Monday, August 30, 2010

COMMENTARY: An offer the President can’t refuse

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: August 30, 2010


THE ESTIMATED 370,000 families who are now threatened with eviction from their homes have an offer for President Noynoy Aquino they hope he can’t refuse. They will ask the President to declare a two- to three-month moratorium on all evictions. During this time a committee of the President’s own choosing will study how best society can meet the dangers of flooding and other disasters and still treat the poor in the “just and humane manner” the Constitution demands.
The families to be evicted include 80,000 families along the esteros; 100,000, mostly fishermen, around Laguna Lake; 60,000 on the Manggahan Floodway; 40,000 in Lupang Arenda; and others in the way of roads (C-5, R10) and other developments. With an average of five persons a family, the total population of men, women and children affected is 1.85 million, which is a little more than twice the population of Cebu City (798,000).

Eviction is one of the worst things that can happen to a family—they lose their homes, jobs, neighbors of 20 and 30 years who have helped them in all their problems, the good schooling and health services of the old neighborhoods. Children are traumatized. The old people, small children and pregnant women suffer the most. On average it takes five years more or less for a poor family to recover economically from distant relocation.

Other urban poor families who are not immediately affected live in fear of eviction and do not invest in their homes or communities. “Why should we?” they ask. “We can be evicted anytime and lose everything.” Thus, slums remain slums. Some people think the moratorium should last three to four months since the problems connected with evictions are so profound and damaging to people’s lives.

The poor hope the President’s committee will have people like Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Soliman, Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo, Church representatives, architect Felino Palafox, urbanologist Mary Racelis, Vice President Jejomar Binay, the chairman of the Housing and Urban Development Council and Francis Tolentino of the Metro Manila Development Authority. There will also be urban poor representatives and NGOs working with the urban poor. The committee will be assisted by the universities and special institutes in Metro Manila, including the Manila Observatory (for satellite imagery).

The committee will be asked to study:

• Are all the evictions necessary? Has government sufficient scientific evidence to justify its actions? Has it done its research in detail? It is obvious, for example, that not all people along the esteros need to move out. A short walk with architects along the Esteros de San Miguel and San Sebastian showed many people there could live alongside or over the esteros if government helped them to do so.

Perhaps the same is true of Laguna Lake, the Manggahan Floodway and even Lupang Arenda. If we search for non-eviction solutions, we may find them. A dike around Laguna Lake, as envisaged by architect Palafox and others, would allow the fishermen to continue fishing, yet protect their homes.

• Are evictions done in accord with our laws and the International Covenants on Human Rights signed by the government? Poor people complain most evictions are illegal for want of legal notice, consultation or relocation.

• Are the evictions in line with good urban planning insights, and do they foster economic growth in the cities or harm it?

• Does government have an overall vision of how it would like to see the urban poor integrated into the development of the cities in the coming decades?

Politically speaking, such large-scale evictions seem a peculiar way for a new and popular government to begin its dealings with the poor. Nearly all urban poor families say they wish to stay where they are. Do we want people thinking there is a cold heart for the poor in the administration?

While some urban poor people are critical of the well off, I am always surprised by how quietly the poor accept the inequality life has dealt them. Several times as we were walking along an estero, sometimes squeezing along in the dark, we would come to a stone wall. The people would say, that’s the wall of the Chinese school, or the wall of San Beda, or the wall of an idle property of Filinvest, or a factory. The land area of the school, etc. would be far larger than the whole community of people living on the estero. There wasn’t any bitterness in their voices when they identified the walls.

We hope the President can restore an element of compassion to government activity that has been missing.

If evictions carry on as usual, the poor may be disenchanted with government. They may tell government, “We will not move on the terms you offer.” What does a democratic government do then? A refusal by government officials to allow for people’s participation in the decision-making that affects their lives may be an obstacle to development on a par with corruption.

(Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is upa@pldtdsl.net)

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