Smokey Mountain

Illustration: Bailey Elder

Illustration: Bailey Elder

Years of strong economic growth have markedly lifted living standards in the Philippines, but abject poverty remains a bitter fact of life for many people in the Southeast Asian country.

Smokey Mountain is the most famous of several garbage dumps in Manila. And even though it has been closed for two decades, it remains a notorious symbol of poverty and urban misery. The trash heap provided livelihoods for thousands of people, but the problems that created it remain unsolved.

The hill in the Tondo district along Manila Bay sits near a group of high-rise buildings. Apart from the slum just next to it, there are few signs indicating the hill was once a mountain of garbage. A bevy of illegally occupied shanties is almost the only legacy of its filthy past.

Smokey Mountain was the spilled guts of a vast and growing city. The amount of detritus began rising around 1960 and piled up over the years, when tons of garbage from the capital was dumped at the site. The heap was so named because flammable materials in the waste would spontaneously catch fire, producing plumes of smoke.

Scavengers eked out a precarious living sifting through the garbage, collecting recyclable materials such as iron scraps and plastics and selling them to junk dealers. Some even fed themselves on the scraps of food they found.

As the dump became a dark metaphor for poverty, the government closed Smokey Mountain in the late 1990s. But that did not help the impoverished. With little to no education or professional skills, they had no choice but to continue picking through the garbage to put food in their mouths.

Smokey Mountain may be gone, but similar scenes now play out daily at a dumpsite in Payatas, Quezon City, in Metro Manila. Every single day, some 500 trucks carry 1,200 tons of garbage from the city to the site. As each one dumps its load at the top of the 30-meter-high pile of trash, people rush to sift through it and find anything of value.

Illustration: Bailey Elder
Sources: Asian Review - Compassion