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As Philippines dump closes, its denizens fear for future

Anywhere else, the closing of a garbage dump would be an occasion for local residents to rejoice.

But here at the internationally infamous Smoky Mountain, thousands of people live in the dump and survive by scavenging its fetid rubble. Now that Smoky Mountain is being closed, they are apprehensive about losing their homes and livelihoods, no matter how squalid these may seem to outsiders.

"Where will I live, what will I do?" said Tony Santos, 49, who has supported his wife and four children by scavenging for 20 years. Stooping in the sizzling sun, he probed the stinking refuse with a long metal hook looking for old cans, scraps of paper, pieces of plastic and shards of glass that bring about $3 a day.

On May 1, President Fidel Ramos announced the closing of the dump. The site is to be transformed into a commercial and residential development on Manila Bay.

Because the $130-million project includes promises of new jobs and homes for many of the 13,000 dump dwellers, their fears wrestle with cautious hopes.

"If this is not just for publicity I think it is good," Gina Jerusalem said. "But if we are kicked out for the development, we don't want it." Her family of six pays about $11 a month for their one-room squatter's home, with no electricity or water.

Philippine officials have been especially sensitive about Smoky Mountain since it became a standard stop for foreign journalists, who projected it around the world as an appalling symbol of this nation's poverty. By the government's own figures, the number of Filipinos in poverty stands at a staggering 55 percent.

"We want to erase the image that we could not do anything for our urban poor," said Zonia Galvez, an architect and housing authority administrator. She is coordinating 15 public and seven private agencies on the project.

Under a plan that originated with President Corazon Aquino, Ramos' predecessor, part of the site will be used for an incinerator, separating recyclable material and sending the incinerated residue to a landfill to be buried under layers of dirt.

Smoky Mountain's residents are being offered temporary quarters rent-free and the right to buy permanent apartments with monthly payments of about $24, stretched over 25 years. Each apartment consists of a 99-square-foot room with a loft, bathroom, kitchen area, water and electricity.

Some 200 Smoky Mountain people are to be hired for early construction work and 450 later on, and more in the businesses to be developed. Others are to be offered training and job placements, possibly even for manual labor overseas.

But officials concede they cannot promise work for all 4,000 scavengers. Galvez said, "We cannot guarantee everyone will be given a job."