Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Denis Murphy
In the New York City subway, there are signs telling people to notify a policeman if they see something dangerous happening: “If you see something, tell someone.” In Tacloban, there are hundreds of people, from all walks of life, who want to tell whatever “policeman” is listening that the government’s relocation plans in their city are loading one more disaster on the shoulders of poor people who have suffered enough.
As many as 20,000 families, who are still mourning the deaths of their loved ones in the onslaught of Typhoon “Yolanda,” as well as the loss of their jobs and homes, will be relocated from downtown Tacloban where they live to hills and logged-over woodland far north where there are no jobs. Most of the families will be sent to temporary housing, which is good for one or two years at most. Hopefully, they will be transferred to permanent housing within the two-year period, though there are doubts that the government can meet such deadlines.
This relocation plan violates the central lesson learned from the many relocations of poor people from Metro Manila in the years 1965 to the present: that you cannot relocate poor families far from the city because there are no jobs in these far-off places, and government cannot create jobs for so many people. Government is sending thousands of families, wounded in soul and body, to survive without work in strange surroundings, in deteriorating houses.
True, people can commute back to Tacloban to earn a minimum wage of P260. But by the time a family subtracts 20 percent of the earnings for transportation and other work-related expenses (baon, for example), there is little money left. We have also learned that a poor family cannot survive decently on a single low-income salary. The mother must work part-time; the children must help after school.
There is, however, no demand for washerwomen or manicurists in relocation areas; children can scavenge in-city, but there is no valuable scrap in a community of poor people. It is better, economically and socially, for rich and poor to live side by side. It may also be better in a religious way. Living side by side, rich and poor learn to know one another, which makes the Church of the Poor more feasible in our lifetime.
Are there alternatives? Thankfully, there are. There is more than enough idle land in Tacloban suitable for housing. The Bank of the Philippine Islands, for example, has printed a list of about 40 pieces of property it has foreclosed in Tacloban. Some of these areas measure 6 hectares. Some haven’t been used for 20 years. We had an engineer look at one of these 6-hectare properties, and he told us that very little money would be needed to prepare the land for housing.
This is a list of just one bank. There are other banks, businesses, government agencies and private individuals with similar land holdings.
A government that has concern for its poor people can make these landowners offers they can’t refuse, that can be well within the law and customs of a democracy. The Church teaches that God made the world for all. No one, no entity, can hold idle land which poor people need to survive. We are stewards of the land, not absolute owners in God’s eyes.
The people have suffered enough. In-city relocation is relatively painless. The people work with a contractor (government, nongovernment or private) to build the houses. They can decide what type of house and overall community development they want. They move in when the houses are ready. They can usually walk to work or take a short jeepney ride. All the services are available because the main water and light lines, hospitals, schools, markets, churches, etc. are already in place around the site.
To understand the uncertainty and pain of distant relocation in a temporary housing area, it is necessary to visit one. We were in the Operation Compassion (OC) relocation site in New Kawayan, 10 kilometers north of the barangays of Tacloban from which the people had come. We were there because it was raining and we had met two small boys shivering in the cold who were from the OC site and were out searching for firewood. We took them home and then the thunderstorm hit, so we decided to wait it out there. The 78 homes are all alone in an area of old fields and overgrowth. The wind and rain battered the houses that were shuttered up like turtles in danger. We wondered what the people would do if someone in the community had to be taken to a hospital at night. There were no vehicles in the community that we could see.
The storm passed, the sun came out, and the beautiful children spilled out of the houses to play in the street. It struck me that the children would suffer the most in the future in that relocation site. Food was scarce, some women told us, because community feeding was stopped a month or more ago. One mother told us she could live in the house for six months because she was told she would transfer to a permanent home in six months. She may be disappointed. The construction of permanent homes is moving very slowly in the government’s pilot project, which is also in New Kawayan.
How will the mother react when she has to stay a year, two years or more in that house? Added to all her problems will be the experience of living in a rapidly deteriorating house.
People in Barangay 88, 89 and 90, as well as people in the temporary houses outside Tacloban, say there has been growing hunger ever since the government and the United Nations agencies ended the community feeding programs. The expectation was that new jobs and cash-for-work programs would help the poor enter once again into a cash economy after six months of community feeding.
However, Tacloban still has a long way to go: Only 2,008 businesses are active now out of the 12,900 businesses that were active last year. Jobs are scarce. Fishing has its down seasons. There are no large cash-for-work programs organized.
With growing hunger comes an increase in petty crimes and violence. Perhaps it’s time to restore the feeding programs. Why were they stopped, in the first place?
Change the relocation strategy and resume the feeding programs, before it is too late and we discover that we have clusters of poor people close to death all throughout the northern part of Leyte.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).