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Guest writer Bryan Finoki of Subtopia and Archinect authored today’s illuminating and in-depth post. Thanks, Bryan!

Remember the typhoon in July of 2000 that hit Quezon City in the Philippines, triggering the avalanche of a mammoth “garbage mountain” that tumbled over the Payatas slum? Well, over 2000 people were buried alive there that day. The landslide not only smothered some 500 shacks that were nestled in to the dump, but it caused a nasty fire to sweep through and burn down any that weren’t already entombed by the violent seas of debris which fell upon them.

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postslums2 The Payatas Dump Site in Quezon City.

The disaster site is allegedly closed now, but the heaping landscape of the greater dump itself is still home to roughly 30,000 inhabitants who burrow in and around what is perhaps the biggest piece of garbage architecture in the world. This hyperexcavated mound (climbing seven stories high in some places) provides income for close to 150,000 Philippinos who scavenge Manila’s 7,500 tons of household waste collected and dumped there each day. An active scavenger, on average, can sell scraps and recyclables for around 150 – 300 pesos a day. For a family of five, that can equate to 1,000 pesos by sundown.

postslums3 Permanent shade structures shade families from the weather living in the Payatas Dump Site in Quezon City.

Neither this tragic event, nor the heinous squalor conditions which played into it are at all unordinary in the country, sadly. Roughly 60% of all the people living there rate themselves as poor, and this fact book claims that 17% of the total population lives in an urban slum (which actually sounds like a conservative estimate to me). Out of close to 90, 15 and a half million are shack dwellers. If what some articles suggest are true, that between 1 and 2 people become a squatter on the planet every second, then it is not hard to believe how 65,000 police officers in Manila (56% of the total force) lives in shanties, or how more than 1/3rd of the sprawling metropolis’ 12 million people reside in a squatter community, that are often simply walled off from public view. Only a mere 10% of all Philippinos are said to own land, and about the same number is privileged enough to have formal means of disposal and sewage. In addition, the country is notorious for flooding and fires, which, according to sociologist Mike Davis, are the greatest threats facing squatters around the world today, more so than perhaps the profound socio-economic disadvantages themselves.

postslums4 A fire in Ganesh Murthy Nagar village in Mumbai, India. (2004) Photo by AP.

The urban poor, Davis writes, are everywhere forced to settle on hazardous and otherwise unbuildable terrains over-steep hillslopes, river banks and floodplains. Likewise they squat in the deadly shadows of refineries, chemical factories, toxic dumps, or in the margins of railroads and highways. As a result, the ecology of slums worldwide has created an urban disaster condition of unprecedented frequency and scope. In fact, this recent report warns of the “megadisasters” that are just waiting to happen in the contemporary megacity today.

So, what can be done about all of this? How can we encourage a greater investment in helping to tackle world poverty? How can we empower local communities to drive this change for themselves? In the face of mass hyperurbanization, where do we even start to make a shift: fair labor practice, cleaning up the environment, more affordable housing? How can disaster response serve as a catalyst for bringing forth greater infrastructural change? postslums5

One organization based in the Philippines may just have a big part of the answer, and is certainly no stranger to disaster recovery. Gawad Kalinga is quickly becoming an international NGO that originally began as a local movement in the Philippines, aimed at eradicating poverty by building villages and communities with squatters all over the country. Started in 2000, several projects have already established together over 15,000 homes in more than 600 villages. Gawad Kalinga, which means “to give care,” relies on strengthening communal infrastructure that not only includes site development, but education and health facilities, livelihood and community empowerment but, essentially, an economic engine for people and not just raw shelter. The homes are built on sweat equity and skills training, and the organization even provides start-up capital for micro-enterprises and the marketing of community-based products.

Founder Tony Meloto says, “If you want to bring the country out of poverty, give the poorest of the poor a middle class environment so they have middle class aspirations. […] The problem of poverty is not economic, it is behavioral.”

After the Payatas tragedy, GK quickly helped the devastated villages there to build 200 new homes. From that achievement, what started out as a dedicated group of slum abolitionists has since grown into an immense financial and global volunteer conduit large enough to launch an ambitious initiative called ‘GK 777’, with a target of building 700,000 homes in 7,000 communities by 2010. That’s pretty impressive. While GK is religiously affiliated, Moleto assures that “our projects are never tied up with religion (or politics) as far as the choice of beneficiaries, benefactors and volunteers is concerned.”

According to this article, the organization has been so successful that the United Nations is studying the model to integrate into their poverty elimination programs. Meanwhile, Moleto is exporting it to other dire regions by assisting community groups in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, India, Cambodia and South Africa.

It’s good to see organizations that not only deal with the conditions of poverty, but the perceptions (self-perception included) of it, too. Moleto says, “Poverty is not just an absence of money. […] You just can’t take away the slums; you also have to take away the slum mentality of the people who live there.” And, perhaps the way slums are perceived in general. While this type of poverty can be dehumanizing, I am sure he would agree that for the people who salvage a livelihood for themselves there, the slums are actually a great source of pride and strength, if, at the very minimum, as a means of survival. Indeed, some of the greatest triumphs of human spirit and entrepreneurialism can be found deep within the urban networks of rampant global poverty. Nevertheless, this type of community building just goes to show, if we can continue to bring needed resources together, often times these vibrant and thriving communities will assemble themselves with far greater capacity and ingenuity than perhaps anyone else could provide for them. Isn’t that the true source of human pride?

[All images of the Gawad Kalinga housing community are in Luzon, where 4 typhoons in 2004 and displaced 40,000 families. (PDF)]