The best of times, the worst of times
THERE ARE good and bad things to say about the state of our urban poor people as we approach the end of President Aquino’s term. We are nearer than ever to making the cities true homes of the poor, where they will be welcome, where there are jobs for them, and schools, and a chance to live side by side with other people, sit in the same churches, and work shoulder to shoulder for everyone’s benefit. Some have dreams reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s, where rich and poor children play together and go to the same schools.
In his latest encyclical “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis urges cities to upgrade poor neighborhoods rather than relocate them, and to allow the poor to be directly involved in the whole process. “At the same time,” he writes, “creativity should be shown in integrating rundown neighborhoods into a welcoming city.” (152)
There are injustices being committed against the poor—in the relocation camps that circle Manila, for example, and in a special way in Tacloban City where the government’s
P42-billion tide embankment project may qualify as one of the worst-thought-out projects ever loaded on poor people’s shoulders. It will be four meters high and 20 meters across at the base, and will stretch from Tacloban to Tanauan. There is an aura of mystery around this project. Some politicians don’t believe it is a reality, but people in the embankment’s path believe it is coming.
But there are signs that the positive dreams of the poor can be realized. The House of Representatives has passed House Bill No. 5144 that makes on-site, in-city and near-city relocation the norm for all relocation programs. Some poor areas—such as Baseco, four Manila esteros, Manggahan Floodway and Ernestville—now plan their own upgrading. None of this is perfect, or has been easily done, but the work and planning are done by the poor with technical help—and thus have deeper cultural benefits than the best project done by the government alone.
As for our dreams for the poor in the cities, we believe that they will one day come true—or why will God keep them in our heads? We must reach deep down into our culture and faith for the ability to respect the poor as children of God, which is the basis of good relationships. We must have Christian hope, which Fr. Catalino Arevalo defines as “hope when there is no hope.”
In Tacloban we visited permanent and temporary resettlements in the north and barangays in the path of the embankment project. In the north the temporary and permanent relocatees have the same problems. They mention water first, then lack of jobs. We were told by local leaders in GMA Kapuso, the first permanent resettlement site, that water for drinking and cooking is so expensive—about P540 a month—that many families cannot afford it and thus drink polluted water. Women vendors living in a temporary relocation center financed by Japan leave the site at 2 a.m. and work all day until 6 p.m., when they head home. They get home at 8 or 9 p.m. and go right to bed. The hours are long and the income small, they acknowledge.
There is no work at all in the relocation areas, so the women admit they sit around all day “waiting for the dark.” They cannot grow vegetables because of the lack of water. In GMA Kapuso there is no light in the houses but there are streetlights. These camps might seem close to Stalin’s gulags if it weren’t for the children who are sprinkled everywhere like gold dust.
The people we met in the barangays that stand in the way of the planned embankment know little about their rights under the law, and even less about their rights in this democracy to complain when these rights are abused. I sat next to a frail, young mother who held her three-month-old son, Emmanuel, on her lap. The roof of the shack where we met was an old UNHCR canvas sheet. There were big gaps in the ceiling and walls and I could see through these gaps that the homes around were as poor as the place where we met.
It seems the government people who deal with the poor talk to families who have titles to the land on the path of the planned embankment and arrange for cash payment. The families without titles, the bulk of the people, are simply listed. A Japan International Cooperation Agency engineer asked what would happen to those lists; he was told they would be given to the city, which would take care of them. Unfortunately, the city is not in any position to do much for the poor. The pipeline from temporary to permanent settlement is already overcrowded. When the construction of the embankment begins, the poor people we met with may end up in the streets.
The young mother never spoke. Emmanuel slept and nursed, slept and nursed. Local and foreign donors to Tacloban think they are helping people like this mother and son. They will be surprised to know their donations went to the construction of the embankment or other questionable projects.
Government people tell us there will be no people living within 150 meters from the sea once the embankment is done. What lives will it save? They say there will be mangroves and mini forests of other trees. What property will they save? To save lives, the people say, the government should build evacuation centers.
We ask the government: Can you take a break and reflect on the progress or lack of progress to date? If there is P42 billion, why not use it to bring water to the north of Tacloban? An amount of P500 million can put up five in-city relocation sites, housing 500 families in each site. How can the trip from the north to work be eased?
There should be a special effort to find out what the people think of the planned embankment. Is it a chimera, or is it real? Is it useful, or a development disaster? If this is not done, people will wake up one day to find the embankment sitting on their beaches like King Kong and a row of his brothers.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).