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.