Rattling my cage!
by Milo Clark

Wandering about in the Philippines after an absence of 18 years rattled my cage nearly lose from its parlous mountings. Folks might ask what are real differences between say West Oakland and Smoky Mountain, Metro Manila?

Smoky Mountain, for those who may not know, is a world-class landfill and recycling center (my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek) as well as home to hundreds of thousands of folks at the utter bottom of the Philippine socio-economic heaps. Lagos, Nigeria might be a reasonable analogy. West Oakland is not. Desperation drives every aspect of Smoky Mountain. The folks in West Oakland live in a war-zone but not on top of a working dump. The worst is yet to come.

The municipal infrastructures of Oakland, at the worst, work better than Smoky Mountain's (and most of Metro Manila) at its best. A minority of the minority population of West Oakland actually lives on the streets. In Smoky Mountain there are no streets as West Oakland understands the idea. The Smoky Mountain folks who live in what might be called standard sub-standard housing are the highly privileged. The vast majority, if a roof is available at all, are in squatter shacks fully fitting the most stark definitions of squalid and fetid. They are unserved by any municipal graces other than raids by police or constant threat of bulldozers smashing what little is scraped together from the worthless trash innundating their existences.

I remember looking out at a garbage collection truck working the alley back of my hotel. Typhoon Gloring was having a good time that day. In the deluge, a number of young men, mere boys, actually, barefoot and wearing ripped breachclouts were outside and inside the truck. The outside group collected the plastic bags of trash from the relatively prosperous homes and threw them into the truck where others ripped them open and instantly separated the goods into piles. After this stage, what was left was pushed to the front of the truck body. It was this pre-sorted remains which constitute the offall from which Smoky Mountain children have to find enough each day to buy food and all the other very bare necessities of their living. Who needs welfare when there is trash? Why stop with lynching ADC and Workfare? Re-open the American landfills, they were, afterall, the dumps of Depression dreams?

Elsewhere in Metro Manila, the social classes tended to separate themselves along various lines of demarcation. Everywhere, anyone who could afford it was choosing walled and guarded enclaves. Armed guards were at every gate and every business door. Status is measured by numbers of bodyguards and their vehicles and weaponry. Shopping at the bottom is in traditional street markets. From the next notch up to the very top, air-con malls are the more recent norm. At the Makati pinnacles of extravagence, the malls and stores rival the best of Paris, London, Milan and all the Asian luxury spots. Mega-screen movie venues feature the ugliest and most violent of American and Philippine movies. Public facilities like the parks, botanical garden and zoo, for example, suffered from conspicuous neglect and minimal maintenance. A city with a near-ideal natural location has been squandered into ugliness and soul-less-ness almost beyond imagination in America.

Traffic was chaos, although an internally ordered kind of mutual resignation to entropy in advanced stages. The MetroRail trains ran frequently and well lugging huge numbers of people along its route for P$6.00 (about US$ .24) from anywhere to anywhere on the line. The metro area could use a dozen or more MetroRails.

The myriad jeepneys (descended from WWII jeeps run to their logical extremes in carrying capacity and wonderfully inventive decor) are still very colorful although now mostly belching diesels. The transportation scene is private enterprise at its most basic levels. It works like nothing in America. Flitting in and among all this scene are pedal-powered trikes and motor trikes with as many at ten to fifteen people draped all over them. Somehow, people move from point A to point B. There are no lack of transportation alternatives available at any given moment. There is a shocking shortage of road surfaces on which to put all these wheeled vehicles and their passengers.

In my last visit, 18 years ago, I was able to rent a car and make my way out of Metro Manila relatively easily to an open countryside which restored my sense of wellbeing. This time, in a drive out about 80kms, I found only one small community of wayside nurseries and gardens to relieve the unrelenting squalor of roadside shanties plastered from top to bottom with mostly American branded signs (even though most of the local suppliers are now Philippine controlled companies).

Village traffic jams paralleled metropolitan traffic jams. Way back out across the uniformly green rice paddies festooned with signs advertising the brands of chemicals and fertilizers applied, I could see that there were mountains and once scenic vistas. I dispaired of reaching them, though. I reached my objective and met a remarkable man doing remarkable things for revitalization of devastated rural communities.

One conclusion possible is that we, collective humankind, will never stop our headlong rush for mutual destruction of species and planet until there is nothing left to despoil, exploit and repress. In the savaged but then abandoned lands, abandoned by the despoilers, exploiters and repressers because there is nothing left to despoil, exploit or repress; the survivors will crawl out and begin to put something together again. I may have met Mad Max that day.

Nice guy. Dedicated. Probably half-crazed. Pretty much ignored by anybody with clout. And doing something which can be named as "sustainable development."

Published September 10, 1996
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