week is the 6th anniversary of the one of the most tragic events in
recent Philippine history.
On 10 July in the great garbage dump of Metro Manila, a mountain of
compressed methane filled trash began to move. The rains had been
torrential, non-stop for a week and the mountain of garbage was
saturated. It was only inevitable that a tragedy would occur. Hundreds
of squatter's huts where the scavengers and trash pickers lived were at
the base of the giant trash pile that towered into the sky and smoldered
on most dry days like a dangerous volcano. It was as dangerous as one.
Without warning, the mountain began to slide; it developed into an
avalanche, so powerful nothing could stand in its way. The people didn't
have a chance. At least 500 were buried alive in an instant; only 150
bodies were recovered by rescuers.
Now, six years later, it is off limits to scavengers but garbage is
still being dumped there and if it continues, another terrible tragedy
could happen. Today, the survivors are still waging a campaign for safe
housing, compensation and work with dignity. What they earn from the
existing livelihood projects in the old dump area is not enough to give
them a decent life. They recycle plastics, make candles and soap but it
is still a life of poverty.
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
Three years before the avalanche that engulfed the entire village and
killed most of the people, I went to ‘Payatas’ dump with Alex Corpus
Hermoso, the Preda Foundation Programme Director for livelihoods and a
celebrity friend from Hollywood, Martin Sheen.
I can count Martin among my friends; he is a staunch Catholic actor and
star 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 is to say he has been arrested more
than 50 times for civil disobedience mostly in front of the US Congress.
Alex Corpus Hermoso, Martin Sheen and I went to the ‘Payatas’ garbage
dump to campaign for help and support for the redevelopment of the area
as it was deadly and dangerous for the hundreds of people living and
working there in sub-human
‘Payatas’ was then, (but not much better now), a giant heap of putrid
stinking garbage where the poor suffered endlessly. The men, women and
above all, the children spent their lives scratching the garbage for
scraps to live on. Today, thousands of families are so poor that have
nothing to live on but the garbage. Thousands around the Philippines
still live on dumps and garbage tips.
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
Here the poverty is profound. He showed only compassion and caring, no
revulsion at the nauseating stench that clung to our hair and clothes.
people were covered with the filth, 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.
He told me that he felt he was in a holy place, unworthy to be where God
is present in the poorest of the poor asking us to be one with them in
compassion and solidarity to help, in any small way, to change their
suffering into even a little joy. There were positive changes brought by
the visit and the activities of the dedicated social workers but the
great landslide came and killed many of those whom we had held and
After his visit to the Philippines, Martin never forgot the experience
and joined more campaigns for human rights and social justice.
Father Shay Cullen
PREDA Foundation, Inc.
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