Sunday, January 30, 2011

Look after the land

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: January 28, 2011

A RECENT story in the newspapers said that the government plans to sell Camps Crame and Aguinaldo. There were few follow-up stories, letters to the editor or editorials, despite the fact that the sale of the 212 hectares in the heart of Metro Manila will have tremendous direct impact on the lives of thousands of people, determining where they live and work, and indirectly affect nearly all the people of the metropolis to a greater or lesser degree. The importance of the sale can be grasped by its estimated sale price of about P200 billion at a conservative P10,000 per square meter. Some people say the price could be as high as P30,000 per square meter or a total of more than P5 trillion. Few of us have a real understanding of such a figure, any more than we do light years and black holes in space.

Wise use of the land will benefit generations. The Luneta is a good example of wise use. Half a million people spent Christmas and New Year’s Day there, the media reported. On the other hand, the proposed use of 400 or so hectares of the reclaimed land in Manila Bay fronting Pasay and Pasig for gambling casinos intended to rival the giant gambling centers of Macau and Las Vegas is a dubious use of land. Does Philippine society want gambling on such a scale? Equally important, aren’t there better uses for the land?

Small groups of people decide what will happen to the country’s disposable land. The transactions are not very transparent. It’s likely the public won’t hear any more about the camp sale until it is already finalized. The point here is not that there is something suspect going on, but rather that the matter is so important that the public ought to have a say in who gets the land and what uses are made of it.

What do people want the land to be used for? Do they want another Trinoma, Ortigas Center, Eastwood or Fort Bonifacio Global City? Do they want another Luneta, Quezon City Memorial Circle Park, or EcoPark? Do they want the land used to house the poor? Do they want a mixed housing development where people of different economic levels will live? Do they want a giant upscale entertainment area with casinos, hotels, spas, etc? Do they want the land to have playing fields where the country’s future soccer champions, boys and girls, can develop? Should the land be used for light industry, cottage industries, cooperatives or job training? Should it be a park with thousands of trees to promote clean air for all? Should it have memorials for the heroic deeds done there in the past?

I found in discussing the uses of the camp land that people often have a clearer idea of what they don’t want than of what they want. For example, they don’t want uses that will make traffic worse. Many don’t want more malls. They claim we don’t need more, that we have already more malls than any city needs. Poor people want something they can use, such as the Luneta. They don’t want the land to be reserved for the use of tourists and rich people. Playing fields, libraries, museums, gardens and art centers can change boys or girls’ lives. Maybe these uses should be the priority.

It might make good sense for the government, before it sells the camps or the reclaimed land, to ask to what degree the sale of Fort Bonifacio, Camp John Hay, and Clark Field have benefited the whole country. Have the sales invigorated Metro Manila, Baguio and Central Luzon, or have special interests largely benefited?

Can the sale be done in a more transparent way? Can there be public hearings and presentation of alternative uses for the land? Is there some way the people’s preferences can be accurately calculated and serve as guidelines for our decision makers?

Land once sold is gone for good. Three years ago the urban poor had their annual “Kalbaryo” on the reclaimed land in Manila Bay. They made the Stations of the Cross near the Mall of Asia. They wanted to point out to the public that while thousands of poor families live in degrading slums and others are evicted to far-off relocation centers, where there were few if any jobs, hundreds of hectares of government land were being set aside for a casino complex and a family entertainment center (whatever that is, it sounds expensive).

The poor that day were a small ragamuffin group and were ignored by the government and the media. After they finished the stations, they walked around the empty land. They found themselves in a vast and empty desert. The security guards they met didn’t know who owned the land or who had a claim on it. The people felt sad but they were helpless to do anything. The answer of course is not to give up, but to enlist more and more people in making sure that public land serves all the people. The best way to do that is for the people to ask that their opinions be heard.

If there aren’t compelling reasons to sell the land now, why not wait until there are such reasons?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Hopeful Presidential Poor Initiative

By Denis Murphy

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:45:00 01/17/2011

IN A long-delayed meeting President Aquino and the urban poor chose to attack urban poverty and the many problems of our cities in a collegial way through discussion and common sense, as collaborators rather than as combatants. Government and the poor have more often than not seen each other as opponents, or at least as obstacles in the way of each other’s plans.

The President agreed with the request of the poor for a three- to four-month moratorium on all evictions on public and private land. He and the poor believe the moratorium will create the peaceful milieu in which a committee, appointed by the President with representatives from government, civil society and the Church, can seek solutions to the many problems of evictions the poor brought to the President’s attention. Over 350,000 families in the past six months or so have received written or oral notice they will be evicted. With an average size of five members per family, some 1,750,000 persons are under threat.

For five months the poor people tried to arrange this meeting. They began to feel the President had forgotten their concerns, though they had signed a Covenant with him during the election campaign. On the matter of evictions the President had promised in the Covenant to give decent relocation for every family evicted, and to do everything possible to relocate the people in the city itself and not in far off areas, such as Calauan, Laguna, 115 kilometers away, where there are few if any jobs. In the first few months of President Aquino’s term of office there was no change from the old ways of evicting families, and the people wondered if the promised changes would ever come. They now believe they and government are on the right track.

The problems presented to the President are of two types: one set concerns the concrete eviction threats mentioned above that need solution as soon as possible. The second type concerns the long-term land and housing policies. Government, for example, must decide on its strategic priorities in the use of urban land. Will these uses include homes and jobs for the poor as well as for infrastructure, business centers, industry and homes and recreation centers for the well-off?

Such policy questions can best be answered with the help of urban planners, architects, social scientists, moral leaders, such as the Church, and representatives of the different stakeholders. Research is needed, including a better knowledge than we have now of what is happening and succeeding in countries around the world which have similar problems.

The poor have asked that the committee include, in addition to officials of the government’s housing agencies, Cabinet secretaries Corazon “Dinky” Soliman and Jesse Robredo, experts such as Architect Felino Palafox Jr., Dr. Esteban Godilano and Mary Racelis, the Mapua Institute of Technology architects and engineers, the UP School of Urban and Regional Planning, the Church and other moral leaders and civil society leaders. The poor suggest the committee choose its own chairperson.

Eviction is not the only problem the poor face. They need legal light and water connections, better clinics and schools (shouldn’t the children of the poor have the best teachers, for example?), help in finding work, land proclamations and housing loans adapted to the abilities of the poor to repay. They need an understanding government and an understanding elite.

Is it na├»ve to hope this cooperative approach proposed by the poor and approved by the President will succeed? Perhaps it won’t succeed fully, but that only means other new approaches are required. What is certain is that it makes no sense to go on trying to solve the growing problems presented by millions of poor, unskilled and unhappy families in our cities without some form of systematic planning that takes all aspects of problems into account. Our present policies haven’t worked. Government cannot ignore, mistreat, cajole or abuse its urban poor, now 20 percent of the country’s total population, and expect to have a peaceful harmonious nation. The poor won’t disappear. They will continue to sit on the doorsteps of the powerful demanding change.

Perhaps farmers, industrial workers, tribal people, the aged and other sectors can find similar planning arrangements with the President. He has shown a willingness to engage in more democratic forms of decision making.

The well-being of the entire country depends in great part on the President remaining close to the poor in these planning efforts. In turn he will be supported by the poor in his efforts at curbing corruption and building a nation based on social justice. It is difficult to see how he can succeed in these tasks without the poor.

(Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

Monday, January 10, 2011

Dialogue with Aquino worth the wait

By Denis Murphy, Manila

The Philippines’ urban poor finally had their long-awaited meeting with President Benigno Aquino two days before Christmas and found it was worth the wait.

Since July, when Aquino came into office, the urban poor have sought a meeting with the president to clarify the government’s position on the demolition of shanties, relocation of slum dwellers, social housing and basic services for the poor.

A press report on Dec. 15 suggested that the president had forgotten all about the poor despite an agreement he had with urban poor leaders during the elections. Aquino signed a “Covenant with the Urban Poor” as one of his campaign promises.

The Dec. 23 meeting between the president and 10 representatives of the poor and key government housing agencies resulted in a promise that the government will declare a four-month moratorium on evictions from public and private lands. The poor said the time was needed for government agencies and the poor to come to a consensus on how the issues in the “covenant” will be implemented.

President Aquino also agreed to set up a committee with representatives from civil society, the urban poor, the government and the Church. It will analyse the situation and make recommendations to solve the issues.

A main point of contention is the relocation of people evicted from their homes. The president vowed that no family on public or private land can be evicted without decent relocation. He also agreed that relocation of displaced residents will be “in-city” and not in distant areas where there are no jobs.

Felino Palafox Jr., head of one of the country’s foremost architecture firms, told the meeting that urban poor dwellers need not be removed from canals because there are ways to address access to the city’s waterways that will be beneficial to both the government and residents.

There are more than five million urban poor people in Metro Manila, where the total population is estimated by the Asian Development Bank at 14 million.

Urban poor leaders believe the government will have to attend to the immediate problems of the poor, like imminent eviction, while looking for long-term solutions to the problem, including providing jobs for the poor, improving education and ensuring good health.

Bishop Broderick Pabillo, chairman of the social action secretariat of the Catholic bishops’ conference, for instance, has made attempts to train parish committees to help address the problems of urban poor communities.

The urban poor representatives who met with President Aquino found him knowledgeable of the problems people face. Results, however, will depend on seriousness of the people he appointed to address the issues of the poor.

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