By Alana Range

In the heart of the Philippines, in a place called Cebu City, thousands of families live off the garbage. They also live on it – their plywood and cardboard homes precariously balanced on heaps of decomposing waste. Methane fires burst alight, releasing plumes of black, toxic smoke into the air, adding to the stench of rotting food, dead animals, and disease.

These families make an average of 500 PHP a week, or about $10 (US), scavenging on the dumpsite in the scorching sun, using sharp metal picks to tear into rubbish bags and sort metals and glass from plastics. At the end of each day, they sell their finds to a scrap dealer who gives them a few pesos. Some may buy rice and fish for dinner, others may spend all their money on beer and cock fight gambling.

Most families in Cebu are Catholic and children are consequentially quite plentiful. Despite the fact that most live off less than two dollars a day, it’s not unusual for a family to have six or seven children. Life expectancy on the dump sites is somewhere in the mid-30’s.

In the midst of this poverty lies incredible beauty: Lopsided cactus gardens outside of slum shacks, a line of rainbow laundry drying after a devastating fire, women laughing together as they wash out clothing by hand.

These people have very little in terms of brand new material goods, but spruce up the insides of their shacks with streamers leftover from parades; scraps of carpet from the dumpsite become luxurious flooring; a teddy discarded by one child, but found under a heap of trash by another, is a treasure. There is also no false hope in these communities: They don’t expect to be saved. Their life is what it is and because of that they are able to find joy.

So, somewhat ironically, most families decline to move away from the dump if given the choice. There is no shortage of NGOs in the Philippines and their various re-housing projects offer scavenging families a new home miles from dumps, in the lush rolling hills of the country. But the idea of moving from the only livelihood they know – picking through garbage – is paralyzing and nonsensical for dump site residents. Their daily income comes from the scraps they find, and if they stop scavenging even for one day, whether to move to a new home or to take a weaving class, they won’t have any money to eat. It can take years to convince a  dump site community that relocating can be sustainable and offer new methods for livelihood, like farming, or a skilled trade.

When they are convinced to move to new land, the re-building process is painstakingly slow. It takes generations to shift the mentality of the community from individual survival to cooperative sustainability. Sometimes the shift never happens.

Despite some city dumps officially being closed by the local government over a year ago, trucks continue to dump multiple loads of trash onto the sites every day. For them, these scavengers, or illegal squatters as the mayor’s office calls them, provide the city with something that makes it easy to ignore the injustice – a free recycling system.