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Payatas Revisited

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Original content from the Manila Times, July 7, 2006.

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By Fr. Shay Cullen
Payatas revisited

On July 10 we marked the sixth anniversary of one of the most tragic events in recent Philippine history. On that day the great garbage dump of Metro Manila, a mountain of compressed methane consisting of trash began to move. The torrential rains had been pouring for a week and the mountain of garbage was saturated. Hundreds of squatter and scavengers lived in those towering refuse. It was inevitable that a tragedy would occur.

Without warning, the mountain began to slide, developing into an avalanche, so powerful nothing would stand in its way. The people didn’t have a chance. At least 500 were buried alive in an instant. By the time the stench lifted a whiff, only 150 bodies were recovered by rescuers.

Six years later, the area is off limits to scavengers but garbage is still being dumped. If that continues, another terrible tragedy could happen. Today, the survivors are waging a campaign for safe housing and compensation and work with dignity. What they earn from the livelihood projects in the old dump is not enough to give them a decent life. They recycle plastics, make candles and soap but it is still a life of poverty. The government is threatening to relocate them to a distant part of the countryside where there is no work and a long expensive trip to the city.

Three years before the avalanche I went to the Payatas dump with Alex Corpus Hermoso, the Preda Foundation Program director for livelihood, and a celebrity friend from Hollywood, Martin Sheen.

Three years before the Payatas tragedy, the activist-actor Martin Sheen visited the places. I know what he saw pained and then angered him.

I can count Martin among my friends; he is a staunch Catholic actor and a hero of the West Wing television series in which he portrays a liberal democratic US president. Martin is well known for his Christian activism for justice in the US and is proud to say he has been arrested more than 50 times for civil disobedience, mostly for carrying on in front of the US Congress.

Alex Corpus Hermoso, Martin Sheen and I went to the Payatas garbage dump to campaign for the redevelopment of the area as it was deadly and dangerous for the hundreds of people living and working in subhuman conditions. Payatas was then (but not much better now) a giant heap of putrid. The men, women and, above all, the children spent their lives scratching the garbage for scraps to live on.

The acrid smoke that covers the dump comes from the smoldering toxic waste. It causes lung diseases, asthma and endless ill heath. When we were there, Martin trudged silently through this garbage pit of hopelessness. His inner anger was controlled as he surveyed the depths of human misery, his face expressed feelings of pain and frustration. No one should be silent when humans should be forced in such inhuman conditions.

Here the poverty is profound. He showed only compassion and caring, no revulsion at the nauseating stench that clung to our hair and clothes .The people were covered with the filth and the smell, the dirt and dust of the garbage. It stuck to them like a shroud of death. To the world of the well-off, they are outcasts, untouchables and lepers but to Martin, they were just people that were happy we were there—in solidarity with them. Martin embraced an old woman, he held the hands of the children and called them God’s people and asked me to give his apologies for intruding on their lives.



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