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.