Our urban-poor eagles
A group of marginal farmers watched in awe as the world’s largest eagle flew in toward the hill on which they stood, and then banked away, showing its powerful wings, moving with the grace and strength of ocean waves. One of the men fired a shot. The eagle shuddered and fell to the ground. Foolish men, we say, to kill such a bird. This beautiful work of God!
We thank God for the mighty eagles. We ask Him to keep them safe and give them forests, where they can be safe and raise their families in peace. We want them to increase in number so every child and every one of us can see them soaring in the early morning sky.
We can offer the same prayer for our urban poor. Give them land tenure security in our cities and we will see that the poor, once they are free of evictions and have regular jobs and develop their own people’s organizations, will grow into courageous, hardworking people devoted to democracy, solidarity and compassion. It won’t happen to all or happen soon, but the future is hopeful. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20).
When people think of helping the poor they think first of all about giving. There are times when this is true, such as the days immediately after a disaster when all that matters is to get food, water and medicine to the poor. There are other times when development is more about the people’s inner strength. Here is an example from the island of Leyte where poor people are not seeking food or other material realities, but want to inform government they cannot agree with its plans and are prepared to oppose those plans legally in solidarity with one another.
The government wants to build a 20-kilometer tide embankment (dike) through the coastal villages of Tacloban, Palo and Tanauan. Thousands of families will lose their homes and perhaps their jobs. None have been consulted. If our officials refuse people the chance to act freely, they will kill off democracy’s longings in people’s hearts. They have already done this to an amazing degree. Some people may mutter and complain to one another, but only a few families actually protest government’s moves.
Fr. Horacio de la Costa, the well-known Jesuit historian, once said the Philippine people will remain strong as long as they have their faith and their music. I would like to add their longing for democracy. If we destroy this longing, we strike at the very heart of the people. People must be in charge of their lives or there is no true civilization.
We ask that government take time to hold consultations with the people affected by the tide embankment and with the housing and scientific survey groups that may be critical of the embankment. Habitat for Humanity told me, for example, they have criticisms of the project. They say it may keep storm surges out, but it will keep flooding from the mountains in. Flooding may be worse than ever if the path of flood waters to the sea is closed. Project Noah Director Prof. Mahar Lagmay had similar concerns.
If government feels it must build the TE, then it should first guarantee adequate relocation. The surest way to do this is to relocate the families who are in the way of the TE to in-city sites, similar to the Pope Francis Village housing project for Yolanda survivors. In the city the basic services, including water and existing jobs, already exist.
Finally we should look at the people’s own plan for the villages in the way of the TE. They suggest that the defenses against storm surges be placed 50-100 meters off shore where mangroves can be massed around a boardwalk and other means of defense. The boardwalk can also serve as a wonderful paseo route in the late afternoon where local people and tourists can enjoy the beauty of the sea and the villagers can sell clam soups and other fish delicacies. Let’s give this plan a fair examination. The villages would be linked to the boardwalk by mini-bridges. The people could rebuild their homes and keep the jobs they have.
These suggestions depend on the openness of government to hear other opinions, which is a pretty good definition of democracy.
The people in the way of the dike are not staying fearful and silent. Along with Fr. Robert Reyes, 400 people from the coastal villages visited Mayor Romualdez. Forty leaders met with the mayor for an hour in his office and then they went outside to meet the hundreds waiting there. They sang the old Negro spiritual “We Shall Not Be Moved” in Waray. The mayor said he would not evict anyone and would welcome a people’s plan before Christmas.
Lately the people affected by the dike have decided on symbolic actions. At the very starting point of the dike construction is an old chapel. The former chapel was destroyed in Yolanda. The present one was hastily and cheaply constructed. The people are contributing to an enlarged chapel. A historic marker will be set up next to the chapel which will read in part: “We the people of Barangay 31 and other neighboring barangays are rebuilding this chapel of Sto. Niño Defensor to show we are serious about staying on this land. We believe God wants us to stay here…” There will be a church tower from which watchmen can keep guard against the modern pirates who mean harm to the area.
The people will fix up their meeting rooms with light, Filipino flags and statues of the national hero. The people’s discussions are of great value and deserve a good setting.
Notice the struggle is not waged with money, but with power on one side and intelligence and courage on the other.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (email@example.com).