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Scratching out a life on Manila's Smokey Mountain

By Anna Coren, CNN
  • Smokey Mountain dump stands 20 meters high, the remains of 50 years of Manila's trash
  • Landfill had officially closed in 1990, and the community moved to housing next door
  • Almost half the population of the Philippines lives below the poverty line

Manila, Philippines (CNN) -- When I was told we were traveling to the Philippines to do a story on "Smokey Mountain", I was unaware as to just how famous this landmark actually was.

I knew it was a rubbish dump; a place where tens of thousands of people once scavenged for their livelihood - an occupation adopted by so many of the world's poor who live below the poverty line. Here in the Philippines, that equates to almost half the population.

As I began to research, images of people stooping to such humiliating lows to put food in their mouths appeared online. But considering the landfill had closed in 1990, and the community moved to housing commission next door, I just presumed the face of poverty at Smokey Mountain had become more dignified.

After spending several hours at the government housing towers that cram roughly 30,000 people into about a dozen high rise buildings, our crew decided to make the trek up Smokey Mountain.

It's this looming mass of decomposed rubbish, standing more than 20 meters high. From a distance it looks like an enormous mound of Earth, almost of equal height to the towers that stand next to it, but on closer inspection you can see the layers of plastic bags, tires and bottles all squashed together -- the remains of 50 years of Manila's trash.

There are no steps or a road leading to the top of a landfill. Just a filthy rope dangling from the top and a well trodden path people use to scramble up this steep embankment.

I see this young girl covered head to toe in dirt carrying up a large bottle of water -- like the one that belongs in an office building. Her clothes are ripped, her ratty plastic sandals - three sizes too big - her hair, completely disheveled and soot covers her face as if she'd been working in a coal mine.

Video: Trash heap is home to many near Manila
Video: Recycling lives from poverty
Several humpy-type structures are standing in the scrubby vegetation. I'm shocked to discover that people actually live up here.
--Anna Coren, CNN

With the water bottle resting on her shoulder she gives me a huge smile, inviting me to follow. In tow are two little girls, roughly the same age, laughing... amused that this white woman with blonde hair, carrying a camera wants to enter their world.

We get to the top, hands covered in dirt and mangy dogs race up barking viciously. The three little girls are oblivious to these creatures that would definitely give you rabies if their teeth actually sunk into your flesh. Chickens scratch in the dirt and decomposed rubbish that's strewn across this lunar landscape.

Several humpy-type structures are standing in the scrubby vegetation. I'm shocked to discover that people actually live up here. I follow the girls to their home. Or at least what they call home. Bits of plastic and wooden sheeting to keep out the elements; a piece of corrugated iron attached for a roof and a timber palate with a mat on top, that keeps them an inch above the earth while they sleep.

I ask the name of the girl carrying the water. She responds in perfect English, her name is Rhea Rebadolla and she says she is 11 years old. She introduces me to her 8-year-old sister, Felomina, who doesn't leave her side, and her 10-year-old friend and neighbor, Noreen Grace.

Much to my surprise, they all speak English having attended the local school up until the end of last year. I ask why they don't go anymore and they explain quite simply they can't afford to. I photograph them and they ask to see the photos, laughing and giggling like little school girls. I ask after their parents and find a man who knows the girls. He says their parents are out scavenging for rubbish. They move around, depending on where the work is and recently pulled the girls out of school because they couldn't afford to pay the school fees.

Further enquiries reveal that the education system in that community, at the bottom of the landfill, is free. I wonder whether the parents have pulled them out of class to make them work.

From the top of the landfill you can see sprawling Manila. The high-rises of the city's financial district in the distance -- through the haze of the metropolis you can see the mountain range hugging the capital. A shipping terminal backs on to the landfill. Huge tankers sit in the harbor waiting to load and unload.

There are signs of money and wealth everywhere, but here on Smokey Mountain, on top of this landfill, there are just three little girls who will never know what any of that means.

Rhea takes my hand in hers, as if it's the most natural thing in the world. She shows me around her slum of an existence as the sun sinks into the ocean and dusk begins to fall. I ask her to follow me to the car. What can I do to help improve this 11-year-old's life, other than take her away, out of her world, give her a bath, an education, a future?

Instead we give her and her friends some money, wishing, hoping this was their ticket out of the cycle of poverty.