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That elusive silver lining among the poor

/ 05:22 AM December 28, 2018

In her final answer, newly crowned Miss Universe Catriona Gray of the Philippines looked back at her experience of working “a lot in the slums of Tondo” where she learned to “look for the beauty in it… and to be grateful.” Finding a “silver lining,” she said, would be a huge part of her reign, so that “negativity could not grow and foster, and children could have a smile on their faces.”

I am one of possibly a few who consider her answer problematic.

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I do not know what a Miss Universe does from the moment the crown is placed on her until she transfers it to her successor the following year. But she certainly becomes a highly influential individual, a role model to those who admire her, and, as they say, a beautiful person with a purpose. So, having declared her affection for the poor children of Tondo, it might be good for Ms Gray to visit the area again and help them see that “silver lining” now that there is a dark cloud looming ahead for Tondo residents, particularly those living near Manila Bay.

Recently, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu floated the idea of relocating 300,000 informal settlers to make Manila Bay safe for swimming again. It will be part of a “highly ambitious and more complicated” plan to restore the bay to its pristine state, which excessive coliform levels and garbage have destroyed. It will be a gargantuan task that Cimatu hopes can be undertaken using the strategy that the government used to clean up Boracay for six months—if there was indeed a strategy.

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Tondo, home to large coastal informal settlements such as Parola and Isla Puting Bato, will surely be in the crosshairs of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Baseco Compound, a huge and densely populated reclaimed area in the Port Area district with around 50,000 people, will also be targeted. For Cimatu, these informal settlers are responsible for dumping tons of garbage that have polluted Manila Bay, and volumes of other household wastes that have worsened water quality and caused the bay’s nauseating odor.

But will relocating informal settlers solve a problem that has its roots in many places—from the denuded mountains of Rizal to the industrial areas and agricultural farms of Bulacan and Pampanga, the rivers of which all drain to Manila Bay? Are site upgrading and improving sewage systems and waste collection not feasible? Manila being the main port of the country, pollution generated by ships, which discharge cargo residues and other wastes, also have devastating effects on the marine environment and water quality. Are these being considered?

Cimatu mentioned penalizing and closing commercial establishments that contribute to the pollution; that’s no big deal for these businesses that can easily remedy their sewage system or move their business elsewhere. Yet he zeroed in on informal settlers. His remark, reminiscent of Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno’s which implied that the poor go hungry because they do not work hard enough, reveals our leaders’ unfounded prejudices against the poor.

Last November, the city governments of Manila and Pasay also entered into an agreement with real estate developers that will “transform” Manila Bay through three multibillion-peso reclamation projects that will have a combined land area of more than 700 hectares. On these sites will rise residential condominiums, high-class hotels, commercial centers and gaming places. Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada’s press release conveniently did not mention if families would have to be relocated. But it said that revenues from these soon-to-be-built projects would allow the city to invest in the health, education and livelihood of his poor constituents, who would very likely be among those that Cimatu wants to relocate.

If Ms Gray learns about the proposed relocation of informal settler families in Tondo and the approved reclamation projects, I wonder how she would help people find that “silver lining” in the cloud of uncertainty caused by the imminent threat of displacement, and such other problems as high commodity prices, drug-related killings and the perennial joblessness that has hovered over their lives for years.

In the end, while no one can argue against encouraging the downtrodden to have a positive outlook in life and find that elusive silver lining amid poverty, it is far more necessary to tackle the root causes of poverty, inequality and injustice—such as antipoor development and antipoor governance—so that the urban poor children Ms Gray loves will have more than a smile on their faces.

Gerald M. Nicolas is a project officer of John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues.

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