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?

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