Sunday, March 27, 2011

Commentary : The girl with a dirty face

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Posted date: March 25, 2011

THE CLOSER we got to the Ulingan area of Tondo, the worse it looked. This awful area is near the Temporary Housing site along R-10. When we were within 100 meters of the area we could see the dark smoke rising from the 100 charcoal kilns. When we moved a little closer, the smoke grabbed at our throats, as tear gas does. Still closer we could see men laboring in the dark wooden shacks that house the kilns, and we could hear their coughing. Finally we were in among the kilns and stacks of fuel wood and there were small children all around us in the darkness, gleaning for bits of charcoal and rusted nails, breathing in that smoke.

There are many truly inhumane living places in Metro Manila, but Ulingan is as bad as any and can serve as a symbol of slums and as a symbol of the efforts of poor people in the slums to have a better life.

We met a group of young girls who were leaving the kilns after scavenging there. Our eyes fell on one young girl whose name is Jennifer, 10 years old and still in Grade 1. She is short and thin, but what catches one’s attention is the greasy black dirt from the charcoal and smoke on her young face. On impulse I reached out to wipe away the filth. Her skin was cool and smooth as a baby’s skin, but I couldn’t remove the dirt. She earns P70 for half a sack of charcoal pieces and P17 for a kilo of nails. The girls seemed wary of us. This is the general area where GMA-7’s “Reporter’s Notebook” found 12- and 13-year-old prostitutes.

The Ulingan area and the land around it is leased to Reghis Romero by the National Housing Authority, we were told by the residents. No one there has seen the lease, so no one knows what its purpose and terms are. Why are such leases offered? Was there notice in the media of the granting of such leases? What responsibilities does the lessee incur for the poor people living on the land? The lessee appears to feel free to move the people around as he wishes, but is that power granted in the lease?
The people asked us to help, so we told them to write to the NHA to ask for a copy of the lease. Our lawyer at Urban Poor Associates, Ritche Esponilla, wrote a cover letter asking NHA general manager Chito Cruz to respond within the time allotted in law. Insecurity on the land, such as that of the people of Ulingan, is a major problem faced in all the slums. The kiln workers went to the NHA recently to follow up on their letter.

Ulingan is also a symbol of the bare survival economy the people are trapped in. The jobs they have are really unsuitable for human beings. The men laboring in the kilns are trading the health of their lungs for a few years’ employment. In the dump nearby they sort and package for sale to middlemen the recyclable garbage of Manila. They live and work among piles of sorted garbage.

Men, women and children should have better jobs. Working with charcoal and garbage can poison not only the body, but also the soul, killing all sense that there can be a better world.

We have worked there for several years along with NGOs and churches, but we have achieved little. We have tried several initiatives and we are experimenting now, we and the workers, with a modern, four-unit kiln that will replace the old kilns and produce charcoal of finer quality, using inexpensive coconut husks rather than costly wood, and which will trap the smoke in pipes where it condenses into a liquid used in fertilizers, soaps and perfumes, which, we were told, is even more valuable than charcoal.

Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales has promised to help us. It is a small step toward a better life for the people. The children will be safe from lung diseases and little girls won’t have dirty faces any more. Jobs are the way out of poverty, but they should not destroy the health of the workers or their hope in a better future.
Ulingan is a symbol also of the lack of basic necessities in the slums. The people are denied access to electricity by the NHA simply because they are illegal occupiers of the land, or squatters. Probably it is illegal to do so. Water and light are basic human needs and cannot be denied to men, women and children. The people of the area will meet and discuss what to do about the electricity.

The people of Ulingan have no security on this government land where they live. They are moved around like chess pawns by the lessee. Their houses are indistinguishable from the dirty shacks in which the kilns are located. They have degrading work. One thing that might rescue the men and women from despair would be to see that their children have a better life, but they see little hope of that.

The children should be in school. The families should have enough clean, inexpensive water so that women and men can bathe every day and clean the children well and wash away the foul smell of charcoal and makeshift toilets. They need light so that the children can study at night and so that the houses are safe from thieves and so that the families can have fans to drive away the mosquitoes.

Most tragic of all are the children like Jennifer. What chance does a small, thin child have in this world with only a year of schooling and a dirty face?

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