Baguio’s Scavengers Live Off the Land

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There’s a song famously known in Baguio and in its lyrics, it says, “Awan serbi ti Baguio, nu awan ti basurero.”

It catches in a nutshell the gamut of problems Baguio city is facing in waste management.

Yet unknown to many is a small informal sector that in its little way, helps in waste management.

They are the Baguio’s garbage scavengers – nameless for they refuse to divulge their names.

From the top of Session Road to the back alleys of the city, one seldom travels far without some reminder that the wastes of the “haves,” have value to the extremely needy.

It’s not just the obvious – a footwear without a pair, or plastic bottles which are replacing glass bottles.

It’s the vegetable peelings culled from garbage sacks from the city’s vegetable market section and sold as pig feed; tin cans to be fashioned later into toys and implements, newspapers to be used as wrappers, metal, cartoons, kitchen utensils, electric wires, gadgets, computer parts – you name it.

Almost anything can have a second economic life or use to those ingenious enough to fashion out an application.

It is this ingenuity, the informal collection of wastes from Baguio’s teeming areas, which keeps many neighborhoods from stifling in their own wastes, and which has come to provide a living –even if meager—to a number of scavengers.

Daily, Baguio generates over 160 tons of wastes and multiply during events in the city, like Panagbenga celebration and the like.

There is no official number released on the number of scavengers in Baguio City. Although unauthorized, scavengers help in reducing volume of waste to some extent.

But their services, although unappreciated, are valued and authorities tolerate their activities as a form of informal collection of wastes.

Take a peek in places in the city market and elsewhere in the city where there are areas designated for garbage to be dropped prior to their being collected by the General Services Office (GSO).

In the dead of night, scavengers coming from nowhere can be seen prowling over the garbage drop points and sorting out what can be re-sold.

It’s amazing that even in poorly-lit garbage drop points, the scavengers are able to identify and gather what they want, putting them in woven plastic sacks they carry with them.

They are efficient in their trade.

Before 3 o’clock in the morning, they are finished with their collection. Then they rest by sleeping on the cold pavement.

Usually, the scavengers can be seen sleeping at the back of the government-owned Maharlika Building, other areas, with cartoons as bedding and sacks as blankets.

Beside them are the numerous sacks filled with what they earlier gathered from garbage drop points.

Before daylight descends upon the city, they vanish like phantoms of an opera into nowhere, away from the city’s hustle and bustle. to reappear again in the  evening.  Where they go to secrete themselves, they are vague in telling.

Herald Express talked to a group of scavengers last Sunday, in the area dividing the city’s meat section and Maharlika. One of them simply said his name was Odong. His surname, he didn’t tell.

Odong personifies scavengers we see on the street – a raggedly appearance. Their faces are usually grim.

Like the rest of his co-scavengers, they have poor personal hygiene, are easily prone to skin disorders caused by parasites, fungi, bacteria, infections and viruses.

Asked why the prefer sleeping along the city’s market sections, they say they feel safe under taxing circumstances.

Presence of butchers, fish delivery persons make them feel safe.  Ogong said there were instances they were bullied and threatened by drunks but the people working in the market section warned the drunks to leave them alone.

Besides, with the lights on, they can gauge the time they have to move from that area and not be shoed away as nuisance.

Pressed on how much they gain from a night work of scavenging, Ogong shrugged and said, “Sometimes 50 pesos, or 100 pesos or more, or nothing at all,” depending on the materials they were able to scavenge.

A desperate statement by Ogong encircles the sad plight of these scavengers when he told this columnist, “Mabuteng kami nu awan ti basura.”

They said the first thing they do after gathering odds and ends is   proceed to junk buyers and sell their collection. Their second priority is buying food to appease their hunger.

If ever they felt sick, they just shrugged it off, knowing fully well their meager money cannot buy medicines nor do they know of doctors who would check on them and prescribe them needed medicine.

It’s dirty work for the urban poor – many of whom literally live on top of the garbage they have gathered. And they are susceptible to diseases like cough and cold, dysentery and malnutrition, tuberculosis, hepatitis and typhoid.

Baguio, like other cities in the Philippines, are feeling the strain of increasing amounts of wastes, compelling local governments concerned to allocate more funds in waste management incorporating other garbage management schemes.

City mayor Benjamin Magalong is confronting an old woe of garbage disposal problem that demands a long-term solution which, while needing technological approach, must retain an environment friendly character.

Mayor Magalong’s approach to waste management cuts across dimensions in his 15-points agenda for development of Baguio City.

Magalong knows too well the plight of the scavengers and it is hoped that his 15-points agenda holds an approach for them.

For the scavengers don’t ask much – but just to eke out a living.  That’s all. Because when a person in need has lived with desperation for too long, that person becomes adept at getting a lot from little.

Even, if, most sadly, they live among trash dumps like the poor rats.

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