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Smokey Mountain, Tondo: Poverty porn and slum tourism

Fifty years of Manila trash is what makes up Smokey Mountain, the infamous mountain of stinking and rotting refuse heaps in the slums of Tondo. Called home by thousands of Manila’s poorest of the poor, the Tondo slums remain as the largest slum area in the entire metropolis.

For the longest time, Smokey Mountain has been the epitome of endemic Philippine poverty. Beset by immeasurable crime, disease, death, and despair, the state of Tondo and its people continue to be an affliction to national conscience.

The slum dwellers of Tondo live inhuman lives. Packed in shanties— an arrangement of plywood, hollow blocks, and iron sheets—they spend their daily lives scavenging through piles of garbage, human excrement, and filth. They endure the stench of trash and pounce on scraps and whatever they deem as sellable. Each day is a struggle to survive, impressed with backbreaking grind and dignity.

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Slum Tourism: Ethical or voyeurism?

The conditions of slum areas such as Smokey Mountain are almost ironically becoming tourist destinations worldwide. Popularly known as slum tours, these are organized excursions offered to those who want to catch a glimpse of the urban poor realities in the developing world.

Similar to how Reality Tours & Travel takes visitors to the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai India, Smokey Tours organizes slum tours in the poverty-blighted areas around Smokey Mountain, Tondo.  Founded by a Dutch woman named Juliette Kwee, Smokey Tours aims to show people the “other side of Manila”.

For a price of Php 950, one can book a tour around the slum, which includes walking around recycling areas, visiting residential houses, and seeing how the staple food called pagpag—scavenged bones and leftovers re-cooked—is made.

More than just raising social awareness, Fenna Farenhorst, a Dutch volunteer, explains that their primary goal is to, “Emphasize the happiness and resilience of the people.”

Professor Louie Montemar of the Development Studies program agrees that people wearing their smiles amidst their poverty in urban poor communities are indeed signs of Filipino resilience. Yet, he explains the negative connotations of these slum tours. “To take those smiles as features in a paid tour reduces our people’s putative resilience into being beautiful plumage of exotic creatures in what I call ‘social zoos’,” he explains.

When asked about this issue of exploiting the poor, Farenhorst says they make sure the stakeholders remain the major recipients of social impact. This involves employing and training people from other impoverished areas to act as tour guides, while helping the community through their partner organization, CREST.

But Montemar asks, “How is their effort helping poor people? Isn’t their design strategically positioned not to change the very structures of poverty in their ‘zoos?’  In a zoo, even if the visitors interact with the animals, it’s still a zoo. It’s called a ‘petting’ zoo.”

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On poverty porn

Smokey Mountain is not just a destination for curious tourists who have never been exposed to this reality, but also for photographers and media practitioners who want to capture the faces of poverty. More often than not, these people are unaware of committing poverty porn.

Montemar explains poverty porn as any type of media that capitalizes on the condition of the poor to elicit certain feelings such as sympathy or sadness, usually to sell newspapers or encourage support for charities and organizations.

Often, the rationale for capturing images of slum dwellers is to expose their situation so people can help them. Yet, many development scholars point out that this practice does more bad than good. Upon seeing these types of media, people from wealthier parts of the world often just feel grateful for their situation, knowing others have it worse than them.

“Maybe the subjects of those pictures didn’t know they were being photographed,” Professor Cristina Rodriguez of the Behavioral Sciences Department shares. “NGOs have to use visuals but, [it must be] nothing offensive because you also have to protect the dignity of the people, respect them, and have their consent.”

Scholars have also pointed out that when the poor are depicted in the stereotypical images of naked children asking for alms, or a mother breastfeeding her malnourished baby, poverty itself becomes reduced into a one-dimensional concept. The ethical implications of glamorizing poverty can be more serious than most people initially imagine.

Smokey Mountain - Alecs Ongcal

A stratified community

So often are the urban poor tagged as lazy, unintelligent people who leech off the government as mere beneficiaries. These common generalizations can contribute towards perpetuating stereotypes that, in turn, negatively affect the impoverished.

Although the urban poor’s livelihood is far different from the usual blue and white-collar worker, there is no doubt that several if not most of them work just as hard—perhaps even harder. Often, members of these impoverished communities have to make the most out of their situation by maximizing what they have in the slums.

Ate Arlene is a mother of seven children who lives in a shanty on top of Smokey Mountain. Her husband has been imprisoned for more than a year, but she tries her best to feed her children.

Every day, she goes to the market and collects fish that had fallen from vendors’ baskets; she then sells the fish to the people in Smokey Mountain. “Namumulot ako ng isda sa marketry, binebenta ko po yun dito sa mga bahay-bahay. Minsan nakakasingkwenta ako, pambili na yun ng bigas, ng gatas.”

Whenever she fails to collect fish from the market, she turns to the regular feeding programs of the Sambayanang Kristiyano.

For 19-year-old Narizza, daughter of the Baranggay Kagawad of their area, she says that finishing her education is her priority. She is inspired by her older brother who now works as a real estate agent in SMDC and is considered the breadwinner of the family.

Now in her 3rd year in the Philippine College of Criminology, she shares that it has always been her dream to become a police officer. When asked if the motorcycle she was cleaning was hers, Narizza gives an affirmative nod.

Kuya Bebot, on the other hand, is a tanod at Baranggay 128. Responsible for keeping the peace and order of their community, he shares how many of the people in the slums find ways to make ends meet. “Marami dito may mga babuyan, manukan, junk shop. Pinagkakakitaan nila yan. Yung iba naman dito teachers, pulis, professionals. Yun talaga yung mga nagsikap.”

 

Living in truth

While the impoverished people of Smokey Mountain belong in the bottom stratum of Philippine society, they are not as homogenous as outsiders may think.

Not entirely devoid of subsistence, they are a complex, multifaceted group which has its own developed understanding of ways to survive in the slums—even if it can often mean scavenging through garbage for food, collecting discarded fish in the market to sell, or making charcoal in Ulingan for less than P200.

From the top of Smokey Mountain, the skyline of the towering buildings of the city continues to be the complete antithesis of the shanties and crammed housing project of the Tondo slums. This great divide of the unnerving disparity of Manila’s rich and poor persists—not merely as a representation, but as the harsh reality that is Philippine society.

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