Crowded Healing

Manila is one of the most densely populated spots on earth. Shortcomings in housing and land use planning combined with a high fertility rate have left Manila in a state where the city literally appears to be bursting at the seams.

Makati City’s South Cemetery was similarly home to dozens of families until, following a recent crime series, authorities evicted the entire living population of the cemetery. Around 20 families have found shelter in a nearby building. But how do they adapt to the life “outside”, as the cemetery dwellers refer to the world beyond the graveyard’s walls? Adrian, 11, has been living in the South Cemetery for the past two years and is trying to make a living for him and his father in the streets of Makati. Without his mother and school education, Adrian needs to grow up fast.

Struck by the same fate are Julie and Primo and their three children, former cemetery-dwellers who make a modest living as parking assistants at a local churchyard. Basically living on the streets, they face a constant struggle of keeping their young family intact and healthy.

Health is a consistent problem among the urban poor in the overpopulated areas. In overpopulation hotspots such as Baseco or Tondo, the urban poor flock to faith healers to help them with their ailments and even births as they cannot afford the treatment in the metropolis’ hospitals. Taking the viewer from the business district Makati to Manila’s suburbs Tondo and Baseco, the project concludes by portraying two faith healers and their patients. The residents of these areas see faith healers more as general practitioners, rather than visiting them for their ascribed mystical powers. This is largely because free health care is almost impossible to come by, and faith healers, as opposed to hospitals, work on the basis of voluntary donations.

Through the form of multimedia, the project gives a voice to its subjects and seeks to contribute to the discourse on demography, population and reproductive health in the Philippines.


Between rocks and hard places. Stories from the Salween River between Burma and Thailand

The Salween close to the proposed Dagwin dam site.

The Salween, at 2,400 kilometers length, is the longest currently free-flowing river in Asia. Along about 180 kilometers, it also constitutes the border between Thailand and Burma. But with no less than 17 dam projects (most of them inside China) in the pipeline, the tranquility of this majestic stream is in danger.

Boat operator in Mae Sam Laep, Thailand.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Burmese government about the construction of four of these dams. These are the Tasang in Burma’s Shan State, and the Weigyi, the Dagwin and the Hatgyi in Karen State. But as of now, most of the dam projects are on hold due to the presence of several insurgent armies in the vicinity of the project sites. Most prominent among them, the Karen National Union (KNU), a rebel army of the Karen minority, has been fighting the Burmese government since more than 60 years.

Youth in Ei Htu Hta IDP camp inside Karen state, Burma.

Karen IDP children inside Ei Htu Hta camp, Karen State, Burma.

The scourge of armed conflict may also be blessing in disguise, though. The stalled construction of dams such as the Hatgyi would endanger the existence and livelihoods of several villages, on both sides of the river. Despite being on the Thai side of the border, the Karen villagers of Sop Moei fears its impending flooding if the Hatgyi dam, some 40 kilometers downstream, would be built. At the very least, livelihood patterns, such as subsistence fishery, will be negatively affected by the anticipated rising water level.

Fisherman on the Salween near Sop Moei village, Thailand.

The construction of the Hatgyi dam inside Burma would affect the water levels and livelihoods of people depending on the river for their subsistence.

Studies have also shown that the area affected by this and similar dam projects is home to a rich, yet fragile ecosystem. About 400 different species of animals and plants were counted by Karen researchers in 2008, about a tenth of which are considered endangered.
One could argue that for a country with Burma’s level of development – ranking 132 out of 169 countries on the United Nation’s Human Development Index – the benefits of such major development projects outweigh their collateral damages to people and ecosystems. But the vast majority of the electricity which is to be generated in the dams is geared for export to Thailand and China.

Road in Ei Htu Hta IDP camp, Karen State, Burma.

For many people living in Burma, particularly along its conflict-ridden and fragile borders, this adds insult to injury. Speaking for the Kachin minority in northern Burma, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) wrote an open letter to the Chinese government to protest against the proposed Myitsone dam site. The dam would flood much of the Kachin territory. The KIO leaders wrote that ‘KIO would not be responsible for the civil war if the war broke out because of this hydropower plant project and the dam construction’.

Similar developments are expected along the Karen-populated Thai-Burmese border, should the Salween dam projects push forward. Both sides of the border river are sprawling with camps for refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons). About 150,000 Karen are refugees inside Thailand, while the number of Karen IDPs is estimated at about half a million people. Should their make-shift homes be sacrificed for the quest for cheap electricity in China and Thailand, the insurgents’ numbers may soar even higher than the to-be-dammed Salween’s water levels.

Ei Htu Hta IDP camp is the temporary shelter for more than 4,000 Karen people.

Youth in Ei Htu Hta IDP camp in Karen state, Burma.

Collecting firewood in Ei Htu Hta IDP camp inside Karen state, Burma.

Interpreting Resilience — Seven Diptychs from the Philippines

For a recent course assignment, we were asked for a conceptual approach to understand and visually interpret resilience. I would understand resilience in terms of adaptability and as a positive attitude towards one’s surroundings.

My visual interpretation thus teams up individual character portraits and their immediate environments. Every diptych is composed of a color and a black&white photo. All photos were taken in the Philippines between 2010 and 2011.

Gold Rush in Compostela Valley, Philippines

In the Philippines, barangays (villages) are the smallest political units of the country’s decentralized political system. But when entering the barangay Diwalwal of the municipality of Monkayo, in Mindanao’s province of Compostela Valley, this seems hard to believe. Despite the grueling and terrifying journey on rocky and steep dirt roads that it takes to get here, there are more than 50,000 people living in the so-called settlement area of Mt. Diwata, popularized as “Diwalwal”.

The gold mining site Mt. Diwalwal in the Philippines is notorious for its violent competition between tunnel owners which claimed many lives, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Since the big tunnel owners monopolized the gold trade and pushed many small-scale miners out of their businesses, violence and shootings have become more rare in Diwalwal.

There is a single reason for tens of thousands of people to squeeze themselves, their families and their modest belongings along the landslide-prone slopes of this remote mountain area. It is the gold rush that broke out here after the precious metal was discovered by indigenous peoples in the mountain’s rivers in the 1980s. Since then, Diwalwal has never been the same again.

Even though its population is declining due to lower yields, there are still about 50,000 people living in Diwalwal, a barangay (village) of Monkayo in Compostala Valley (Mindanao) in the southern Philippines. The steep slopes of the settlement area are highly prone to landslides.

Its roads, which would be considered impassable not only by Western, but also by most Filipinos’ standards, are clattered with rubbish, waste, and excrements being washed away by the ever-running water. Water is used to process the stones extracted from Diwalwal’s numerous gold mines, and since Diwalwal is only about gold, it also never runs dry.

The streets of Diwalwal are populated by numerous motorcycles, which, together with the ever-running mills, produce a constant noisy disturbance.

It is also never quiet – the rod mills, which are used to pulverize the extracted stones for further processing, never stop turning. They give off a sound that resembles a constant, heavy rainfall. This cacophony is enhanced by omnipresent karaoke machines and the shrieking of the motocross engines, which, incredibly, manage to traverse the village roads with reasonable efficiency.

Even though the mining operations are by now mechanized to some extent, they rely primarily on physical labor.

In the local dialect, Diwalwal connotes a tongue hanging out of your mouth from exhaustion, and was quickly adapted as a nickname for Mt. Diwata. When visiting the mining sites, the meaning of this nickname quickly becomes very clear. Despite being mechanized to some extent nowadays, gold mining remains an inherently physical business.

The sacks with raw stones extracted from the mines are being carried by porters, often minors.

Miners – called abanteros – chip away at the raw stones in the tunnels, which are only lit by basic flashlights and headlamps. Outside, the rocks that have potential for gold processing are put in huge sacks, which can weigh up 80 kilograms. These sacks are then carried by porters to the tunnel owners’ processing plants, which may be kilometers away.

A young man carrying a sack full of stones from a tunnel in Diwalwal. Depending on their size, they can weigh 50-80 kilograms.

Carbon, cyanide and mercury – highly regulated substances – are used to process the stones, with the chemical waste generated in the process being dumped somewhere in the vicinity. From 20 tons of stones, a tunnel operator extracts an average of 300 to 400 grams of gold – his workers are only paid by a share in the profit, which may be enormous or nil.

Waste pool behind a gold processing plant in Maragusan, Compostela Valley. There is little awareness for the environmental and health consequences of the chemicals being used.

Diwalwal has a reputation as a dangerous and violent place, and to some extent, it seems quite content with this ascription. “Intruders will be shoot. Survivors will be shoot again (sic)” reads a room door in the settlement’s only lodging house. At a village party to celebrate the 21st founding anniversary of the barangay, a huge slogan reads “Only the brave survived”.

Women are frequently employed to prepare the sacks full of raw rocks that are later carried to processing plants.

In the bad old days of Diwalwal’s founding years, random shootings with high-powered guns, deathly arson against competitors’ tunnels and violent bar brawls cost the lives of many people. But since the big tunnel operators have monopolized the business, levels of violence have gone down. Yet, this is not to mean that Diwalwal is a stranger to death and violence these days. “Life is cheap in mining”, says Joe (not his real name), a local government-employee-turned-miner. Killings of competing miners or tunnel operators can be contracted for as little as 5,000 pesos (slightly more than 100 USD).

Miner in front of a tunnel in Diwalwal, Philippines.

Besides the targeted killings, gold mining is a highly militarized business on its own. “ You need to have guns”, Joe says, in order to even find workers for your tunnels. The reason is that once a tunnel yields high rates of gold, competing tunnel owners will start to blast their way into this tunnel with dynamite in order to also benefit from the precious find. Once the tunnels meet, firepower decides who will prevail.

Accidents in the mines due to cave-ins are still frequent and make working in the mines perilous.

These days, the gold rush in Compostela Valley is on the move again. Since gold was discovered in the neighboring municipality of Maragusan in 2008, many miners and tunnel operators have shifted their operations there. Locals in Maragusan are afraid that the new neighbors will also bring their “bad ways” over from Diwalwal, including violence, overpopulation and prostitution.

Room door at a lodging house in Diwalwal, Compostela Valley, Mindanao (Philippines). Diwalwal is notorious for its violent competition between tunnel owners which claimed many lives, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.

At the same time, the constellation of actors and interests in Maragusan is even more complex than it is in Diwalwal. Not only has the New People’s Army (NPA), the communist insurgency, a strong presence here. The mountain valley is also home to a 6,000 hectares banana plantation by Dole and it is the refuge for many former contract killers of the infamous “Davao Death Squad”, which was allegedly used by Davao’s previous mayor Rodrigo Duterte to “clean up” his city through extrajudicial killings.

In the bigger processing plants, carbon (pictured) and cyanide are used to process the gold.

All this boils down to a highly explosive mix of actors and issues, which has a high potential to escalate if the current balance should get disturbed. Law enforcement by the Philippine state is virtually absent here, which is unlikely to change any time soon. Keeping the peace depends on the ability of private and non-governmental actors to commit to some, albeit fragile, sense of social order.

From about 20 kilograms of stones, this worker extracted about 600 miligrams of mercurized gold.

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