s be­cause of the coal.”

Maria Os­cales, a res­i­dent in the GK Com­pound since 2010, agrees that the coal is to blame. “I’m car­ing for two kids,” she says, stand­ing with her eight-month-old nephew, Lester, out­side her home, above a flooded walk­way filled with stag­nant, trash­filled wa­ter. “They’re both sick with coughs and cold be­cause of the coal,” she con­tin­ues, adding that their skin is of­ten left black­ened by the con­stant pres­ence of coal dust in the air. “My nephew has asthma.”

“We work in garbage be­cause the money is easy. That’s why we don’t have per­ma­nent jobs,” says Lovely, who worked as a do­mes­tic worker be­fore that job was way­laid by back prob­lems.

For Lovely, her fam­ily’s fu­ture in Hap­py­land is un­cer­tain. At the time of the in­ter­view in Oc­to­ber she was told that they would be re­lo­cated in De­cem­ber 2016, but they hadn’t been in­formed as to where yet. Oth­ers in the GK Com­pound had been told the same.

Un­til then, life goes on as it al­ways has, with the con­stant flow of refuse pro­vid­ing Lovely, Chris­tian, and the rest of Hap­py­land – and oth­ers in Manila – with a ba­sic liveli­hood.

For Lovely, her fam­ily’s fu­ture in Hap­py­land is un­cer­tain

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