Monday, May 21, 2012

Cleaner alternative offered to Tondo charcoal makers

By Noli A. Ermitanio
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Smoke gets in their eyes—and darkens the air over the city—every time the residents of Ulingan in Tondo, Manila, try to make a living.

But the community, which got its name from its 15-year-old charcoal-making industry, now a backyard venture for some 150 people, may finally be warming up to change.

Cleaner change, to be exact. Ulingan, a neighborhood within Barangay 105, has been chosen as a pilot area for a project that will test the viability of smokeless kilns, or “pugons,” a technology that can significantly reduce the polluting effects of what is traditionally a messy, toxic process of producing uling.

At least seven community leaders recently underwent orientation at a facility in Silang, Cavite, and an initial batch of smokeless kilns would soon be installed for them, according to the nongovernment organization, Urban Poor Associates (UPA).

The project is a joint initiative of the UPA and the Silang-based 1M Agro-Fuel Development Ventures, with the support of the archdiocese of Manila and the National Housing Authority.

UPA volunteer Jessa Margallo said charcoal-making remains a stable source of income for residents of Ulingan as households seek cheaper alternatives amid the rising cost of cooking fuel, mainly liquefied petroleum gas.

About 15 residents started this backyard business in 1997, using scrap wood collected by scavengers. Through the years, it has grown profitable enough to attract even outsiders to build their own pugon in the area.

The process is relatively simple: Scraps of wood are placed in earthen kilns, covered with sheets of galvanized iron and soil, and then heated by fire from underneath. It takes about 10 to 12 days to carbonize wood this way.

According to Margallo, Ulingan currently produces around 6,000 sacks of charcoal out of 360 tons of scrap wood each month. A charcoal-maker can sell each sack weighing 15 to 18 kilos for P180 to households and food establishments, and earn an average monthly profit of P6,000.

Before going into charcoal-making, resident Ariel Malalay used to do odd jobs, including picking through trash for recyclables sold to junk shops.

But since setting up his first pugon in 2000, Malalay had been able to support a family of six. Uling, he said, had kept his four young children in school and even allowed his wife, Irma, to open a sari-sari store.
“We got by through hard work,” he said with pride.

Their charcoal business now employs some of their neighbors. “Either we pay them in cash or we give them a share from what we produce,” Irma added.

But their methods remain stuck in the dirty past. The residents themselves admit that their children often get sick from all the smoke.

“It’s really suffocating,” Ariel said. “We sometimes put on masks, but they still prove useless with all the thick smoke.”

“Our kids would sometimes beg us to just leave this place,” Irma added.
Being in the middle of an urban sprawl, Ulingan has inevitably been the subject of complaints from residents in nearby areas. A few years back, the environment department and Manila city government shut down some pugons for violation of the Clean Air Act.

But despite this crackdown, old-style kilns continue to operate. “Since the government can’t offer an alternative, (authorities) can at least ask the residents to control the smoke,” said Marlon Llovido, the UPA coordinating officer who pushed for the introduction of smokeless kilns.

Developed by Juan Marquez of 1M Agro-Fuel, a smokeless kiln is made of concrete and basically traps smoke through a pipe for conversion into water vapor.

The new system also involves a machine that cuts the wood into uniform sizes, with the finished product coming out “like donuts,” according to one resident who saw a demonstration in Silang.

UPA said the long-term project envisioned for Ulingan would require an investment of around P2.7 million. This would include a facility that could house 10 smokeless kilns, a liquid smoke catchment system, and a warehouse.

“We will now check if these new kilns could be sustainable,” Llovido said.

UPA hopes that apart from the technology transfer, Ulingan residents can also form cooperative to further develop their businesses. It can reduce their dependence on loan sharks, for example, Llovido added.

“This is one way for the urban poor to be empowered and be able to stand on their own feet,” he stressed.

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