Blackjack or charcoal? | Inquirer Opinion

Blackjack or charcoal?

/ 09:12 PM March 12, 2012

Two projects will soon come to life near the shores of Manila Bay. They are as different as two projects can be: one is the casino empire of Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) that will occupy a vast area of the reclaimed land off Pasay and Parañaque; the second is the construction of a smokeless “pugon” for charcoal-making that will rise at the northern tip of Pier 18 in Tondo, Manila, within sight of the old Smokey Mountain.

The projects are so different in philosophy, actors and resources, that one day the government may have to choose one or the other as its signature approach to development.


The projects are totally different. The casinos will occupy 60 hectares or 100 hectares (accounts in the paper differ) of the reclaimed land. The new pugon will take only 120 square meters of land.

The casinos will be financed by international gambling companies; the pugon will be backed in great part by the Catholic archdiocese of Manila. Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, former archbishop of Manila, supported the latter project; Current Manila Archbishop Chito Tagle gives it as much backing. National Housing Authority General Manager Chito Cruz has helped in other ways.


The casinos will be run by giant entrepreneurs approved by Pagcor, some of whom, such as, Steve Wynn and Kazuo Okada, have been in the papers recently for allegedly bribing government personnel. The pugon will be run by a cooperative made up of poor men and women engaged in charcoal-making, who live in the shanties nearby.

The casinos produce wealth for their owners, and fun, excitement and, ultimately, great sorrow for their customers. In the end all gamblers lose in the casinos.  The pugon will produce high-grade charcoal and wood vinegar as a byproduct; and it will provide livelihood for 40 poor families this year and, it is hoped, many more later on.

Casino gambling, as experience has shown us, has led to racketeering with the Mafia and triads, guaranteeing a run-up in crime incidence (murder, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery) and corruption in government. The pugon is an example of cooperative manufacturing that can be the basis of a local economy benefiting all members of a community.

I have not been invited to board meetings of the casinos, but I was able to attend a meeting in late February of the men who will run the new pugons once they are built. The men came one by one into the day care center where the meeting was held and sat down, or tried to sit down, in the small yellow chairs the children use. They came straight from their work, so their faces were black from the toxic smoke the traditional pugons emit. The faces of many women and children in the community were also black because they too help in the work. To be candid about it, the men looked a little menacing, but they smiled as they tried to get comfortable in the tiny chairs, and it was then you could see a brilliant contrast—white dazzling smiles—bursting from their dark faces.  The men looked younger than they are. The vice president of the group looked 45 at most, but told me he was already 59.

There are 350 families in the area which is called Ulingan. Most make charcoal which creates that raw smoke that drifts through the whole community. Some families are scavengers or earn from sorting and selling garbage. We saw very few idle men just standing around, unlike what you usually see in other poor areas.

The people of Ulingan have a water co-op that receives metered water from Maynilad, which the co-op sells cheaply to the families. The profit is used to help families when someone dies or is in the hospital or falls into some other emergency. The Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program reaches 400 of the approximately 1,200 families in Ulingan and nearby sitios.

The men and women at the meeting seemed happy with the CCT and the loans and temporary work the program also offers. The name of the organization is Samahang Matiisin. The people are still waiting for a good English translation. Any suggestions?


The men will work in smokeless pugons and are interested in all the arrangements. How long will the training period be? How big will the team be for each pugon? (We hope to build four pugons to start with 10 men at each pugon.) Labor will be donated, the men agreed. They discussed a sharing of the profits and work schedules in the new venture. The seminar will be run by Juan “Jun” Marquez who has his own smokeless pugons in Silang, Cavite. It was a very business-like meeting.

Finally we ended the meeting and started home. This meant going out through the mud that cuts Ulingan off from the outside world. The mud is bad at all times, but when it rains it is so thick and muscular we wouldn’t really be surprised to see big crocodiles crawl out of it. The poor children have to go through this mud every day on their way to school. We are looking for rubber boots so they do not get injured or infected as they wade through the mud.

The difference between the casino empire-type of development and the smokeless pugon-type may be so great the government will have to decide to take the path of high stakes gambling and tourism, or that of basic manufacturing, and a simpler form of tourism. What will it choose? What should it choose?

Maybe the government can then give the 60-100 hectares of land reserved for the casinos to house poor families.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates.

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