Angel of the dump: making a difference in Manila

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A British single mother has made it her life's mission to help hundreds of children living amid mountains of stinking rubbish in Manila

Few scenes more richly deserve the description hell on earth: teams of filthy stick-limbed children and adults foraging through mountains of stinking garbage for scraps. At the end of each day, the scavenger colony retreats to rows of unsteady hovels parked either side of an open sewer, where children and pregnant women survive, literally, on trash. Dickensian is the obvious adjective, but Dickens would have blanched at the 21st century squalor of Manila's huge bayside dump, catering to a city of 15 million people. Victorian London never had a garbage tip this vast, or the Philippine capital's sticky 35-degree heat, which draws great black clouds of flies and ferments a methane-rich funk that rises from the garbage like steam from a fresh corpse.

Shocking as it is to find anything human here, 4,000 people call it home. In their Darwinian world, where life and death is measured out in quantities of plastic bottles, they are considered industrious, even lucky. More remarkable still is the sight of a flaxen-haired Brit in a starched white shirt striding around the site, on first-name terms with many of them. Dispensing water, hugs and advice, Jane Walker, 45, is known here as "Ma'am." In the Philippine press, she is sometimes called the angel of the dump.

"Where have you been," she asks one scruffy boy before giving him a bear hug and extracting a promise from him to return to the school Walker's organisation runs nearby. A few days previously, the waste management company in charge of the dump had bulldozed a path through the shanty housing, displacing about 1,000 people and disrupting the school. The dispossessed are rebuilding, but are hampered by a shortage of nails.

"I hate when something like this happens," laments Walker. "The whole atmosphere is bad. Everybody is so stressed." Other changes to the site, including a decision to landfill the trash, have had devastating consequences for the colony, she explains. "A family of two used to be able to pick at garbage for 20 minutes; now they have 5 minutes on a barge. That means instead of people earning 150 pesos [about £2] a day, they only earn a 100 or less."

Walker stumbled on the Tondo site 13 years ago, while on holiday during a three-month break from the midlands publishing company where she worked. "It was just the most incredible scene," she recalls. "Hundreds of people milling over this site, picking at the garbage. I couldn't forget what I saw, or leave the children behind."

A recently converted Christian, she admits she was searching for new direction in life when she came to visit the Philippines on holiday.

The Phillipines has long struggled to keep up with the other Asian Tigers of South-East Asia; a remittance economy based on the earnings of the millions of both male and female nationials overseas remains a mainstay of the economy, and while the tropical paradise tourism advertised in the tourist blurbs is an important earner of foreign currency, it fails to mask the grinding poverty which remains an inescapable fact of everyday life.

Walker was expecting to see that tropical paradise when she arrived in the country for the first time. But instead, on her way from the airport she found what she calls "some of the worst poverty the world has to offer." She has been here, on and off, since, focusing on areas "where nobody else wants to work, in one of the most dangerous parts of Manila."

In 2002, the single mother from Southampton set up a school in a warehouse beside the dumpsite, registering her British-based charity, the Philippine Community Fund, the same year. Today, over 400 dumpsite kids in crisp blue uniforms are enrolled, learning a modified curriculum that includes music, ballet and basic skills. "Most of the children are illiterate when they arrive," she says. "And malnourished."

One task led to another. Walker found that hungry, sick kids make poor pupils, so the foundation now has a medical centre. Most of the money to fund it comes from the UK. For many, the money is a matter of life and death. The dump dwellers must collect up to 9kg of old plastic bottles to earn a single dollar. If not felled by pneumonia, septicemia, tuberculosis or intestinal worms, some fall prey to crime, sex traffickers or worse. A University of the Philippines study recently revealed that 3,000 people in one Manila slum had sold a kidney for between US$1,440 to $2,469 (£888 to £1,523). Walker says kidnappings by gangs who murder and sell body parts for profit are not unheard of. At 45, she is already five years past the lifespan of the average slum dweller.

The dumpsite has replaced the notorious Smokey Mountain, once synonymous with poverty in the Philippines. Shamed by international coverage of the 20,000 desperate people eking out a living there, the Manila government bulldozed Smokey Mountain in 1995 and moved some scavengers into public housing.

But many simply moved across the road to the new landfill, which is surrounded by slums and thousands of raggedy hovels that spill onto the Manila streets. Perhaps a million more live on or near 700 other dumps around the country.

"The harsh reality has not changed," says Hiroshi Shinomiya, a Japanese director who has just released the latest in a series of acclaimed documentaries about Manila's dumpsite dwellers. "It's no different to when I went to the Philippines first."

The problems in the background are vast and forbidding. Long one of Asia's economic basket cases, the Philippines' dire poverty is being worsened by recession and huge wealth disparities.

One-third of the population struggles below the official poverty line of $3 per day for a family of five, while a handful of super-rich families dominate. The imploding economy sent 4,000 Filipinos per day to the airports last year; about a tenth of the country's 90million citizens live abroad. The remittances they send home – $16bn annually – keep millions more afloat, barely.

"We're just mopping up," admits Walker. "Ultimately we want to end child labour. In the meantime, we do what we can." But she insists that efforts like hers pull some back from the brink.

The Tanto centre cures the worst cases of malnutrition and offers hundreds of kids a way out of the dump – once they can be persuaded to quit scavenging. "They often feel guilty because they're coming to school, while their brothers and sisters have to go and work at the dump site." Walker offers tiny but vital incentives to stay: cans of tinned food and bags of rice. "Last year there were no dropouts," she says proudly.

Still, the makeshift classrooms, in a sweltering warehouse filled with the stink from the tip and plagued by rats are less than ideal, so the charity is working on an alternative: a one-million dollar school made entirely from recycled shipping containers. Built on the old Smokey Mountain site, the construction has won praise for its innovative approach: cheap, eco-friendly and durable in an area plagued with typhoons and floods. The land was government owned, containers have been donated, and the design done pro-bono by a Filipino architectural firm. By the end of this year, it'll be ready for about 1,200 students, along with an official entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest construction of its kind – if the money keeps coming in.

But amid the worldwide slump and a drop in charitable contributions, the project is struggling to reach fruition. "We have lost about 25 per cent of our income and sources," Walker said this month. "Our challenge is maintaining the services we provide despite the global recession."

She expects corporate donations, in particular, to shrink in the coming months, and this, she says, is forcing charities to innovate. One of her initiatives is to find companies in Manila that will subcontract out their garbage collection services to her group, which it sorts and re-sells for profit.

In the meantime, Walker is back in the UK with her son, fundraising and picking up the MBE she was awarded in last year's Queen's birthday list. Her Filipino staff keeps her work on an even keel while she's away.

"She's awesome," says the charity's finance officer, Linda Velarga. "She has gone out of her comfort zone in the UK, away from her family and work with the poorest of the poor. She is genuinely interested in what happens to people here."

Donations can be sent to The Philippine Community Fund, PO Box 294, Hedge End, Southampton, SO30 2YD.

For full details of Jane Walker's project in Manila, go to www.p-c-f.org

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