In Manila, Some Yearn to Return to the Shanty Towns

A laudable program, as most of the Philippines press describes it: reduce the overcrowding in parts of the megacity of Manila, clear waterways to allow the construction of modern flood control infrastructure, move people out of squatter settlements to safer housing. Told their old homes were in flood zones and other dangerous areas, residents are moved to newly built suburbs outside the city; but as Bulatlat reports here, there are no jobs, hospitals or even schools in the resettlement areas; and in some cases, the danger of flooding and landslides is even worse.

Sweeping visions of urban renewal have always required a lot of sweeping. A vast World Bank and International Monetary Fund sponsored plan to remake the Philippine capital as a city “more conducive to investors, entrepreneurs and innovators” has in practice meant demolishing the shantytowns and moving former residents far away from the sites of future shopping malls and business parks.

Sweeping visions of urban renewal have always required a lot of sweeping. A vast World Bank and International Monetary Fund sponsored plan to remake the Philippine capital as a city “more conducive to investors, entrepreneurs and innovators” has in practice meant demolishing the shantytowns and moving former residents far away from the sites of future shopping malls and business parks.

In Kasiglahan village, Rizal, Sulpicio and Magdalena dela Cruz, both 74 years old, are prepared should heavy flooding once again ravage their home, in a relocation site in Rodriguez, Rizal [in the foothills on the outskirts of Manila].

Their clothes are placed on a hammock that hangs in the middle of their house. Magdalena even has a life jacket and big rubber floater nearby. Tied to her husband’s wheelchair are small plastic bags, which, she said, are packed with their important things. All she had to do, she said, is to guide her husband, who has emphysema, a chronic pulmonary disease, to the wheelchair and push both of them to safety.

But no matter how prepared she is, Magdalena said, she is still afraid of what could befall both of them should a heavy rain, and consequently flooding, devastate their community.

“That kind of rain,” Magdalena said pointing the drizzle outside their house, “is okay. But if it rains non-stop from morning until evening, that is dangerous. Water (from the river) could overflow. Our community’s sorry state is really alarming.”

Magdalena said they experienced none of these uncertainties in their old house in Balara [nearer the center of the city]. They never experienced flooding there, she added. The government, however, said their homes must be demolished because they are living in so-called “danger zones.”

“They told us we were living in one of those danger zones and that we need to move out. But they brought us to a more dangerous zone,” she said, adding that on top of her concerns over their safety, both of them have to contend with the lack of social services and sources of livelihood in the community.

Urban poor families displaced [to]the relocation sites in Rodriguez, Rizal have long pressed the government to ensure their safety, livelihood and access to social services. Their experiences in the relocation site belied the promises of the government that they would live in a community safe from calamities, just as they used to face back in the “danger zones.”

But their demands for the government to provide them with social services, according to Carlito Badion, secretary general of urban poor group Kadamay, have been met with insults. He [said]that a village official informed him that the [homes]abandoned during the monsoon rain last year would be demolished and turned into a cemetery.

“Social services are hardly given to the people here. If they push through with their plan to construct a cemetery here, then our criticism is correct. They have really forced the people to move from a danger zone to a death zone,” said Badion, who is also a resident of Kasiglahan Village, one of the government relocation sites in Rodriguez, Rizal.

He [said]this is the first relocation site that will have a cemetery inside. And while there is nothing innately bad about it, the planned construction of a cemetery shows the indifference of local government officials to the plight and suffering of the relocatees.

Geologist Ricarido Saturay said, in an earlier Bulatlat.com report, that moving poor families from so-called danger areas would not necessarily translate to minimizing the impact of disasters.

The government’s usual response to disasters, he said, is to remove affected families from being exposed to the immediate calamity. But transferring them to a relocation site, he added, would only increase the risks they are facing.

“They will be moved to a place that is also exposed to hazards, which is not just flooding but also landslides. And since they have no jobs and other livelihoods, vulnerability, too, would increase.”

As early as 2004, a report of the Urban Poverty Morphology Series stated that Kasiglahan Village is not suitable for a socialized housing project, citing its vulnerability to flooding and earthquake.

The study also noted that the floodplain, where water from mountain ranges of Sierra Madre would flow, was merely reclaimed to give way to the relocation area. A river, too, was diverted.

On top of these, Badion said, the poor drainage system and the denudation of the mountains due to quarrying and logging activities have greatly contributed to the flooding in Kasiglahan Village.

As a result, heavy flooding occurred in the area on August 1998, November 2004 and Typhoon Ondoy in 2009. The most controversial, however, was the flooding brought by the monsoon rain in 2012, where a photo of flood waters nearly as high as the row houses of the relocation site went viral in social networking sites.

typhoon21 Typhoon Kiko, 2010. Photo CC: Ernie Penaredondo.

Badion said the relocation site is also near the West Valley Fault line.

“Our houses here are poorly made. I do not think it could survive even the slightest quake. If that happens,” Magdalena said, referring to the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit Central Visayas last Oct. 14, 2013, “I would move some of our things and hide down there,” pointing under the bed.

“I could only pray to God that we would survive,” she added.

Aside from the lack of jobs available in relocation sites, the glaring need for access to social services remains one of the concerns of relocatees residing there.

Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Emmi de Jesus said she is appalled with the sorry conditions of the residents and relocatees at the relocation site in Rodriguez, Rizal, particularly in Southville B and C.

Families were told that there is a school waiting for their children at the relocation site. But, De Jesus said, these schools were not prepared to take in many students. “We have seen 100-150 students forced to fit inside one classroom, and students have to bring their own chairs to school,” she said.

Purita Dayao, a resident of North Triangle who agreed to be relocated in Rodriguez, Rizal said two of her children stopped going to school. “I do not want to force them. They really wanted to finish their schooling (in Quezon City). But I cannot afford the everyday fare. They may be missing their friends (in their old school).

Free health services are also hard to get at the relocation site, said De Jesus. The health centers, she said, is equipped only with basic first aid kits and nearby hospitals are privately-run and are too expensive for the residents.

“There are no doctors nor medicines. You have to buy it yourself,” Magdalena said.

Magdalena, whose husband Sulpicio has emphysema, said they have to go for their check-ups [to a]hospital about an hour away from the relocation area.

The electricity rate, too, is way higher in the relocation area because it utilizes a sub-meter system being run by Baque Corporation, according to De Jesus.

“Residents complain that Baque Corporation exacts exorbitant fees, and often households are charged up to $13.95 a month even when they hardly consumed any electricity. Residents hardly have any appliances, so it was upsetting for the mothers to be forced to pay so much for electricity that they did not use,” de Jesus said.

In Feb. 2013, relocatees trooped to the office of the New San Jose Builders Inc., the developer of the relocation site, because it cut off the community’s electricity supply without advance notice. Residents said they were told by representatives of the New San Jose Builders that their company owe [utility company]Meralco about $12,500.

Badion said this left residents wondering where their payments to the real estate developer went and why they had to suffer in the end.

Merci Merilles, spokesperson of the Montalban Relocatees Alliance, said in a previous Bulatlat.com report that this is one of the government’s ways to get money from residents when it is its duty to provide services to them.

The report of the Department of Interior Local Governement’s Technical Working Group on the Urban Poor under the late Jesus Robredo, too, acknowledged that there is a shortage in housing units available in relocation sites.

manila321 Manila. Photo CC: Diego Maranan.

“The quantity of available housing units is in itself an issue, but this is further compounded by the quality of resettlement areas in terms of access to services and facilities, which, in turn, affect the quality of life settlers will have in the area,” Robredo said in the report.

Robredo added that off-city resettlement, which has been the default option, is not pro-poor.

“Off-city relocation costs typically fail to take into account attendant social and economic costs. If such costs are taken into consideration such as (e.g. infrastructure for hospitals, schools, water systems, etc.); b) social costs to informal settlers (e.g. loss of livelihood, hardship costs, etc.); and d) recurrent costs (e.g. transportation expenses incurred by resettled households in commuting, etc.), among others, then dense on-site redevelopment or in-city relocation is glaringly the best choice,” the report read.

He added that an in-city construction of a medium rise building will cost the government $397.62 million compared to the $261.9 million, which would only cover the costs of acquiring the land.

Critics said the government only wants to clear Metro Manila in order to pave the way for about 50 public private partnership projects. All of these, [Anakpawis Partylist Rep. Fernando] Hicap said, would result in the displacement of poor families.

“It seems that the government wants to ‘flush out and decongest’ Metro Manila of urban poor families but has no concrete solutions on how to provide families with affordable housing, livelihood and services,” Hicap said.

Magdalena, for her part, said they would continue to remain “always prepared” for any possible disaster. But as far as urban poor groups are concerned, the biggest disaster is the fact that the government remains uncaring toward the people, who, in the first place, have put them in power.

A PROGRAM THAT BEGAN UNDER ARROYO, NOW EXPANDED

manila221 Pasig River, Manila. Photo CC: Miguel Castaneda.

In another relocation site, in Quezon City, in the North Triangle, Purita Dayao, 49, was sitting on a makeshift bed, waiting for a pot of rice to be cooked. Her family’s shanty, where three is a crowd, could hardly stand an unforgiving wind.

But Dayao would rather live in North Triangle than spend one more day at the relocation site in Rodriguez, Rizal, where they were forcibly transferred two years ago.

“The houses look good. But we do not have livelihood there. We have electricity and water but we do not have money to pay our bills,” Dayao told Bulatlat.com..

Dayao is not new to moving from one place to another for survival. She first moved from Dumaguete to Manila in 1988, due to the lack of livelihood. She raised all her seven children in North Triangle until a fire razed her house back in 2011, forcing her to accept the long-standing offer of the National Housing Authority to resettle in San Isidro, one of the government’s relocation areas in Rodriguez, Rizal.

Dayao understands that her family could only stay in North Triangle for as long as the residents remain vigilant in their struggle to fight for their homes. Residents have to fight against government policies, which they consider as anti-poor.

Executive Order No. 670 or the Rationalizing and Speeding up the Development of East and North Triangles and the Veterans Memorial Area in Quezon City, signed under former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004, has paved the way for the eviction of thousands of urban poor families in North Triangle.

The said project, better known as the Quezon City Central Business District, covers about 256 hectares and will supposedly put Quezon City at the forefront of foreign investments. Its biggest investor, the Ayala Land Corporation, one of country’s largest real estate companies, has signed an agreement with the National Housing Authority to develop 29.1 hectares at an estimated cost of $500 million.

The situation of residents of North Triangle, however, is a microcosm of the conditions of urban poor dwellers in Metro Manila, who have long been demanding that the government provides jobs and social services, but are getting eviction notices instead.

Under President Aquino alone, some 14,000 families residing in poor communities are facing eviction to give way to so-called development projects. This includes the Quezon City Central Business District, National Government Center, and in Vitas, Manila.

In 2011, Aquino announced during an ASEAN meeting that he is also planning to relocate 560,000 families to 1.5 million hectares of land in an effort to decongest Metro Manila. Public Works secretary Rogelio Singson, too, was quoted as saying that he received instructions from the president to remove homes sitting along waterways and blast their homes if necessary. He, however, retracted the statement a few days later.

Many residents of urban poor communities, like in North Triangle, chose to stay and fight, citing the lack of available sources of livelihood in relocation areas.

Dayao, having been used to a life of relocating, was optimistic her life would improve when she accepted the government’s offer to be resettled back in 2011. She was surprised to find out that there would hardly be a source of livelihood for her and her husband, a jeepney driver who earns roughly $7 to $14 a day.

As a result, Dayao was forced to leave behind some of their children in Montalban while she and her husband returned to North Triangle to work. They now live in a shanty, just beside a vacant lot where their house used to sit, because they were no longer allowed to construct a new house.

“Officials of the NHA come regularly to check if we are building permanent structures. That is not allowed,” she said.

The Aquino government claims that the problem of flooding in Metro Manila would be resolved by clearing waterways of homes of urban poor families. But critics believe that this is just another tactic to give way to privatization projects.

Even the North Triangle area, the planned site of the Quezon City Business District, is being categorized by the government as a “danger zone.” Residents do not believe it.

Ricky Indicio, 45, said residents were told that their homes need to be demolished because it is sitting next to a small creek. It is, he said, supposedly part of the waterways Aquino wanted to clear.

But having lived in North Triangle for the past 30 years, Indicio belied government claims that their community is among those considered as “danger areas.”

Sherlita Gimena, 45, another resident, agreed with Indicio. “During Typhoon Ondoy, the flood water here was only knee-level. During last year’s heavy monsoon rains, it was only gutter-deep. This is not a danger zone,” she said.

Indicio added that it is not even clear how the government defines a “danger zone.”

Urban poor groups said there are no clearly defined criteria being used by the government in classifying a danger zone. In Payatas, a community located several minutes away from North Triangle, residents said so-called “danger zones” are man-made.

John Valencia said the mountain of garbage visible just behind their community used to be filled with plants and trees. And while the dumpsite has brought livelihood to residents, from scavenging garbage to working as truck drivers, the dump site would soon cause their displacement.

“The dumpsite is getting bigger and is getting nearer our community. They covered the creek with stones. Now, even the slightest rain causes flooding in our community. They want to make it appear that we are now living in a danger zone,” he said.

Valencia said flooding was never a problem in their community since 1988 – not even when Typhoon Ondoy and during the heavy monsoon rains last year – until now.

“It is possible that they are the ones who are killing us,” Valencia said.

Relocation sites have long been criticized for the lack in sources of livelihood. This, according to urban poor groups, remains as the main reason why urban poor families do not want to be relocated there. Many residents in urban poor communities are either employed as workers earning the minimum wage or even less, or are part of the informal sector being pedicab drivers or vendors.

Mario Berza, 57, one of the residents hurt during an attempt to demolish their community last July 1, 2013, told Bulatlat.com in a previous report that he is ready to barricade their community again should the police attempt to evict them from their homes.

manila421Slums along the railroad, Manila. Photo CC: Zak Lee.

As a pedicab driver, Berza plies Agham Road and nearby streets and earns about $7 to $11 a day. His income is hardly enough to cover for his family’s needs. “There are no sources of livelihood, no hospital and no work available at relocation sites. We do not want to live there,” he said.

Cristina Barnaja, 45, said she, too, could possibly lose her source of livelihood if her family is relocated to Rodriquez, Rizal. Barnaja, earns a living by sewing rags. For every 22 pieces of rags, she earns P34 ($0.8).

“This is how we live by. I do not know what to do if I lose this,” she said, adding that their clients would not bother to buy the rags from far-flung relocation sites.

Indicio said residents were the ones who contributed to the development of their community. The wet market inside North Triangle, he added, was a product of the residents’ initiatives.

“We were asking the city and village officials to help us develop the market. But we were told that all we have to do is to clean up our stalls. But the floor is not paved so it is muddy whenever it rains. No matter how hard we try to clean it, it still looks dirty,” Indicio said.

He added that when they pressed village officials to have the market road cemented, they were told that vendors should pitch in for the cost because the government has no funds for what they were proposing. “We held a campaign ‘Tapat mo, Semento mo’ and the road was eventually cemented without the government’s help,” he said.

“Since the road was cemented, more people were encouraged to buy in the market,” he added.

Indicio sells vegetables in the market and, when he is lucky, would earn as much as $14 a day. “Now they want to take that away from us,” he said.

In the face of what urban poor families decry as disasters they need to confront every day, progressive groups said there are no laws that would serve the interest of the urban poor. The Republic Act 7279 or the Urban Poor Development and Housing Act, which would supposedly push for the welfare of the urban poor, has, according to critics, paved the way for more demolitions.

On Mar. 23, 2012, residents of urban poor communities and members of progressive groups marched to the Supreme Court and asked the high court to look into certain provisions of the UDHA that states that demolition shall be discouraged unless “persons or entities occupy danger areas such as esteros [wetlands], railroad tracks, garbage damps, riverbanks, shorelines, and other public places such as sidewalks, roads, parks and playgrounds” and if “government infrastructure projects with available funding are to be implemented.”

In their petition, the groups asked the high court to declare the provisions unconstitutional as these are used to evict “underprivileged and homeless citizens without any court order to that effect” when the “Bill of Rights provides that no person shall be deprived of their life, liberty, or property without due process of law nor shall be denied equal protection of the law.”

As of writing, the Supreme Court has yet to issue a decision on the petition.

Anakpawis Partylist, for its part, filed House Resolution No. 120, to call on the government to issue a moratorium on forced evictions and demolitions.

“The government just wants to sweep them out of danger zones and transfer them to death zones where there are no livelihood opportunities, jobs, social services and further expose them to calamities such as earthquakes and flooding,” Anakpawis Partylist Rep. Fernando Hicap said. “While the government has no concrete plans for informal settlers, no demolition should take place in communities.”

Hicap added that Congress is just one of the arenas where the urban poor could bring their fight. “Organizing and making their organization stronger is the most decisive force in our efforts to defend our homes from demolition.”

Janess Ann J. Ellao