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Paul Mason: 'Slumlands—filthy secret of the modern mega-city'

Josh Oldham16 August 2011

Across the world, slums are home to a billion people. The rich elite want the shanty towns cleared, but residents are surprisingly determined not to leave. In a report for BBC Newsnight and an article for the New Statesman, Paul Mason, author of Meltdown, explores this issue, looking at the reality of life in Philippine slums, and the arguments surrounding the plans for their clearance.

Describing his visit to the slums of Manila, Mason writes:

There is a long curve of water and, as far as the eye can see, there are shacks, garbage, washing, tin, bits of wood, scraps of cloth, rats and children. The water is grey, but at the edges there's a flotsam of multicoloured plastic rubbish. This is the Estero de San Miguel, the front line in an undeclared war between the rich and poor of Manila. Figures emerge from creaky doors to move along bits of walkway. In the deep distance is the dome of a mosque; beyond that are skyscrapers.

Mena Cinco, a community leader here, volunteers to take me in - but only about 50 yards. After that, she cannot guarantee my safety. At the bottom of a ladder, the central mystery of the Estero de San Miguel is revealed: a long tunnel, four feet wide, dark except for the occasional bare bulb. It's just like an old coal mine, with rickety joists, shafts of light and pools of what I'm hoping is water on the floor. All along the tunnel are doors into the homes of as many as 6,000 people.

Despite the conditions, the article reveals that the issues surrounding closing such settlements are complex and varied; economic and social considerations often dividing politicians and dwellers.

The debate, at the global level, is no longer about how fast to tear these places down but whether we can meet the rapidly developing aspirations of highly educated people in tin shacks. To those who dream that, as capitalism develops, it will eradicate slums, Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity says dream on. "You can't fight something that has a stronger model than you [do]. It's never going to happen again. The fact of it is that if you tried to do it in some of these informal settlements, they could take out the city . . . march on the central business district, and it's game over."

Visit the New Statesman to read the article in full. Visit the BBC to watch the programme.

Mason's forthcoming book Why Everything is Kicking Off Everywhere will be published in January 2012.

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