Wednesday, November 24, 2010

San Roque

Earlier in the week I had the opportunity to attend a meeting with the Assistant General Manager of the NHA Froilan Kampitan . The meeting had been requested by the Council of leaders of a group of squatters that had recently been granted tenure, and we’re now in the process of paying off their lots. The Council is selected by popular vote and has a predefined term in office. I learned that these current Councillours were alleging the previous set were shown favouritism, and allocated larger lots by the NHA. The meeting began with participants around the table each stating the size of their lot and whether or not they were up to date with their repayments. Of those present the biggest lot was 18m2 and the smallest was 9m2 (not just the shanty itself the entire parcel of land), and nobody reported being behind on payments. The conversation is in Tagalog but peppered with enough English for me to get the gist. One of the Council members, a middle aged woman-who stands out slightly because she wore stilettos to this meeting-speaks emphatically about a previous Councillour who was allocated a lot of 23m2. She says ‘23' in a scandalous tone, like the number is a blasphemy. The fact that this is only 5m2 larger than her own lot is testament to just how valuable space is in Manila.

There’s a long exchange before the Assistant General Manager says (in English) that he wont now dispute the claims of favouritism, but the Council will have to go through the Court system to pursue the complaint. He also assures them that if they were dealing with a new development on a vacant site then all parcels would be equal. As this is an on-site slum upgrade and they were committed to accommodating all existing residents, some discrepancy was inevitable. He comes off as having a genuine concern for the people in front of him right now and I don’t envy him his job.

Earlier Flora had shown me a letter they’d received from the NHA in response to a proposal for an alternative relocation site for the San Roque North Triangle community within QC. I’d read the Montalban relocation site was 23kms away, I didn't look at the odometer when we visited but in traffic it took us more than an hour to get there.

On site in Montalban at the moment there is no permanent supply of water, so the residents pump it by hand.  The supply of electricity is also inconsistent and was off when we got there so all of the one-room concrete houses were dark.  I asked one San Roque resident who accompanied us what he thought and he said "No water, no electricity, no job, no hospital" our NHA escort who had been looking uncomfortable since I asked the question then told us there was a hospital 'just over the hill'.   

A site within QC is a compromise that is much less likely to derail the lives of the residents of San Roque. The NHA's letter to Flora-among other things-stated that in accordance with due process the community's proposal was unable to be considered until it was in the appropriate format and included; ‘Preliminary Site Development Plan, Preliminary Feasibility Study, PHILvocs Clearance, DENR Clearance, BIR Zonal Valuation, Rawland Appraisal’ and some others to total 11 points. The sign off was the somewhat facetious “We look forward to your response”. Facetious because it was very unlikely we could find anyone in San Roque who could identify everything on the list, let alone had the means to compile it all into a submission.

I discussed with Flora about the possibility of arranging as many of the items on the list as we could, in particular the first two. The remainder would require-among other things-a professional surveyor and a valuer which we could later explore funding options for. I told her about some successful examples of slum relocation from Mumbai and Istanbul. What they had in common (also with the local success story San Mendis) was the community themselves acting as a determining authority throughout the whole process. Decisions regarding spatial planning, built form, service provision and obviously the location of the site itself were all driven by the community. A relocation site could not be successful (ie. where the people remain there and can lead a happy productive life) unless the community viewed it as appropriate; this self determination is essential. We decided to approach the San Roque Community Council (SRCC) and ask if they’d allow us to conduct a workshop with the community to lay the foundations for them to develop their own proposal to submit to the NHA.

Earlier on my first visit to San Roque we’d met a group of women leaders from each of the 14 organizations that come under the SRCC. They were an entertaining group who after getting over giggling and asking if I was single became quite fiery. One-after slowly and painfully working her way through an introduction in English-thumped the table and announced that she was a proud Filipino and if I wanted to speak to her I’d better learn her language (fair point). Another one told me she’d been living here for a generation and made a slicing motion across her neck when she said to me “This place, our home. Worth for dying. Worth for dying."
"Worth dying for?"
"Yes worth dying for."

Each of these women knew by heart how many members their groups had before the first round of voluntary demolitions, and how many still remain. Apparently those who voluntarily demolished and relocated to Montalban are viewed as deserters who have effectively abandoned them to their struggle. They tell me that many of the families want to come back to San Roque because the Montalban site has “no water and no job” but they are too ashamed and also afraid to return.

We met with the Chairman Edwin at the SRCC office - one of the few concrete buildings in the middle of San Roque. Edwin has a bubbly effeminate manner, so his downtrodden face and eyes right now don't suit the rest of his demeanor. When we get introduced he looks very unimpressed with my presence here and tells me that I better ask a question because he has so much in his heart that if he just starts talking he will cry. I ask him one probing question about events since the attempted demolition on September 23rd. He mentions he has to go to court later today as on that date a worker of the MMDA hit him in the face with a brick breaking his cheekbone, he spent a month in hospital and is now seeking damages. After a few minutes the floodgates open right up. He talks for an hour and a half with me contributing one or two sentences. He goes off on tangents a lot and its clear he’s very emotional, but he’s philosophical about the predicament and had some admirably level headed things to say. I had my dictaphone sitting on my knee; these are my two favourite bits from his monologue.

“I am not against capitalism but we should all get the chance to be capitalists. Capitalism says if you are lazy, then your income will be lazy also. If you are industrious, your income should be industrious also. How come in this setting, we are all very industrious yet we are still poor.”

“This is not a struggle for the poor to win and the rich to die. This is a struggle for the rich to get richer and the poor to get richer. But we need to first extend love and assistance to the poor in society because they are in the greatest need. We also need to love the rich, not because they are rich but because they are human.”

After Edwin gave us his endorsement we made preparations (which included Josie from Payatas and 1 helper Gino having to cook food for 60 people on less than a day’s notice) to have 3 representatives from each of the 14 resident’s groups meet along with a few other prominent community members. The chosen site was an open sided patio with either bars or chicken wire fence on all side, next to a basketball court in what serves as the central square inside San Roque.

On Saturday we arrive at 9 for an opening address from Teody, one of the more vocal leaders I met earlier. This structure couldn’t be more than than 10m x 7m and attendance looks to be slightly less than expected and I count 49 people. Teody however has a microphone held right up against her lips and two garbage bin sized speakers with the volume turned up to 11 so as to blow my head off when she begins her stern address. No one else seems to be the least bit phased but its bordering on painful so I lean over and suggest to Flora that we might turn the mic down just a little. Flora does what she normally does when she doesn't understand what I’m saying and nods slowly and gives a non committal “ooook” so i give up.

Its all in Tagalog but anger like this speaks all languages. I get intermittent translations from Flora. She tells me Teody is reminding participants that this is a struggle of principle, and that when you have been living somewhere for 18 years you have a right to remain. She also cautions them to remain vigilant and be wary of NGO’s who are working for the government and the developer and will try to convince them to demolish their homes and relocate. This meeting has several purposes but the one I’m involved in-developing the alternative relocation proposal-sounds dangerously similar to what everyone’s just been warned against. Very briefly I picture the crowd in front of me as a lynch mob and thankfully the image isn’t too threatening. But I still mention to Flora that with an intro like this there is a potential for me to be misunderstood;

So I begin-with the mic a foot away from my face-by saying that the in city relocation proposal I’m talking about is Plan B, and that their Plan A to remain here is preferable, admirable and worth fighting for. However as discussion of other sites was inevitable if we could create our own comprehensive proposal that had the support of the community, then present this in a format that was recognized by the NHA, this would be a vastly stronger position to enter negotiations with. This idea seems to go down well.

We conduct what could loosely be described as a participatory mapping exercise. Participants broke off into 3 groups and spent two hours discussing their specific spatial needs (exact number of families, appropriate lot size per family, appropriate dwelling type, community facilities, school, medical centre etc, recreational needs, movement networks, utilities and many other things). If a measure of poverty is how much someone’s face lights up when you tell them they’re allowed to keep the pen you just gave them, these people are pretty poor. They take to the task with gusto though. Everyone here is very well informed and articulate about their community and each group produces an impressively comprehensive list. We spread butcher’s paper out on the concrete and with much deliberation they then begin to sketch what they visualize as an appropriate community plan.

Following this and lunch Flora and Kalinda from San Mendis talk participants through their previous campaigns. Flora believes the key is unity and organization.  She organizes the campaign into four distinct categories, each to be addressed by a separate committee of residents;

  • Legal: to pursue the court case that has been filed against the NHA affirming the eviction/demolition is illegal and not in accordance with the constitution, and to solicit further pro bono legal assistance.
  • Negotiations/PR: to continually request audiences with and keep pressure on key figures in government, and to solicit support from the Church, charitable organizations and the public.
  • Land Banking: to research alternative sites, deal with regulatory bodies and solicit support from land owners.
  • Finance: to introduce a savings program specifically for the campaign so the community has money in reserve to substantiate their negotiations with government and land owners. The sum discussed is 25 pesos (58 cents) per family per week.  

We conclude with another address from Flora.  I get the impression she's been a formidable thorn in the side of developers here for a long time.  I'm impressed by how organized and thorough her approach is.  Today was definitely not an end in itself but hopefully something to be built on and repeated to create something that resembles a community driven proposal.  The biggest drawback is the amount of time this requires.  Its also likely that a decent proportion of participants today came because the tall pale guy was giving them a free lunch and pen.  In the absence of this draw card I don't know how well Flora would go with further engagement with the SRCC once we have a more refined proposal.  But these are the kind of things that inhabit the gap between theory and practice in community oriented development, and I'm optimistic that something tangible was achieved today.   

The community members at least seem more motivated than when they arrived and they line up to wring my hand on the way out.  That evening I went to one of the adjacent malls SM North to buy my host family a thank you present.  The sterile, Christmas jingle-filled atmosphere inside the mall and the carefully dishevelled hair and extra conspicuously branded clothes and mildly smug, self important expressions all seem really dumb when you picture the people just outside the other side of the barbwire fence.  


Thursday, November 18, 2010


The extent of my host Flora’s notoriety in her work as a community organizer is becoming clearer the more time I spend as her tag along. Lately I’ve been present at lots of impromptu street meetings convened on concrete steps or leaning on bollards when one of her urban poor affiliates has a problem. At any time of day on a street corner somewhere I hover in the background while she gradually accumulates a crowd of a dozen or so and gives counsel. Inevitably someone disappears then reappears with food and drink, they all look at me like I’m stupid every time I try to communicate that I’d like to give them some money in return. I actually only yesterday figured out that as a full time organizer Flora has no income and relies on small gestures of generosity like this.

I get the full story of her involvement in the conflict over the San Roque North Triangle demolition attempt. She tells me she went door to door to incite the people to take the fight onto the road and shut down the arterial North EDSA. This little old lady has a naughty smile on her face and chuckles when she tells me how they were able to paralyze a whole section of Manila for 7 hours and succeeded in making international headlines and embarrassing the President on his visit to the US.

I also got the background to Sitio San Mendis-the slum ‘success story’ I’d visited earlier and spent the night in. This apparently also started with a violent demolition. Then figuring they’d take their fight to where it was most visible the community marched on city hall where they remained - for 6 weeks. 500 people slept on the concrete under the wide open porticoes and choked QC city hall with daily placarded demonstrations and requests for an audience with the Mayor and his aids. Flora tells me they had organized teams to keep constant pressure on City Hall while other teams solicited donations and support (and food) from elsewhere to sustain the protesters. At one time Police resorted to using tear gas but were unable to dislodge them. The conflict also made international headlines and came to an end when a representative of UN Habitat sought Flora out personally and offered their support. I cant help but admire her balls (but having said that I appreciate at present I’m only being exposed to one side of the story; apologies to anyone who’s better informed than me if I oversimplified the above).

Politics here seems to have a lot of kitsch pop culture overtones, almost like you have to market yourself as a celebrity action hero to succeed (one QC Councillor Suntay does exactly that and replaces the ‘S’ in his name with Superman’s insignia and poses with a guy wearing a foam muscle suit likeness of himself in a cape). For an outsider its just a little bit hard to take seriously (for example earlier one of Flora’s helpers asked me if I want to hear her ‘theme song’. Turns out when running in the last Barangay election she commissioned a jingle where her name is repeated over and over to the tune of ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’).

Nevertheless the work done here is serious. I recently got the chance to meet some of the rest of Flora’s organization Sanlakas, including one Rasti. Rasti is a Filipino who has the Dalai Llama’s haircut and GI Joe’s khaki pants and combat boots. After talking to him for 5 minutes I’m pretty sure this look is not an accident. He introduces himself and he’s clearly very sharp, he speaks with a slight American twinge and is the first person I’ve met so far with whom I can converse in English at normal speed. He’s an almanac on political philosophy and tells me he was last in Australia 10 years ago to attend a Marxism convention in Sydney. The Australian consulate in the Philippines at the time initially denied him entry stating they had reason to believe he had links with terrorist organizations in the Middle East. I ask him what would make them think that and he tells me immediately prior to his visit to Australia he had been in Baghdad attending an anti-imperialism conference with Sadam’s then Deputy PM Tariq Aziz (who’s currently on death row). This was during the blockade immediately before the first gulf war started and as there were no flights, attending the conference meant a 13 hour truck ride across the desert.

When he speaks he refers to Australia as a junior imperialist and the Aquino government of the Philippines as a regime. I tell him he’s the first person I’ve heard refer to it like that and he says ‘This is the politically accurate term, if we call it a government or a democracy that is an apologist glossing over of its shortcomings.” He asks me what my political persuasions are and how I came to be here and the look on his face gives me the impression I’m being judged on my answer. This is not something I carry around in my head ready to recite to people but I have a pretty clear idea so I launch into an impromptu monologue and quote the Venus Project to him. I tell him I believe that globally, suffering originates from scarcity, and through a peaceful replacement of those parts of the system that propagate scarcity and inequality we can eventually remove the need to compete with each other. I can see his eyes light up a little when he realizes I have something to say on the subject. He turns his chair to face mine and says “Comrade Marcus, I respect your position but...” and tells me he’s been dealing with idealistic young people like me since the 80‘s, and the problem with me and NGO’s is that we naively want to operate within a system that's rotten to its core and can do nothing to change the systematic exploitation of everyone else by the elite. Rasti speaks very passionately and its obvious his knowledge on the subject is huge. He gives examples from Latin American revolutions and refers to different figures as his Comrades; ‘Comrade Chavez’ and ‘Comrade Guevara’ etc. His belief is that the only way to pursue equality globally is a complete removal of capitalism.

I tell him that it sounds like we’re talking about very similar ends we just envision very different means of getting there. My knowledge is like a pebble to his mountain so I have to ask him to pardon my ignorance but I didn’t know of any example of an attempted sudden radical change of a political system that wasn’t violent and ultimately doomed to failure. He looks a little bit deflated and tells me that the only successful example is Cuba. At this point I’m thinking that that Che Guevara movie I watched a few weeks back seemed to feature an awful lot of shooting and death, but I don’t mention this. I’m worried if I do this will lead to him telling me that some degree of violence is necessary, and I really don’t want to have that conversation because I want to keep liking this guy.

Rasti goes on to explain (at length) the political orientation of Sanlakas, which is somewhat more radical than I was aware of-not that you’d know it from observing Flora’s work. He’s articulate and its enjoyable to listen to someone so well informed but eventually I start thinking if someone doesn’t interrupt him he will literally talk all night. There must be something inherit in human nature that makes you inclined to agree with someone who’s been talking passionately at you for 3 hours (even if its just to make them stop talking at you isn’t that how Mormons recruit?) but I cant help but find these people a bit inspiring. I feel like they make the things I fill my head with and get worked up about back home seem so trivial.

We eat and the mood lightens right up and Rasti the Radical Socialist tells me he is a head banger and asks me if ACDC are still around. I tell him he’s got the wrong haircut for a head banger. Earlier we’d been talking about separatist groups in the South of the Philippines and I mentioned one I’d heard of who were considered terrorists the ‘Mondo Islamic Liberation Front’ or ‘MILF’. He grins and says “I could tell you about this MILF, but I am also interested in the other kind of MILF.” I tell him I’m very happy I finally found someone here who gets that joke. The women order us to pose for a photo and Rasti puts one fist up in the air (I thought that was black power) I don’t think I’m quite the model revolutionary so i just stick one thumb up instead.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Earlier in the week I’d met a spokesperson from Partidos Lakas Ng Masa (Party for the Strength of the People) a socialist movement who are pursuing seats in National Congress (with some success) using the GFC to highlight the shortcomings of the current system. He’s what you’d describe as a moderate socialist, he’s not a revolutionary and speaks calmly with a good enough command of English for us to have a proper conversation. Among many other things he told me if I wanted to see the true face of the economy in the Philippines, it wasn't in Marikina (the famous CBD) it was in Navotas.

Id heard about Navotas as home to the ‘Bat People’, labeled that because they build their shanties up under a traffic bridge in the dark. I arranged to go there with a guide Greg; another socialist and writer who makes pamphlets about human rights laws and distributes them in slums.

I know its not a competition but there's people in Navotas living in the worst conditions I’ve seen so far. These structures are as derelict as anywhere else but these are built on a base of fowl smelling stagnant water choked with litter and whatever else. For the people further in under the bridge there’s no opportunity to bootleg electricity, there’s no ventilation or light penetration so everything is dark and the people rely on candles.

We get met by the President of a local resident’s group who’s very articulate and gives us a guided walk of the settlement.  Under the bridge we meet a young girl-who could be a model-who tells me she’s 17 and been living here since she was born. She invites me inside her ‘house’ and I accept, leaving my shoes on a wet bottom floor that I can see floods when the tide comes in. Inside is a dark stuffy box that couldn’t be more than 9m2 that she tells me accommodates her family of 5. She offers to show me their '2nd floor’, to get up I have to contort myself around this homemade ladder and into a loft with a ceiling at a height that makes it impossible to sit upright. It feels about 10 degrees hotter in here than it was outside, and all that's visible a statue of Mary that's illuminated by one candle in the corner.  She taps on the ceiling which turns out to be the metal of the underside of the traffic bridge. There’s a noise and the floor and walls vibrate, she tells me that's a truck passing.

Navotas is also know for the 'floating houses' where the residents have built shanty house boats that sit out in the filth about 15m offshore. I learn that a major source of income here is scavenging metal from Manila Bay to be sold at junk shops. Local men and boys have become adept at skin diving to bring up anything of value off the sea floor. Recently 2 people died after they bought up an unexploded shell-apparently from the wreck of a Japanese WW2 battleship-which exploded after they took a hacksaw to it.

The houses are reached by this unbelievably precarious looking network of nailed together bits of wood and garbage that looks like it was built by the lost boys. The whole thing flexes and submerges a little when I walk on it. The structures have put a stop to any natural circulation of this part of water so everywhere there is litter and pond scum making it the kind of water you’d least want to fall in to (while we were sitting in one of the houses a small child did fall in causing an instant reaction from about half a dozen people to fish her out).  I thank my guide the President and like virtually everyone else I've met in a slum he invites me back to drink with him. 

Navotas is also the site of a recent fire at another informal settlement which rendered approximately 500 people homeless. The opportunistic land owner took advantage of the situation as an effective demolition and hired a private security force to prevent the people from rebuilding their homes. The Barangay government then used the local gymnasium as a temporary location for the community who have now been living there for 4 months.  

We visit the site of the fire and its a hive of activity. The bones of the shanties that were destroyed are visible as a forest of bamboo sticking out of the rubble and sand.   There's people busy rebuilding on the periphery of the open space I'm standing in so I assume that's the boundary of the contested land.  There’s children playing in the rubble and security guards with shotguns posted throughout, a highly conspicuous deterrent to anyone getting too bold. Interestingly when i point my camera at the guy with the shotgun he giggles and poses just like everyone else - its unfortunate he managed to compose himself just as I took this photo.  

I was initially told it was too dangerous to go inside the gymnasium so I returned with my now standard posse of 4 prominent senior women as bodyguards. The gym is dark and the inside is audible before it visible - the noise of several hundred children playing and making no effort to control their noise. The gym is the size of something you’d see in a high school with a concrete terrace ampitheatre. Families have claimed little 2 x 2 metre sections to sleep and small 2 foot high piles of belongings demarcate one family’s section of floor from another’s. Families also spread up the concrete steps so that every bit of flat space in the gym is occupied. The view is a sad one. These people are effectively refugees of the fire and with so many of them existing in such a confined space privacy would be non existent.

Another President of a local residents group agrees to talk, and he tells me that his community have been given two options by the Barangay Government; Go back to the province where you came from, or; Accept a once off payment of 1500 pesos ($34) to rent a house in the area. He explains to me he has five children and is supporting his wife’s mother solely on his income from driving a tricycle (auto rickshaw) in Manila. Neither option is an option for him. He tells me that the gym where they’ve been living for four months has a problem with the spread of disease between children and there is only one toilet for the whole complex, but for him and many like him he needs to stay where he has a livliehood so has nowhere else to go.

They were given a deadline of last Monday to vacate and told that if they didn’t they would be removed by force. As seems to be often the case here at the nominated time the Barangay Government/Police didn’t show and now they live in uncertainty as to when and how an eviction will take place.

I don’t know because I don’t speak Tagalog but I get the distinct impression that my hosts have been progressively exaggerating my qualifications and who I am the more I get introduced. Whatever the case I feel like a complete fucking idiot here now, as he looks at me with genuine hope in his eyes and asks me to please help him and his children. I’ve got nothing to offer except words, and my generic condolences sound so inadequate-like something you’d say when a colleague just told you they have a sniffle. I tell him I’ll do my best to support the organization thats fighting for the rights of people like him. It still sounds completely hollow but he thanks me anyway.  Right now it seems so unfair that I get to walk out of here and he doesn’t.


Thursday, November 11, 2010


I meet my friend Josie again who has offered to take me to her home in the Payatas dumpsite. Josie is athletic looking and if it wasn’t for the lines beside her eyes I’d put her in her mid 30's, not 51 and a mother of 4. I was surprised at QC City Hall when she had to excuse herself and go have a coughing fit in the corner. She speaks English well and tells me she’s happy even though she’s is ‘very basic’. She asks me if I’m comfortable taking a Jeepnie - the local public transport which is like a stretch 4 wheel drive with 2 paralell rows of seats and an open back and sides-I tell her I’m okay. I’m learning some jeepnies are bigger than others and to sit down in the one we get I basically have to kiss my knees. After we’re underway Josie chats to me-seemingly oblivious to the the diesel fumes we’re being marinated in-and tells me reassuringly that she wanted to make sure our transport was okay with me because we’re going to an area with ‘a lot of crime’. I ask what kind of crime and she grins like she’s about to tell a mildly risque joke and says “hold you up and they shoot you, mostly happen to foreigners”. I tell her I really appreciate her telling me this now but my sarcasm doesn’t make it across the cultural gap and she just grins at me.

The ride’s uncomfortable which makes it seem long and I'm feeling sorry for myself and the well dressed little Filipino next to me that I’m sweating on. I’m genuflected in the tight space so I cant see much but from the smell I can tell when we get near Payatas.

We get dropped off in what serves as the market and the combination of what Josie said and the sideways glances I get from men start making me nervous again. We have about a five minute walk down a gradual slope before the full panorama of the dumpsite comes into view. It looks like something from a movie set after the apocalypse. You can see the densely packed shanties spreading off down the slope right up to the base of this mythic sized mountain of filth that dwarfs everything. When I read about the tragedy I had trouble picturing landfill that could kill people, but when we get down to the base of the pile it still looks precarious and you can see how the wrong conditions could turn this situation lethal.

You need a permit to be able to take photos at Payatas (Josie warned me about this earlier but I forgot). On the net you can find more than one official investigation that has found the dumpsite to be hazardous and recommended its closure - especially since the tragedy. But its operation is too profitable, and the people at risk are those with the very least political clout. Hence the dump stays open with these efforts to keep publicity to a minimum.

Josie tells me if I get seen taking photos they’ll kick me out. I tell her I’ll be sneaky but she says that she will also get in trouble so most of these photos are taken from further inside the settlement-you have to look in the background-where we’re not in full view of the garbage mound and the uniformed supervisors, and when we were I turned my back on them and took photos from my hip.  The pictures dont do it any justice.  The whole time out in the open it was like you could sense the wieght of all the filth perched above you, its scary. Those dots on top of the mound are people.   

We walk further in until we meet the fenceline thats divides the dump from the settlement.  I’ve never seen people working in conditions like this, the ones we pass are squatting and picking through the muck separating out bits of wire and plastic bottle caps. Josie talks me through the whole thing telling me whats valuable waste and whats not. Everything reeks, everything is covered in flies and we’re not actually in the dumpsite proper.

We go further from the garbage pile and into the settlement so Josie can show me her house of 18 years. I do notice that the people who aren’t working seem to be impeccably clean, and in some places its obvious that people are taking pride in their surrounds. I can see someone’s gone to the trouble of sweeping these bits of disjointed concrete I’m walking on.  I get the impression where the Jeepnie dropped us was a dodgier part of Payatas then where we are now but the unsafe feeling I've had has gone.  As I understand these people don't have security of tenure, nevertheless there's a lot vested in this place.  We walk past a community centre, a health centre with a spotless tiled floor and a primary school full of spotless kids in ironed uniforms. 

I have to bend in half to get in Josie’s front door and see a beautifully clean room of about 15m2 with a wall covered in framed photos and a mini Christmas tree in the corner. One of her daughters is sitting in the corner cutting up something and she announces ‘My daughter’s work!’ and proudly shows me a little thank you card made from bits of coloured recycled paper. I ask her where I can buy some but she doesn’t seem to understand and I also seem to be scaring her daughter so we exit and she takes me a walking tour of the rest of the settlement.

From talking to her you can tell that Josie’s genuinely got absolute zero faith in the government and when I mention the NHA her natural smile drops into this look of disgust. She says she’s seen many aid workers and ‘missionaries like you’ come and go and the situation has improved very little. So I ask her if she could do anything to help the people what would she do, she shrugs and says “Change the system”. I cant get her to be any more specific.

I’d heard that vote buying was a fundamental problem eroding genuine democracy in the Philippines. If nothing else the poor here have got the numbers and politicians can exploit their predicament by offering a very small sum in exchange for a vote, 500 pesos ($11) was the amount I’d read. I ask my tour guide and she says last Barangay (local government) election a woman knocked on her door and told her that she would give her 1500 pesos if she bought 5 people with her to vote for her candidate at the polls. Josie refused but was sympathetic with people who didn't “You are poor and you need to feed your family you take the money and have solved your problem for that day."

Two motor bikes pass us and the driver’s don’t look like they’re from around here. Josie tells me that they’re Pakistani and they’re the money lenders in the slum. That job description doesn’t seem to have any negative connotations here. She tells me they give very small loans (she had one for 300 pesos) and come around and individually collect weekly repayments. I ask her what happens if you cant pay and she doesn't seem to understand the question and tells me again that they come around once a week to collect. Enterprising Pakistanis have apparently given Payatas its own micro-financing scheme without the help of any aid organization.

Josie walks me out again, I take her to lunch to say thank you and she invites me to come and stay at her house (i accepted, on the 21st we’re having a slumber party). I’m so impressed by her to come from where she does and still be so generous and hospitable. Every time she smiles at me I remember to be grateful that I’ve still got all my teeth.  The below are Josie's cousins and neighbours and some kids that followed me the whole morning - the one in the pink was fascinated by my socks. 



Tuesday, November 9, 2010

North Triangle

On Sunday I meet up with Flora, a local political figure/advocate of the urban poor and the main organizing force behind my visit. Flora seems to be able to exude this calm authority that makes it seem natural when she takes up position as the centre of attention of whatever room she’s in. The effect she has is made more noticeable by the fact that shes about 4'10'’. She speaks quietly and deliberately when she tells me that she’s happy with the outcome of the clash with police and the MMDA in September and how the people were able to resist the demolition. Later on I ask one of her colleagues to describe to me what her role was in the conflict, he responds by holding up his fist and then punching it into his palm and laughing. I’m taking that to mean Flora was fairly instrumental in encouraging the people to stand their ground.

I tag along with her to a meeting at QC City Hall where different advocacy groups that come under the umbrella of her organization seek an audience with the Mayor. I get sat down next to two proud looking women that are introduced to me as leaders of a local street vendor's association. I ask them why they’ve come and one tells me “My community has problems with Kallap”.
“Yes Kallap.”
“You mean Crap?”
“Yes we have problem with Kallap”.
I ask her to elaborate on her problems with Kallap but my attempts at conversation seem to be making her uncomfortable so I give up.

I meet the more talkative Josie who’s been a resident at the Payatas dumpsite for 18 years and a scavenger of the landfill there for 10. She tells me she’s never had legal electricity and since her husband got a job in construction now she has free time so she’s been coming here twice a week for the past year to ask the Mayor to formally supply electricity to her community. I ask her about the garbage slide and she said that she was lucky because it didn’t destroy her home, but that the QC city hall estimates of the fatalities are inaccurate and it was more like 2000 people than 500. Since the MMDA initiated recycling programs the local government separates recycling at the source and the majority of the valuable part of the landfill no longer reaches Payatas. She estimates that waste pickers working there now earn about 25p (58 cents) per day. Josie says she feels privileged to be one of the ones whose family could find work elsewhere, but she wants to move because the dumpsite has problems with dengue and juvenile drug use.

On Tuesday Flora takes me to the North Triangle settlement, which at the moment is the center of the conflicted space. Next to a 16 hectare piece of land-now vacant after a recent successful demolition-the recalcitrant families display protest slogans and placards quoting the constitution in front of their shanties. Im not being melodramatic when I say this place is shocking.

Dilapidated hovels are literally built on top of each other and seem to be losing a slow fight with gravity to bring the whole settlement down in the mud. It looks like about one third of walls are concrete in various stages of decay, the remainder is sagging wood and what looks like fibro wilting in the damp. Roofs are a patchwork quilt of rusted corrugated iron weighted with bits of rock and/or metal piping and/or tires.

There’s been a downpour this morning and virtually all of what serves as a main street is under inches of water. Where the mud dips water and whatever else flows into these sporadic pools that make me regret being born with a sense of smell. The first power pole I see shows the signs of 3 decades of bootlegged electricity. The second floor of the nearest shanty has about 2 feet clearance from the pole and right now everything’s getting very wet. The major source of tarpaulin appears to be bygone election posters. The result is this tapestry of disembodied bits of smiling hopeful’s faces stretched between gaps keeping out the wind and the rain. Maybe there’s something poetic in that.

We walk further in and away from what I learn serves as the market and the gaps between the shanties get narrower. There’s a definitely a palpable feeling that existence here is a struggle. Yesterday I visited the Sitio Mendis slum that had recently won tenure and been the recipient of UN Habitat funding. Walking around with Kalinda-a local community organizer- everyone greeted me like I was a long lost relative. Kids followed me and grabbed onto my legs, everyone wanted to shake my hand and have me drink whatever they were drinking and I got half a dozen marriage proposals. The atmosphere in North Triangle is very, very different. About a third of the stares I get are incredulous the rest are just hostile. The further in we walk I start to get more and more grateful for for Flora’s company. This is the only time I can think of where a woman in her 60‘s who’s a bit taller than my elbow has made me feel safer.

What makes the whole scene harder to swallow is the backdrop of TriNoma- a boutique shopping complex, one of the largest in Asia-visible in the not-too distance. It seems that here is one of those uncommon places where you can see two opposite ends of capitalism on display right next to one another. In the first world I think we get the chance to have the transition from decadence to squalor a bit more gradual-which somehow makes the existence of the latter more palatable-no such luck in North Triangle. The contrast is made even more obvious by the dead flat topography, so the big box mall loom over the slum like a monolith. In context its impossible not to empathize with the hostility that's now directed at me.  If everyday day I woke up in the shadow of a giant reminder of all the things I can never have I'd be bitter too. 


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Background; Quezon City CBD

 In 2002 the North Triangle Development Committee was established to oversee the development of a 250 hectare site in Quezon City (QC) into Manila’s first Transit Oriented Mixed Use CBD. 

QC-the former capital- is Manila’s most populous area, is home to Government offices, the Lower House of the National Congress, the National University, has large parcels of land (much in State ownership), an existing network of open space and has good transport linkages in almost all directions.  As development sites go, QC ticks some significant boxes. 

The Municipal Government report the population as 2.68 million, the National Urban Poor Coalition (NUPC) report that more than half of them reside as squatters in QC’s informal settlements or slums (1).  

Metro Manila (in common with every city) has a magnetic attraction for the poor, drawn from surrounding regions by opportunities for low income jobs provided by the urban metropolis.  The relationship is not one way; the metropolitan formal economy is heavily subsidized by the informal economy and the urban poor.  Among the squatters in QC are carpenters, electricians, laundry women, beauticians, mechanics, street vendors, waste pickers, watch-your-car-boys, security guards, casual construction labourers and government employees (2). 

A precondition for any of the above to subsist in the city is access to urban land.  Land forms the basis of all productive activities, and so much of what is law, convention and decorum assumes an access to private space. For many the shanty house or shack can represent the biggest investment they’ve ever made (3).   Insecurity of tenure and the permanent threat of eviction is the supreme anxiety of the squatter. 

Squatting land in QC however comes with some very unenviable feng shui.  With inadequate access to sanitation or an effective means of solid waste disposal shanty towns create ideal conditions for water borne disease.  Metro Manila is prone to flooding, with shanties often perfectly located to be the worst affected.  In July 2000 a typhoon caused a collapse and ‘garbage slide’ at the Payatas landfill site in QC that destroyed 500 shacks and killed 1000 people (4).  The combination of density, flammable dwelling materials and dependence on fires for heat and cooking create an ideal environment for the rapid spread of fire.   Narrow lanes and ad hoc development then hamper the access of emergency vehicles.  Earlier this year in April a fire originating from a power line (illegally tapping into the electricity supply is a risky yet common practice) rendered 15,000 people homeless in 7 hours (5).  Manila also has a particularly nasty reputation for suspicious slum fires.  Faced with the expense of court proceedings and the delays of an official demolition order, landlords can opt for the simplicity of arson.  Sociologist Erhard Berner describes a method made infamous in Manila of chasing a ‘kerosene drenched burning live rat or cat-dogs die too fast-into an annoying settlement…The unlucky animal can set plenty of shanties aflame before it dies' (6). 

The QC CBD project’s relationship to the squatter community was always going to be contentious, which could be the reason why a full copy of the master plan has not been made public.  A World Bank study into the project was however, within were recommendations to accommodate the existing community by constructing 485 ‘medium rise’ buildings.  The study credited the project as ‘benefiting the National Housing Authority in achieving its mandate of providing housing for informal settlers and transforming a non performing asset into a model for urban renewal' (1).  The medium rise option delivers in several ways; by avoiding displacement it is in the interests of urban spatial equality, security of tenure would come with squatters paying for their own dwellings through subsidized mortgage plans, access to proper sanitation and utilities would improve living conditions, and it allows residents to remain in proximity to their sources of income and their networks of social capital.  Other options discussed in the WB study were land sharing options inside QC and the relocation of the community elsewhere with ‘fair compensation packages’. 

The situation is a delicate balancing act; the urban poor have a need to remain in the city, development projects that stimulate growth and facilitate improved infrastructure need well located urban land.  The project would be a welcomed boost and income generator for an economy that since gaining independence from the US in 1946 has earned the label ‘the sick man of Asia’.  Strings to the bow of Filipino economic headaches include large foreign debt, a low savings rate, inadequate infrastructure and poor agricultural performance.  Add to the mix high rates of crime and corruption, pockets of communist rebels in rural areas, threats from muslim separatists movements, high rates of poverty and unemployment, frequent typhoons and drought, water and air pollution to an extent that it detracts from worker productivity (7) and one can empathize with the strong desire for economic development.  

In May this year the NHA confirmed its preferred option by issuing the residents of Sito San Roque QC with a 30 day demolition order.  The NUPC reported that residents were offered P1,000 ($US 23) five kilos of rice, two boxes of instant noodles and two boxes of canned sardines if they would agree to be relocated to Montalban, Rizal, 23 kms away (8) (note: an NHA spokesperson has been quoted as saying that residents were offered P6,000 - $US 138 (9)).  The relocation site has been criticized as being without electricity, prone to flooding, located on a fault line and lacking opportunities to secure a productive livelihood (the NUPC also reported that commuting is not an option, as the costs of public transport from Montalban to QC are comparable to the daily earnings of most of the residents (1)). 

In response to the order a section of the community barricaded their settlement.  On Sept 23rd a team of 400 police and 50 Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) workers clashed with local residents. Batons and a water cannon were used to dispel rock throwing squatters.  The conflict spilled onto local arterial Epifanio Delos Santos Avenue halting traffic for several hours.  11 people including 5 members of the police were reportedly injured (see video HERE).  Following the conflict a regional judge issued a Temporary Restraining Order on the MMDA, barring their workers from entering the community.  The General Manager of the NHA has indicated that the once the Restraining Order is lifted the ‘voluntary relocation’ is intended to continue (10). 

The situation is a delicate one, but the reality is that regardless if it is populated willingly or not, the resettlement will fail if its residents are not able to secure a livelihood in the new location.  History has shown that squatters return to where there is a means to survive, and return in a worse condition than before.  If the QC CBD is going to be a socially sustainable ‘model for urban development’ and not a destabilizing influence on Manila and a further kick in the teeth to a disadvantaged group, a greater recognition of the urban poor as legitimate stakeholders is needed. 

Kerwin Datu puts it well;

“Residents move all the time, from rural to urban, district to district, city to city, towards brighter opportunities. And they aren't stupid. If a development project truly benefits the poor, the poor will see the sense in it and move themselves.

This doesn't mean convincing them that the project is 'good for the city' and that they should 'move out of the way'. Such a project is just reinforcing a policy bias towards wealthier segments of the population. The project must benefit the residents themselves directly. Governments must prove to residents that they are being offered a brighter future, and watch them sign up to the vision unprompted. Good planners do this as routine, so do good mayors" (11).


3:  Erhard Berner ‘International Model of Urban & Regional Research, Poverty Allevation and the Eviction of the Poorest: Towards Urban Land Reform in the Phillipines’





11: Kerwin Datu 16.9.2010 ‘From Egalitarianism to Urbanism: notes on a moral philosophy of urban commentary’