The Charcoal Makers of Manila: Making the Best of Life in Poorest Slums of the Philippines

Charcoal harvesting is banned in most districts of Manila, yet in the poorest areas just outside the city, families from the slums manage to keep up production without much interference from the authorities. Every day, children and adults wade through rubbish dumps and scour construction sites to gather whatever wood they can find to feed their charcoal kilns. It’s dirty work, but they have no choice: Charcoal making is their only form of income.

But last year, in an interview with photojournalist Ted McDonnell, who has been documenting the plight of charcoal making families in Malabon, the mayor of the district, Antolin Oreta III, told the reporter of his plans to end charcoal making throughout the district by the end of 2019 to help tackle its poor health consequences. Charcoal scavengers fear this move will force them further into poverty, despite the risk to their health.

Around 3 million people live in Manila’s slums, where hundreds of families have earned their livelihood making charcoal for generations. Living in makeshift houses beside steaming charcoal mounds, the charcoal makers work the stoves 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Meanwhile, the young children of the community, armed with whatever bag they can get their tiny hands on, rustle through heaps of stinking garbage to find as much wood as they can carry, delivering it back to the burners. Once gathered, the wood is stacked into a pyramid, set on fire, and then covered with iron sheets and soil to ensure all oxygen is depleted. This process of burning wood without oxygen produces charcoal.

These smoldering piles are left to burn for three days, sending wafts of acrid smoke and ash across the community. Children live in the thick of it, breathing in toxic fumes from the fires, their faces and hands blackened with soot, their eyes red and sore.

Respiratory illnesses are common with many residents due to the smoke and their close living quarters in the slums, which makes disease transmission easy. People here often suffer from chronic bronchitis and emphysema and some contract pneumonia, tuberculosis, or even lung cancer. Life isn’t easy—everyone coughs day and night. Currently, the average wage for a charcoal worker is 150–200 pesos ($2.84–$3.79 USD) per day, which is enough for a few loaves of bread or some rice, but not enough to feed a family. The charcoal made in the slums is sold to middlemen who then sell the fuel to small convenience stores across Manila. Some Filipinos still use charcoal to cook daily, as do the vendors preparing street food. Large sacks sold outside the slums can fetch up to 400 pesos (or $7.57 USD) per bag, while charcoal sold within the slums sells for around 8 pesos ($0.15 USD).

Sometimes entire families are involved in making charcoal. To optimize the family’s income, slum children may not even be enrolled in school in order to work with their parents, missing out on an education that could potentially save them from the vicious cycle of generational poverty.

A few local organizations offer support. Project PEARLS helps send children to school by offering scholarships. The group started out working with the Ulingan community, assisting charcoal makers who survived on discarded restaurant food and scraps from the garbage dump they lived in. The organization eventually relocated the community. The group also provides meals, after-school programs, and regular medical and dental checks for charcoal workers.

Partnering with institutions to bring skills training, informative lectures, and new opportunities, Project PEARLS makes a real difference to parents, too. Women especially are benefiting from arts and crafts classes where they learn to make goods they can sell.

Meanwhile, The Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development implemented the Sustainable Livelihood Program, which aims to reduce poverty and inequality by generating employment among poorer households in the Philippines. There are two tiers to the program: Ambitious families keen to set up their own microenterprise are given access to funds and training to help them get started, or participants can opt for local employment through public-private partnerships. In 2017, the program helped 166,000 families on the road to a better life.

For some members of the slum community, music was their way out. Former gang members from Tondo said music saved their lives. Now known collectively as The Tondo Tribe, the hip-hop group shares their experiences of life in the slums through positive messages, making them hugely popular in their home district. Their success offers hope to others living in Tondo and to families living in nearby Malabon, whose livelihood may be affected by a charcoal making ban.

With organizations and government programs stepping in to help—and locals like The Tondo Tribe spreading positive messages—many of Manila’s poorest citizens may one day find a way out of a dangerous occupation and move onto a better life.

This article was commissioned as part of a series for Make Change, part of Aspiration Green Finance >>>