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PHILIPPINES: Green Measures Expose Bias Against Urban Poor

Kara Santos

MANILA, Mar 1 2010 (IPS) - Edgar Borras sifts through his remaining possessions in a demolished shanty beside a Manila waterway, preparing to bring them to his wife and 12-year-old son who now live in a remote relocation site in a province outside the Philippine capital.

Shanties near waterways are a common sight in Manila. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

Shanties near waterways are a common sight in Manila. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

“They want to come back here. They don’t like it there. It’s too far,” Borras said in an interview, referring to the site in Calauan in Laguna province, some 74 km away.

Before a November 2009 government order to move flood-prone informal settlements after the fury of tropical storm Ketsana in September last year, Borras’ family had lived for 12 years in a tiny dwelling on the east bank of the Manggahan floodway, an artificial channel that discharges water from the Marikina River to Laguna de Bay, the country’s biggest lake.

Despite its hazardous location, their home served the family well because of its proximity to his son’s school and to the Makati City Hall, where the 37- year-old Borras works as a security guard.

To stay close to his place of work, he now lives in the workers’ barracks and sees his family in Calauan twice a month during his days off.

But while efforts to reduce vulnerability to disasters is laudable, Borras’ situation exposes the bias against the urban poor — many of whom provide key services as street cleaners, factory workers, garbage collectors and others in this capital of nearly 12 million people – as the main cause of urban blight and pollution, among other problems.

Likewise, the relocation of informal settlers revives an unresolved debate about how to manage this community, which makes up a good chunk of urban populations in the Philippines and other Asian countries.

It also ignores the wider consideration of the urban poor’s role in the country’s economy and society, where they are an unacknowledged engine that provides essential urban labour. By some estimates, the urban poor make up 5 million or more than 40 percent of Metro Manila’s population.

“They can’t afford decent housing near their work places, so they would rather stay in danger areas near work rather than in distant relocation with secure housing (but) with no means of livelihood and access to work,” explains Jocelyn Vicente-Angeles, executive director of the Community Organisation of the Philippines Enterprise Foundation (COPE), which campaigns against evictions of informal settlers and the urban poor.

Angeles says that government’s efforts to clean waterways of easement encroachment has been focused on urban poor communities along riverbanks, with the logic that the urban poor are in danger areas and the major pollutants of waterways. “But why not also demolish establishments and big business infrastructures along the river banks?” asks Angeles.

After the massive floods brought by Ketsana, which were the worst the country had seen in over four decades, the Philippine government decided to relocate thousands of families living near the Napindan Channel, which connects Laguna de Bay to the Pasig River and the Manila Bay, as well as the Manggahan Floodway, where Borras lives.

The storm, which also ravaged neighbouring countries like Vietnam, left over 300 dead and displaced at least 450,000 people in the Philippines.

In November, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued an executive order for the relocation of 100,000 families deemed to be living in flood-prone areas along the rivers and waterways.

The Philippines’ environment department declared that the land many of these communities were living on, which had been proclaimed for low-cost housing for informal settlers and landless urban poor, was no longer suitable for such because it was low-lying and thus prone to heavy flooding. “There is an urgency to address flooding in Metro Manila by removing obstructions and rehabilitating waterways,” the order added.

But urban blight and pollution in Manila cannot be attributed only to the urban poor, analysts say.

In a discussion paper, the local research and advocacy group Institute for Popular Democracy (IPD) points out that factories that discharge their waste into rivers and richer residential subdivisions that contribute to effluents in the country’s predominantly sewer-less cities are hardly blamed for pollution woes.

Only 5 percent of Metro Manila’s households are connected to a sewerage network, according to the World Health Organisation. This means that pollution and waste woes are literally everyone’s waste, IPD points out.

For groups campaigning on urban poor issues, the post-Ketsana relocation efforts bring to mind an argument they have been making for some time – that large-scale off-city resettlement is never a sustainable solution because the lack of jobs in relocation sites undercuts the livelihood needs of residents.

IPD points to in-city relocation as a much cheaper alternative to distant relocation in terms of housing and livelihood. Inefficient land-use patterns and the use of public and private land near riverbanks could be considered for use as social housing sites in the city, it adds.

Redevelopment, instead of resettlement to far-away places, is a more realistic approach, says Vicky Morante, a resident of the western bank of the Manggahan floodway for 18 years and head of a women’s alliance in the area.

“There are other solutions to the problem instead of evicting us. They could have evened out the land with soil or put a dyke in waterways to prevent flooding,” she explained. “Or they could tap into idle lands for in-city socialised housing.”

On their own initiative, Morante and other community leaders are looking for idle land in nearby areas to recommend as relocation sites. She herself is considering renting a house nearby, at double the cost, instead of moving her whole family to the Calauan relocation site.

COPE’s Angeles says that the urban poor should not be deprived of a decent space to live in. “Imagine a city without drivers, labanderas (washerwomen), street sweepers, ordinary government and private employees, vendors and labourers. It is just proper for the government to provide decent and affordable houses in city and/or near-city relocation,” she explains.

Borras’ neighbours were given until the end of February to demolish their homes by themselves and move to the Calauan site. Some have moved out of fear that their homes would be demolished anyway or that the units in the new site would run out. But more have chosen to stay put for now.

“I pity the people who moved there who can’t find any decent jobs. A lot of them are returning because they can’t find work. I’m lucky to have kept my job here in the city,” Borras says, adding that parts of the Calauan site lack services like water or electricity.

As a security guard, Borras works a night shift of 12 hours a day for a salary of 6,100 pesos (about 132 U.S. dollars) for every 15 days. Still, Borras is uncertain about his family’s future. His meagre salary is stretched to the limit by the cost of supporting two households and added transportation and communication costs.

Water used to cost the Borras family 180 pesos (nearly 4 dollars) a month in Manila, but costs 600 pesos (14 dollars) or more than three times more in the relocation site. From spending 150 pesos (3.52 dollars) a day for the family’s meals, Borras now allots about 400 pesos (9.4 dollars) each time his family goes to market, and sets aside money to buy his own meals.

The two to three-hour trip through dusty roads and heavy traffic from Manila to Laguna costs Borras 300 pesos (7 dollars) roundtrip. He spends another 100 pesos (2.34 dollars) a week on mobile phone calls and text messages with his family. “My expenses have really doubled. We aren’t able to save anything,” he laments.

“They (the government) should ensure that the place they’re relocating people to is developed enough so people can find jobs,” Borras muses. “If they can’t find jobs there, they’ll just eventually come back to the cities.”

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