What’s the Real Story About Payatas Dumpsite Closing? 3 Things They’re Not Telling You…

Payatas Dumpsite is closing. Politicians have talked about closing the dumpsite every year for the last 20-30 years, but now it is more than words. It looks very likely to happen. Maybe not this year, as is being reported, but soon.

This will affect everyone in Metro Manila. It affects our money (taxes pay for garbage disposal and maintenance), our time (inefficiencies in the system right now drain thousands of hours), and our health and environment (the effect it has on climate change and proximity to Manila’s drinking water).

This is certainly a complex issue. Everyone involved, from Payatas residents to local government officials, have inherited a mess of problems from previous generations. However the only voices being heard are from government officials and dumpsite operators, and news reports like this, or this are not telling the whole truth.

So here’s three things they’re not telling you about Payatas Dumpsite closing.

1) The dumpsite in Payatas is not a sanitary landfill. It is a mountain of trash. 

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Picture taken August 4, 2017. The grass in view is a thin layer of grass placed on top of a mountain of garbage the same as the top half of the dumpsite in view.

Despite the best efforts of local politicians and dumpsite operators to get this phrase into every media article possible, it is obvious from once glance that this is not a “sanitary landfill”. It is neither sanitary, nor a landfill. A sanitary landfill is a hole in the ground, chemically treated and separated from society. This is layers of trash dumped on top of more trash to make a mountain of garbage. It is a dumpsite.

Why is it important what we call it?

Only a few people are controlling the narrative right now, and reporters are still letting them. By calling the dumpsite something it is clearly not, they are trying to say our garbage system, as well as life in Payatas, is better than it really is. In 2000, the dumpsite collapsed and killed hundreds of people (officially 218 died in the trashslide, unofficially closer to 1,000 died according to research and eye-witness testimony). The poor management of the dumpsite was responsible for all of these deaths. And while some things have improved since then, many have not.

This past week the dumpsite has been closed because of another trashslide (also not being reported). This latest trashslide was nowhere near as big as the one in 2000 and as far as I’m aware it didn’t kill anyone. This is an improvement, for sure, and those who helped improve the situation should get credit for that. But there is still a dangerous and expensive heaping pile of garbage. Symptoms have been improved, small steps have been made, but the garbage system in Metro Manila, in general, is still unsafe and unsustainable, and quality of life for people in Payatas, in particular, is still very poor.

It also shows the problem in how everyone else hears about this issue. Rarely have reporters actually visited the area, let alone interviewed Payatas residents. The few occasions media personnel do visit, it has essentially been propaganda. One of the worst examples is this news story reporting the old Payatas dumpsite is now somehow an eco-park. Aside from the fact only a thin layer of grass covers the toxic mountain of trash, which won’t be safe for perhaps 100 years, if they turned the cameras to the back they would have seen the unsafe, unclean mountain of trash a few hundred meters away.

Sometimes the truth is ugly. Sometimes it doesn’t flatter us. But we need to hear these truths to understand the real situation. Only when we understand the reality can we hope to improve it.

2) The alternative livelihood plan will not cover many people. “They” do not have alternative livelihood.

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Also widely reported is scavengers affected by the closure of the dumpsite will be provided alternative livelihoods. In reality, a few scavengers will be offered alternative livelihoods, but only a few. For a long time dumpsite operators have insisted only a couple of hundred informal scavengers in Payatas, telling everyone from journalists to energy companies this. One walk around the community quickly disavows you of that notion. Down one street alone you will see 200 scavengers working. In reality there are hundreds of thousands of people in Payatas who in different ways rely on the garbage for livelihood.

Again, why is this important?

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As I’ve written before, while the Census claims there are 120,000 people in Payatas, in reality academic estimates say the real population is closer to half a million. This is because most people in the community do not have access to land titles. When families were first relocated to Payatas in the 1970s, land titles were originally part of the agreement. However the government revoked these and offered no alternative, meaning every generation since have become squatters.

Routinely people have been hidden from population counts because they have no land titles for where they live. The poorest families, in Payatas and similar slums, are therefore hidden from the CENSUS and poverty counts, leading to the ridiculous “statistic” that Metro Manila has a poverty rate of 2.7% (FIES, 2015). It is worth pausing on that for a moment. The official government estimate for poverty in Metro Manila is just 2.7% of families.

In short, thousands of families have been routinely hidden and ignored. So when local officials talk about alternative livelihood, they are again ignoring these families. In reality, closing the dumpsite will mean huge numbers of families lose part or all of their household income. They will very clearly be poorer because of this.

3) There are alternatives.

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Payatas is/was so extensively used because there is no sustainable plan for garbage disposal and maintenance. When Smokey Mountain closed in the 1990s, much of the trash (and people) were relocated to Payatas to deal with the massive demand for garbage disposal. The dumpsite quickly grew to become the biggest in the country. In recent years Payatas Dumpsite has been responsible for only collecting the trash of Quezon City, by far the largest in the Metro.

Metro Manila spends about P7 billion a year to throw away garbage. Academic estimates suggest scavengers prevent 15% of trash reaching the dumpsite and adding the work of scavengers on the dumpsite we can estimate it would be roughly twice as big if not for them. These numbers add up to show the incentives for why generation after generation of people in slums are kept poor. Scavengers, including those in Payatas, save the city billions of pesos every year.

And right now there is no alternative. There is no other plan. There is talk of a waste-to-energy plant with a foreign company sometime down the road, but that is many years, maybe decades, away. Right now a new dumpsite will spring up in another location (likely extending the formal and informal operations in Montalban), creating another version of Payatas there (already in progress).

And that hurts us all. Quezon City alone spends P1 billion a year to deal with garbage. On top of that, P250 million is wasted every year by operating the dumpsite in this way. This doesn’t include savings that can be made by more energy-efficient means either that require a bigger capital investment but reap long-term rewards.

Environmentally, the Philippines is part of the third largest polluter of plastics in the world, contributing to the giant islands of plastic the size of entire countries swirling around the oceans. Climate change is already hurting this archipelago, vulnerable to natural disasters.

And in terms of our health, Payatas Dumpsite is beside the city’s drinking water supply (La Mesa). Even if we close the dumpsite, a thin layer of grass does not prevent toxic waste of the dumpsite (not sanitary landfill) seeping in. Studies by the Asian Development Bank and Glenn Sia Su found levels of toxins sometimes 20 times higher than ‘safe’ limits affecting water in the area.

So what can we do?

A win-win solution is possible. The first step is involving the community in the decision-making process. Scavengers here have often been scavengers their entire lives, many of since they were young children. They are extremely good at recycling and have a practical experience of the garbage system that few others do. However so far their voices are not being heard, they are not involved in the decision-making. After the trashslide in 2000, local officials relocated hundreds of people to an area they chose and made them worse off doing it. They treated the families as if they were ‘doing them a favour’ (Gaillard & Cadag, 2009). The same research explains officials “provided” a house and lot in an area with no access to education or healthcare or real infrastructure of any kind. In reality they actually crippled the finances of each family with a ‘loan’ of $1,500 at 6% yearly interest, who were now miles away from their source of livelihood and families spiraled into debt. Meanwhile no fundamental change happened in the garbage industry, wasting time and money for every citizen. This is what happens when we don’t listen to a community like this.

Scavengers understand their experience better than anyone else because it is their experience. They understand the reality of the situation better than anyone else and after 6 years here I’ve always been impressed by this. People here want honest, fair work… not handouts.

There is a win-win solution in all of this:

  • Recognise the reality of the situation: give an honest account of how many families will be affected by this.
  • First hear the story from local residents. They are far more knowledgeable and experienced in this issue than the rest of us. Include them in the decision-making process.
  • From this we can create a sustainable plan that solves the problem of current garbage disposal and maintenance, a transparent plan, where it is professionalised. This will assist in the Philippines’ aims of creating a more energy-efficient, sustainable, and affordable future (this is more realistic than you may think).
  • Land titles should be granted in Payatas (they were in the past and a former President revoked them) as part of a package recognising families for their contribution to the city. This package needs to include adequate government services based on the real population count. Currently there’s one part-time doctor for about 10,000 people in one area of Payatas and schools have 60-80 kids in a classroom as an average because many more enroll than population counts suggest.

There are many aspects to this, of course, but a win-win solution is possible. It begins with honest dialogue, a recognition of what is really happening and who will be affected, and hearing from all sides of this story.

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