By Denis Murphy
Posted date: November 08, 2010
The people led by Trining Herrera and David Balondo said, “Yes. That’s what we want.” Zoto, the Zone One Tondo Organization, was born. It was the first of the urban poor community organizations that would revolutionize urban social action throughout the country.
The Philippines became a leading advocate in Asia of community organization and the promise that poor people can gain power through non-violent and democratic people’s groups and actions.
History has shown that without some form of people’s organization there will never be a fair distribution of wealth in countries. Randy David (Inquirer, 10/28/10), while discussing conditional cash transfers, notes they alone will not end poverty. “Only economic growth and the equitable sharing of its fruits” will end poverty, he writes. True, enough, but isn’t it also true that without people’s organizations (unions, peasant associations, coops, urban poor organizations, etc.) the wealth will never be fairly shared? Organized people compel the powerful to share.
In a 10-year struggle Zoto forced the government of President Ferdinand Marcos to turn its plans for developing that area upside down. Marcos had planned to clear Tondo of all its poor people and build a modern commercial-residential complex. In the end some poor people had to relocate, but they received lots of 96 sq m in Dagat-Dagatan just a five-minute jeepney ride north of Tondo. Two-thirds of the 30,000 families won land titles and upgrading on site.
Community organization is not just a struggle for land. It has proven to be the most efficient way for communities to get legal light and water, sanitation, medicine, better schools and even jobs. It gives good government a partner in the slums. It gives bad government an opponent with which it must come to terms.
The community organizers that started Zoto included people like the late Fr. Jose Blanco, the late Oca Francisco, Ed dela Torre, Fernando Yusingco, Herb and Jessica White, Holy Spirit Sister Victricia Pascasio, Bishop Roman Tiples and Rev. Henry Aquilan. They convinced the people they were, despite their poverty, as valuable as anyone and should stand up and speak as free men and women for what they believed were their human, God-given rights.
The COs, as they were soon called, showed the people how to analyze problems, how to find solutions, how to plan mass actions, how to carry them out with discipline, how to negotiate and how to carry on despite setbacks and arrests. They never, however, told the people what to struggle for or what plan to follow, at least not most of the time. CO was meant to help people gain the skills and vigor needed to win a seat at life’s negotiating tables. It gives power to the people.
Zoto was disciplined. If they said they would gather at 9 a.m. they were there at 9 a.m. All of them. It was a strong organization, but women loved it. I remember talking to a group of women who had been evicted from Slip Zero and moved to Dagat-Dagatan. They were crying, remembering their years in Slip Zero and Zoto, their weddings and the birth of their children. “I loved Zoto,” one woman said after many stories and they all cried.
CO won land tenure security for hundreds of thousands of urban poor families, and it often failed. Whether it failed or succeeded it encouraged people to take their future into their own hands and struggle for change. That is just about the best thing people can do for their brothers and sisters.
CO allows poor people to negotiate effectively with public utilities for legal light and water connections. These connections bring large savings. Legal piped water, for example, costs only a third or less of what people in the slums pay for illegal water. Savings can be used for other essentials.
As a companion to the CCT in the war on poverty these savings are important. In the R-10 area of the North Harbor, families save P300-P400 on average per month on water now that they have legal connections. They can afford to use all the water they need (250 liters per day per family, according to the United Nations) and still save money. In the new Dumpsite area of Tondo, families pay the syndicates P60 a day for generated electricity. This is P1,800 a month, while the average monthly legal electric bill for a poor family that consumes 50 kWh is about P297 (with light, TV set, radio, flat iron and electric fan). The light and water utilities usually require some form of people’s coop, which won’t come to be without a people’s organization. The people’s organizations also provide the courage needed to offset the threats of the syndicates. They sometimes threaten death. If families can save P800-P900 a month on light and water, they can increase their food budgets by 25 percent.
CO and peoples’ organizations allow good governments to function better. They force bad governments to reform. It’s appropriate to thank all the Philippine community organizers for what they have done and suffered. May God reward them all.
(Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)