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PIA Press Release
Friday, January 20, 2012


Feature: Living, real living

DAGUPAN CITY—They had everything that they needed to live—a house, a close family, a source of livelihood and a community that could nurture them in the only way that most of them knew.

They had everything—yet, they had nothing.

For some of the 70 families in Dagupan City, living in the dumpsite has been the only way of life that they knew.

To them, the then hundred meters wide and thrice long pile of garbage that usually reached as high as a bus was a source of living, a source of merchandise that they could not find elsewhere.

Every day, every family member—from the young children, to their parents and to the ailing elderly—went there, armed only with sticks to probe the garbage and sacks in which to put their merchandise, which they called ‘kalakal.’

Every piece of metal, bottle, plastic and paper, anything that can be sold, was worth taking and for which the combined stench of decaying animals, spoiled foods, human wastes, methane, and fumes of smoke was worth inhaling.

They dug thru that ‘goldmine’, protected only by handkerchiefs covering their mouths and noses, not from the stench—they have been used to it—but from the thousand of flies buzzing around, anyone of which might enter their mouths.

They plowed thru that ‘minefield’ peeling every layer of garbage for a find, as they stood on the flimsy piles of waste that might be covering shards of glasses, open tin cans, rusty nails or used syringes beneath.

A single family usually made P700 to P800 a day this way.

And after a day’s work, the families would retreat to their homes, in shanties lined up along the edge of the dumpsite which was just few steps away. The parents would do their household chores, like some usual families do; while their children would take advantage of the remaining daylight to play in their playground, which was the cemetery nearby.

That was how their days usually went.

But not all days were the same; sometimes the dumpsite could be unforgiving. If they couldn’t find any kalakal to sell, the scavengers had to feed on leftovers they could find from the garbage. They would eat these directly on the dumpsite if the leftovers smelled fresh. Or if the leftovers smelled bad, brought them home to be washed and refried before feeding them to their families.

Scavengers called these leftovers ‘pagpag,’ which refers to the way they recover the leftovers by shaking them off their plastics.

“What caught my attention was seeing a child holding a plate in one hand while the other hand was rummaging thru a pile of garbage for food,” recalled city waste management division (WMD) Chief Teddy E. Villamil Jr.

In some cases, fetuses, human skeletons or body parts would be found among the garbage, diverting the attention of the public to the curiosity from the plight of the scavengers.

But the most dismal time for the scavengers was caused by one among them. A scavenger named MacGyver used to rig improvised explosive devices in the dumpsite and in some garbage collection areas around the city.

His motive was to monopolize kalakal by scaring off others from scavenging.

The bomber has since been caught, but not before destroying whatever lives that were left from at least two victims.

Mang Anastacio, while combing thru a pile of garbage, triggered a bomb covered in several tubes of fluorescent lamps that exploded before his face, rendering him completely blind in both eyes.

If living in the dumpsite were not enough of a suffering to break him down, his blindness did. He would take his own life some months later.

Despite their plight, the scavengers have not forgotten how to celebrate life, even at least once a year. They would set ablaze the whole dumpsite, which would smolder and smoke for a few weeks, to recover metals that have escaped their scrutinizing probes. That was how they get money for Christmas.

Some of the residents here have been used to this kind of existence, so much so that when the WMD started rehabilitating the dumpsite two years ago, some of them reacted harshly by laying spike boards (pieces of wood which several nails have been hammered into) across the path of hauling trucks to blow their tires and stop the operation.

This was how the residents of the dumpsite chose to live, with no food security, education, health insurance, dental care, and other basic necessities.

They stayed in the dumpsite, some as long as 50 years. Every day they woke up thinking what it could give them, every day they worked in it. And when they slept, the smell of the dumpsite stayed with them.

All they got was the dumpsite. As long as it sustained them, they stayed with it.

But it would not be for long.

The national government prohibits the operation of any dumpsite, thus the effort of the city to close it any time soon.

Since the rehabilitation of the dumpsite, almost two-third of its original area has been flattened and converted into an eco-tourism park, threatening the livelihood of the scavengers.

The remaining pile has not been very helpful because the city government has also been campaigning for massive waste segregation to reduce the volume of garbage entering the dumpsite.

Whatever that is entering the dumpsite now is either insufficient or contains very few salable items, so few that every family now only earns about P150 a day.

But this move by the government does not oppress the scavengers. If they would lose their livelihood, they will be given a new one; and if they lose their houses, they would be sent to their real homes.

The eco-tourism park is now being planned to be operated by some of the scavengers for their livelihood.

The city government, with the WMD and the city social welfare department, also started the Balik Probinsiya Program, which will try to send all the scavengers back to their home towns.

On January 3, four families consisting of nine individuals have been sent home to General Santos City in South Cotabato.

The scavengers had, or thought they had, everything they needed in the dumpsite so they chose to stay there.

But with the dumpsite’s imminent closure, the remaining scavengers have to find another place to live in.

But whether it closes or not, it is never a good place to live in or to find livelihood.

It is heartwarming to know that the government is doing something to assure us that these people need not stay in this place all their lives; and that at last some families have already been sent home…to live. (ANL/ARRF-PIA 1 Pangasinan)

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