Monday, May 16, 2011

Fires and violence

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:15:00 05/16/2011

TV VIEWERS had good reason to be shocked last month when they saw on their screens a pitched battle between government people and urban poor youth in Guadalupe Viejo, Makati. Nineteen people were injured, traffic on Edsa was partially stopped. The young people threw rocks the size of mangoes. They manufactured Molotov cocktails under the camera’s eye and fired them at the police. “How did we come to this?” the viewers might well say. “Isn’t this the country’s business center? It’s not Libya or Yemen.”

Such violence often begins with fires in urban poor areas that the government, national or local, wants cleared of poor families. Some observers of urban poor life claim they see a positive correlation between government desire to clear land and the fires, especially if the government’s efforts to remove families legally are stymied one way or another. I have heard ordinary people as far back as the martial law years in Tondo state they believed the government set the fires.

Fires are becoming as dangerous as evictions for poor people. Can the Commission on Human Rights or the Department of Justice look into the origins of these fires? It might also lead to better fire prevention.

Often the next step is that the government declares the burned-out site a “danger area,” to justify a demand that all families be removed from the area, whether their houses were burned or not. The government sometimes offers distant relocation as far off as Calauan, Laguna, 100 km from Makati.

The description of the burned-out site as a “danger area” has no legal implications. The words do not have the same meaning as they do in the Urban Development and Housing Act (RA 7279). The post-fire usage of the phrase simply states there is danger living in or near houses that have been weakened by fire. It does not do away with the need for the legal requirements of a thoroughgoing consultation with the people involved.

There is a great deal of cynicism involved in offering poor families a place in Calauan, Laguna. Gina Lopez of the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission poured resources and her imagination into making Calauan a successful relocation area, but as of last year she admitted she was unable to provide the jobs needed. The cycle of urban poor life is all about work. They come to Manila to work. They live as near as they can to work. They resist relocation that is far from their work, and if they wind up without jobs in distant relocation centers, they will return to the city to work. There are not near enough jobs in Calauan. Is it fair to send poor families there?

If the government tries to bypass legal steps and force the issue of eviction there is liable to be violence. Violence has short-term advantages: it may stop eviction efforts, but it is doubtful it serves the good of the poor in the long run.

It doesn’t help the country’s image either. Investors may think if such trouble can happen in the prime business district of the country, what must it be like in far-off Mindanao or Visayas?

When it comes to discussions of violence, some measure of understanding should be given to ordinary men and women when they feel that the government instead of working to help them in a realistic way is harassing them. They may wonder what goals drive government and they may suspect the worst. What are they to think when the city gives them P3,000-P5,000 provided the family waives its legal rights to relocation?

Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo seems to have been able to help work out a peaceful and reasonable plan with the people. It can be done. The ordinary poor people are realistic and rarely seek more than fair treatment.

There are signs that local governments are more and more taking eviction matters into their own hands and departing from the law as explained in the Urban Development and Housing Act. Can the Commission on Human Rights on its own initiative look into this matter of fires and violence? Can the Department of Justice investigate?

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

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