Rebranding notorious Manila slum: From Smokey Mountain to Paradise Heights

Smokey Mountain
A father and son scavenge for anything saleable at the Smokey Mountain dump. Picture via Wikimedia Commons.

When the place you live is built on a rubbish dump, and the stench is so bad that they name the area “Smokey Mountain”, then you might say that your community has what might be described as an image problem, but where there’s a problem, there are usually people trying to find a solution. 

Smokey Mountain — or as we were quickly to learn “Paradise Heights” — is not the kind of place tourists could, or should, just rock up to. After all, it’s probably the poorest place in Manila, a city sadly notorious for its crime. 

When we visit, we always start a trip to the local barangay hall, the equivalent of the town council. Here, we get some background information about the place and (more importantly) two armed guards. 

On this occasion we met the chairman and head of education of Paradise Heights to learn about their work in improving the most infamous of Manila’s many slums.

Our education began

Smokey Mountain started as a fishing village before migrants started to arrive from across the Philippines. An initial trickle turned into a tidal wave in the mid 80s. This led to tens of thousands of people living on a rubbish dump, where most of them earned their money by scavenging. Few, if any, of the kids went to school. It was also during this time that Smokey Mountain became globally famous, and as a place for dark tourism, with many not so favourable news stories.

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But change has happened, slowly perhaps, but lives are improving. Today only 12 per cent of the population earn their money from scavenging and are now “officially employed”. The majority of the population still earn their money through trash, be it through employment at recycling plants or businesses such as junk shops. 

In this case the local politicians know that the only route out of the slum is through education, something they have thrown themselves into. Almost all children have access to at least some sort of education, making the residents here luckier than in many rural areas of the Philippines. And their work with children does not stop there, as they also heavily involved in fighting cyber-sex crime against children. 

Finally, they have managed to build homes for the residents that are offered on 10 year mortgages and are priced at about $3000-4000 dollars per unit. 

For some, who have been used to paying nothing to squat, the transition has not always been easy. Some have opted to sell their units and live as they were before. But if it gives at least some the chance to join the property ladder, and escape the cycle of poverty, the ends certainly justify the means. 

Farewell Smokey Mountain

And as for the rebrand to Paradise Heights? As our hosts put to us things not only needed to change, but that change had to come from how they perceived themselves. Paradise Heights might seem too grandiose for a slum, but why not aspire for something better?

After the meeting, we were led around the area by two Barangay Police, and even taken to the famous mountain itself — which is now pleasantly green, rather than a festering open tip. 

It was amazing to see in many ways how normal things were there, and obviously how it has been improved over the years. 

Paradise Heights might not exactly be paradise just yet, but no one can doubt that with local politicians that genuinely care that things are without doubt getting better.

And as for why we want ed to visit here? Many people will question why people would want to go and look at a slum, is it dark tourism? Is it poverty porn? And these are legitimate questions. 

But if staying in five-star hotels you only see one side of the Philippines. It is only through seeing the poorest and most destitute of any country that you can begin to understand it. 

Whether you like it or not, Smokey Mountain (or Paradise Heights) are very much part of the Philippines.

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