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Democracy fails to deliver in Manila's 'Promised Land'

Teeming slums betray hollow promises but old loyalties remain solid

People scavenge through a mountain of garbage at a dumpsite in the Payatas slum in Manila. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

There are two starkly different ways to measure the Philippines' progress toward its official aim of becoming a "prosperous, predominantly middle-class society where no one is poor" by 2040.

One is to examine the country's impressive success in expanding gross domestic product, which grew by an average of 6.4% a year from 2010 to 2017, compared with 4.5% between 2000 and 2009. Rong Qian, the World Bank's Philippines senior economist, said in October that hitting the 2040 target would require the Philippines to triple GDP per head over the next 22 years -- "a challenge that the Asian Tigers and China have managed to accomplish in the past."

Alternatively, you can lose yourself in the warren of impossibly narrow passageways that lead into the dank world of Manila's teeming slums, some of which have been given ludicrously glamorous names. For example, a community adjoining the city's biggest dumpsite, Payatas, where battalions of scavengers pick through a landscape of moldering trash, is called Lupang Pangako (The Promised Land). Here, in 2000, 300 people died when a mountain of garbage collapsed.

More recently, The Promised Land and other poverty-stricken neighborhoods have faced another deadly peril -- Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, in which, according to several sources, between 5,000 and 20,000 mostly poor people have died in extra-judicial killings. At the height of the carnage, I toured slum areas with a posse of tenacious Filipino journalists whose job it was to find and photograph the nightly crop of corpses. In the first couple of hours, we found five.

One scene sticks in my mind. Around midnight, we arrived at a slum house to see two adult bodies -- one male, one female -- lying in a pool of their own blood, and two weeping children being led away by police. Having lost my bearings in the maze of muddy alleyways and ramshackle hovels, I asked a local where we were; it was a neighborhood called Bagong Pagasa (New Hope). When I first visited the Philippines in 1985, there was hope aplenty as dictatorship entered its death throes. Early the following year, a "People Power" revolution swept President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda from power, which passed to the now revered President Corazon Aquino.

On Feb. 25, 2019, Filipinos celebrated the 33rd anniversary of People Power. But were they also celebrating a restoration of economic power to the people? Under the 2010-2016 presidency of Cory Aquino's son, Benigno Aquino III, the country certainly seemed to make strides. When I interviewed Aquino in the presidential palace in 2013, the economy was growing at 7.5% a year -- faster than China. But little of that growth appears to have trickled down to the slums.

Heavy smoke is seen near Payatas Dumpsite in Manila. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

One symbolic legacy of the Marcos years was Smokey Mountain, a massive dump in the Tondo slum area -- so named because its noxious gases and other inflammable material burned day and night. In the 1990s, during the presidency of Cory Aquino's democratically-elected successor, Fidel Ramos, Smokey Mountain was, equally symbolically, razed. But the garbage, and many of the scavengers who depended on it, moved elsewhere -- primarily to Payatas and the incongruously-named Promised Land.

According to the World Bank, the proportion of the population living below its poverty line for lower-middle income countries fell from 33.6% in 2012 to 27% in 2015. The Gini Index figure for the Philippines -- an international measure of economic inequality -- also dropped from 47 in 2006 to 44 in 2015, indicating some progress toward greater equality.

However, the country's growing prosperity still left 27.5 million people (a quarter of the population) living on less than $3.20 a day -- which helps to explain why many Filipinos have turned away from mainstream politicians in favor of Aquino's successor, Duterte, and the president's pick to succeed him, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the former dictator.

Apart from having Duterte's blessing, the younger Marcos already claims to be the rightful vice president. In 2016, Marcos lost the vice-presidential election to Leni Robredo, a human rights lawyer, but claims to have been cheated, and has gone to court in an attempt to get the result overturned. (Presidents and vice presidents are elected separately in the Philippines.)

Maria and son at home in Manila’s teeming Addition Hills shantytown (Photo by William Mellor)

Should that happen, a scavenger named Maria would be delighted. A few weeks ago, deep inside a shantytown called Addition Hills, I met her and her handicapped son. She is 52 but looks much older. Her home is at the end of an alley so narrow that the sun does not penetrate, even at midday. It is a three-story wooden structure so flimsily built and narrow it almost defies gravity. We climbed a ladder to the second story and sat on a floor that creaked alarmingly whenever we moved position.

Of her eight other family members, only one holds a regular job. The Philippines has Southeast Asia's highest inflation rate -- 5.2% in 2018 -- and Maria ticked off the rising prices of rice and canned sardines, the family's staple foods. "The Marcos era was a good time," she said. "We could eat whatever we wanted. When it comes to feeding my family, 30 years of democracy has been no help."

Of course, nostalgia is a powerful thing, and Maria is looking back through rose-colored spectacles. The Marcos era was no golden age. Ask the Negros sugar farmers, who starved at that time. Ask the women who were tortured and raped after Marcos declared martial law. For that matter, ask me. I witnessed briefly its dying days. But Maria does have a point. Despite the Philippines' transformation into the dynamic economy the World Bank describes, the only trickle down you notice in Manila's slums is the fetid water from the makeshift plumbing. And the Promised Land is still a garbage dump.

William Mellor is a Hong Kong-based writer.

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