Tondo: The Humanitarian Crisis At The Heart Of Manila And The People Doing Something About It

“Paging the United Nations. There is a refugee crisis in Manila and the Philippines is totally in denial.” These are the first lines of a recent Facebook post by artist and cultural activist Carlos Celdran in which he describes a visit to Happy Land, Helping Land, and Aroma in Tondo. Besides writing about the hellish conditions in the worst parts of the nation’s capital, he also mentioned the organization that had arranged his visit to the area: Project PEARLS.

Shocked by what he described, we met up with the volunteers of Project PEARLS to learn more about the issues at hand and to help in raising awareness of the living conditions faced by thousands of people in the area. Follow us as we take you on a tour of a settlement that shouldn’t exist in the first place, shine a light on the amazing work done by volunteers trying to improve things, and share how you can make a direct difference to the lives of the people living there.

Project-Pearls-Tondo-Happy-Land-Aroma-Helping-Land (4)This is the sight that greets anyone walking into Helping Land, Tondo

Tondo has always been the gritty end of town. The sprawling area in the northwest of Manila is one of the most densely populated pieces of land in the world and this human pressure cooker, where more than 70,000 people wrestle for space in every square kilometer, has a reputation for forging some very tough and successful characters. Actor and producer Dolphy was born here, as was current Manila mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada, while mall mogul Henry Sy is said to have started his rise to becoming the country’s richest man by selling rejected and overrun shoes on its streets. Just like earth uses huge amounts of pressure to create diamonds, Tondo creates incredibly tough individuals who can rise above anything if given the chance. Problem is: chances are in short supply these days.

Project-Pearls-Tondo-Happy-Land-Aroma-Helping-Land (3)A woman collects fast food remains from trash dumped in the area. It will be re-cooked and sold on as ‘Pagpag’

There are no diamonds to be found where we are going today – at least not the real, shiny type anyway. Sidney Snoeck, a photojournalist and volunteer with outreach organization Project PEARLS (standing for Peace, Education, Aspiration, Respect, Love and Smiles) has a quick chat with the officers at the Smokey Mountain police station before giving the thumbs up that I can park in front of it. With the car switched off and the camera switched on, we begin our walk into Helping Land, one of three areas the organization is working in. Even though we had seen the images on Facebook before, nothing could have prepared us for the sights and smells that greeted us once we turned around the corner and ventured into the settlement.

Project-Pearls-Tondo-Happy-Land-Aroma-Helping-Land (11)Helping Land, Tondo. Population: 40,000

If you wanted to be polite, you could say the area is totally unfit for human habitation, but you wouldn’t be wrong if you simply called it the closest thing to hell on earth. Garbage is piling up everywhere, sometimes meters high, and the streets leading through the area are nothing more than muddy pathways filled with trash and adjourned by open sewers. Men, women and children can be seen working in the mountains of garbage, scavenging for materials that can be resold or collecting fast food remains from trash bags which are to be re-cooked and sold as the infamous “pagpag”. All this is happening just a short distance away from the glitzy designer stores of Makati and the posh neighborhoods of BGC and Forbes Park, but we may as well be on another planet.

Project-Pearls-Tondo-Happy-Land-Aroma-Helping-Land (5)A child works in rubbish dumped in the area. School is a luxury around here.

Sidney leads us through the area he visits every week, his tall figure standing out against the backdrop of dilapidated warehouses and the light blue color that is filling the sky on this Saturday morning.

Every few meters he stops to greet residents, to take pictures for the Project PEARLS website, and to explain what’s going on and how things ended up the way they are now. Children can be seen playing in the streets, barefoot and oblivious to the dangers surrounding them, while dump trucks deliver new mountains of trash that will quickly be dissected by waiting men and women trying to earn the few pesos they need to survive another day.

Project-Pearls-Tondo-Happy-Land-Aroma-Helping-Land (12)The whole area is totally unfit for human habitation, yet thousands of people call it home

There are three main areas here, he explains: Helping Land, Happy Land (a name derived from the Visayan word Hapilan, meaning ‘smelly garbage’) and Aroma. The whole area we are in belongs to Temporary Housing Tenements and consists of 32 warehouse-like structures that were built as temporary housing for scavengers who were forced to move after the closure of the infamous Smokey Mountain landfill site. What was only meant as short term solution has by now become a very permanent fixture of Tondo, with the three areas essentially forming a massive refugee camp at the fringes of Metro Manila. Time and the elements have not been kind to these structures and virtually all the buildings are by now missing parts of their roofs and appear structurally unsound. This hasn’t stopped residents from living in them, tough, and the estimated 40,000 people calling the area home have done what they could to create living spaces out of salvaged wood, tarpaulins, corrugated iron sheets and whatever else they could get their hands on.

Project-Pearls-Tondo-Happy-Land-Aroma-Helping-Land (9)More than 300 kids gather for the weekly outreach program of Project PEARLS

After around 15 minutes we are entering our destination, a small, open sided concrete structure in the middle of the area that serves as a multipurpose hall for the community. The laughter of children can be heard as we approach and the noise level rises considerably when we step through the iron gates and into the room. Project PEARLS carries out a weekly outreach program and the feeding program scheduled for this morning has brought around 300 kids from the neighborhood to this tiny sanctuary in the middle of the worst place a child could possibly grow up in. Here, they can simply be kids for a while, playing with their friends and dancing along to the music blaring out of speakers someone placed at the front of the room. Our presence has not gone unnoticed, and before I know it a small girl asks if she can use my camera. Resistance to her infectious smile and enthusiasm is futile and so she quickly wanders off, holding the heavy DSLR with both hands while clicking away on the shutter button like there’s no tomorrow. When she eventually brings the camera back, I find a group shot on it that I couldn’t have taken any better had I tried. She just shrugs at my amazement and runs off again. Did I mention Tondo creates diamonds if you give it a chance?

Project-Pearls-Tondo-Happy-Land-Aroma-Helping-Land (6)This picture was taken by one of the kids after she borrowed my camera and I totally love it

There can be no doubt that the entire situation in the area is a considerable indication of large scale government failure, and that the conditions endured by the people living here are to a good degree the shameful result of the omnipresent greed and corruption that continue to plague the country like a malignant cancer, but there are no banners calling for government action here. Just laughing and smiling children. Next to handing out food, volunteers also attend to minor medical problems (mostly cuts and bruises, but diseases such as scabies and TB are also quite common and there is a separate doctor off site for more serious cases) and carry out brain booster educational activities, where children take part in activities that promote reading, writing, math, and more.

Project-Pearls-Tondo-Happy-Land-Aroma-Helping-Land (2)Next to feeding the kids, Project PEARLS also carries out brain booster educational activities

Regardless of the politics involved in all of this, and regardless of any comments about these people “not wanting to change” or simply “being lazy” (yes, those are real comments seen on Facebook when Carlos initially posted about his visit to the area) the simple fact is that nobody deserves to live like this. Not anywhere, and especially not in a country that is going through an economic rebirth and that aims to be respected as a global player. Societies are judged by the way they treat their poorest and most vulnerable, and if someone has the ability to help and improve things, then there is a very strong social responsibility to do so. Luckily, helping Project PEARLS is easy, and while on the ground help from volunteers is always wanted and appreciated, another key area where support is always welcome are scholarships.

Project-Pearls-Tondo-Happy-Land-Aroma-Helping-Land (8)The whole area is an active landfill site, with trucks continuing to dump trash for residents to sift through

Many of the children in Helping Land, Happy Land and Aroma do not go to school as much as they should, or indeed at all. Instead, they are expected to help the family by working on the landfill site themselves, making it harder and harder to break free from the vicious cycle of poverty. Project PEARLS aims to change that by offering scholarships to children in the area, ranging from Pre-School and Kindergarten age to Middle and High School levels. These scholarships, which are entirely financed by donations, ensure the children receive a good basic education and a fair chance at a better life. Education has long been proven to be one of the key factors when it comes to beating poverty, and Project PEARLS provides the grassroots work to achieve long term improvements and a better quality of life for the poorest of the poor.

Project-Pearls-Tondo-Happy-Land-Aroma-Helping-Land (10)Project PEARLS also runs a medical mission as part of their program

The roots of the organization date back to 2008, when founder Melissa Villa decided to help some friends in need, and it initially focused on the scavenger community in Ulingan. It has since grown to become a non-profit organization in the U.S. (where Melissa lives) and in the Philippines, where her brother Juan Villa and volunteers like Sidney Snoeck coordinate activities. The whole organization is extremely lean and donors can rest assured that funds are actually being used in the ways intended, something that sadly isn’t always a given in a country where corruption often doesn’t even stop at charity. This is on-the-ground, hands-on work without highly paid executives or a complex admin structure and the results can be witnessed firsthand in areas such as Helping Land or in Bulacan, where the organization is still supporting the residents of Ulingan who were relocated there by the government some years ago.

Project-Pearls-Tondo-Happy-Land-Aroma-Helping-Land (1)Working at the heart of the community to give people a chance for a better future

The Philippines is not a poor country, but a poorly managed one, and there are more than enough financial and other resources available to ensure a dignified existence for even the most disadvantaged souls. Simply telling people to stay away from the city isn’t really a valid approach either and there is very little anyone can do about the continued urbanization and the constant influx of people moving to Metro Manila from the provinces – but there is much that can be done about the way things are when people reach the city and end up in places like Happy Land while looking to make a living. The work of Project PEARLS is making a real difference on the ground but it needs more support to reach a larger scale. You can help by volunteering, donating, and by simply spreading the word, and the very well designed website of the organization offers a wealth of background knowledge and info on how to get involved.

Project-Pearls-Tondo-Happy-Land-Aroma-Helping-Land (7)The Project PEARLS volunteers at the end of the weekly outreach program in Helping Land, Tondo

This is much more than a one-off story and we will certainly be back to report on progress and to keep the spotlight on the area. In the meanwhile, take a few minutes and visit the below links for more information.

Project PEARLS