Monday, May 21, 2012

Cleaner alternative offered to Tondo charcoal makers

By Noli A. Ermitanio
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Smoke gets in their eyes—and darkens the air over the city—every time the residents of Ulingan in Tondo, Manila, try to make a living.

But the community, which got its name from its 15-year-old charcoal-making industry, now a backyard venture for some 150 people, may finally be warming up to change.

Cleaner change, to be exact. Ulingan, a neighborhood within Barangay 105, has been chosen as a pilot area for a project that will test the viability of smokeless kilns, or “pugons,” a technology that can significantly reduce the polluting effects of what is traditionally a messy, toxic process of producing uling.

At least seven community leaders recently underwent orientation at a facility in Silang, Cavite, and an initial batch of smokeless kilns would soon be installed for them, according to the nongovernment organization, Urban Poor Associates (UPA).

The project is a joint initiative of the UPA and the Silang-based 1M Agro-Fuel Development Ventures, with the support of the archdiocese of Manila and the National Housing Authority.

UPA volunteer Jessa Margallo said charcoal-making remains a stable source of income for residents of Ulingan as households seek cheaper alternatives amid the rising cost of cooking fuel, mainly liquefied petroleum gas.

About 15 residents started this backyard business in 1997, using scrap wood collected by scavengers. Through the years, it has grown profitable enough to attract even outsiders to build their own pugon in the area.

The process is relatively simple: Scraps of wood are placed in earthen kilns, covered with sheets of galvanized iron and soil, and then heated by fire from underneath. It takes about 10 to 12 days to carbonize wood this way.

According to Margallo, Ulingan currently produces around 6,000 sacks of charcoal out of 360 tons of scrap wood each month. A charcoal-maker can sell each sack weighing 15 to 18 kilos for P180 to households and food establishments, and earn an average monthly profit of P6,000.

Before going into charcoal-making, resident Ariel Malalay used to do odd jobs, including picking through trash for recyclables sold to junk shops.

But since setting up his first pugon in 2000, Malalay had been able to support a family of six. Uling, he said, had kept his four young children in school and even allowed his wife, Irma, to open a sari-sari store.
“We got by through hard work,” he said with pride.

Their charcoal business now employs some of their neighbors. “Either we pay them in cash or we give them a share from what we produce,” Irma added.

But their methods remain stuck in the dirty past. The residents themselves admit that their children often get sick from all the smoke.

“It’s really suffocating,” Ariel said. “We sometimes put on masks, but they still prove useless with all the thick smoke.”

“Our kids would sometimes beg us to just leave this place,” Irma added.
Being in the middle of an urban sprawl, Ulingan has inevitably been the subject of complaints from residents in nearby areas. A few years back, the environment department and Manila city government shut down some pugons for violation of the Clean Air Act.

But despite this crackdown, old-style kilns continue to operate. “Since the government can’t offer an alternative, (authorities) can at least ask the residents to control the smoke,” said Marlon Llovido, the UPA coordinating officer who pushed for the introduction of smokeless kilns.

Developed by Juan Marquez of 1M Agro-Fuel, a smokeless kiln is made of concrete and basically traps smoke through a pipe for conversion into water vapor.

The new system also involves a machine that cuts the wood into uniform sizes, with the finished product coming out “like donuts,” according to one resident who saw a demonstration in Silang.

UPA said the long-term project envisioned for Ulingan would require an investment of around P2.7 million. This would include a facility that could house 10 smokeless kilns, a liquid smoke catchment system, and a warehouse.

“We will now check if these new kilns could be sustainable,” Llovido said.

UPA hopes that apart from the technology transfer, Ulingan residents can also form cooperative to further develop their businesses. It can reduce their dependence on loan sharks, for example, Llovido added.

“This is one way for the urban poor to be empowered and be able to stand on their own feet,” he stressed.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Nuns, bishops, and ‘King Lear’

By: Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Just as the pain of pedophile priests and sex scandals was easing in the Catholic Church, along came another possibly more unsettling problem: the Vatican’s harsh criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States. The LCWR coordinates the work of 80 percent of that country’s nuns.

The Vatican, after acknowledging the nuns’ fine work in helping poor people, criticized them for not condemning, as the bishops had, same-sex marriages and President Barack Obama’s National Health Act, which threatens to require Church institutions to pay for birth control and abortion services. The leaders of the LCWR will meet at month’s end to frame their response. The Vatican appointed an archbishop to oversee the actions of the LCWR until the matter is resolved.

There is no question who the general public supports in this debate. There have been six or seven articles in the New York Times alone, defending the nuns. Nicolas Kristof, an NYT columnist, wrote: “If people were asked who has more closely emulated Jesus’ life, the average sister or the pope, the nuns would win hands down.”  It’s not exactly the point at issue—the Pope might agree with the statement—but it indicates how much people admire the nuns for their lives of service and how poorly they regard the bishops and their claims of authority.

There are articles in newspapers telling of the nuns’ work in New York City with the poorest and most endangered women—those who have been trafficked, drug addicts trying to recover, recently released from prison, beaten by their husbands, pregnant without family support, homeless, or prostitutes trying to start a new life.

The nuns I talked with said that they were not surprised by the Vatican’s tough words and that for a long time, the bishops and nuns had been drifting apart. They feel they have changed with the times while the bishops have not. The LCWR prays and reflects for long periods before it makes decisions, the nuns also told me. It takes into account the charism of the nuns (the purpose for which they are instituted), the pros and cons of the issues, and the nuns’ individual convictions. It is painful, the nuns said, to do all this only to be told they have done something wrong and should follow instead the opinion of bishops who have no deeper understanding—maybe far less understanding—of the problem than the nuns do.

A nun suggested I read Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” saying it might help me understand the viewpoint of the nuns. In the play, King Lear decides to retire to some degree and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He tells them he will give the biggest share of land and wealth to the daughter who loves him most.

The two elder sisters tell the old man they love him, “more than eyesight, space, liberty, life, race, beauty and honor.” The old king gives them huge tracts of his kingdom. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, says she loves him as a daughter should, but since she will soon marry, she cannot love with all her heart. The king comments, “so young and so untender,” and swears he will never care for her again.

The cranky, arrogant and foolish old man soon finds he has made a huge mistake. The two elder sisters and their husbands try to oust the king completely. Cordelia helps him, but in the process is killed. In the last scene of the play the old king kneels beside Cordelia’s body and cries: “Why should a horse, a dog, a rat have life/and thou no breath at all? Thou’ll come no more. Never, never, never, never, never.”

There are lessons for everyone in the Vatican-LCWR dispute, but especially for those given great authority in the Church and government. Tradition has shaped two descriptions of how men and women in their high positions should act: Public officials are regularly called public servants, and the Pope, as the highest authority in the Church, is called servus servorum Dei, or servant of the servants of God.  The word “servant” best describes what people in authority should be.

In a democracy the people give authority to mayors and presidents, expecting these officials to act as servants (katulong) for the citizens. Officials are not the people’s bosses, though you might not realize that listening to them talk or watching them act. They are charged with helping citizens build a safer, more equitable and prosperous country by listening to how the citizens want to do this, and by arranging the appropriate activities.

In a democracy, and in the Church, authority is expected to guarantee that the poor are given priority. “As they have less in life, they should have more in law,” President Ramon Magsaysay once said. Officials are required to help the poor. If the poor request housing and the government can provide it, the government official in charge must provide it in the way the people want, unless there is something seriously wrong with the type of housing planned by the poor.

Authority is given to men and women for service. Christians can look to Jesus’ action at the Last Supper when he washed the feet of his apostles, as described in the Gospel of John, to understand this truth.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates with e-mail address

Monday, May 14, 2012

Urban Poor contradict PRRC Head Gina Lopez, saying: Housing on the Estero is World Class Solution to Housing Problems of the Poor and Health of the Waterways.

14 May 2012. Urban poor leaders have criticized Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission head Regina Lopez for confusing two issues:  the health of the river and estero waters and the issue of what to do with the thousands of poor families living along the waterways.

Filomena Cinco, leader of the poor people along a segment of Estero de San Miguel said, “All people on the waterways want clean water.  In fact they want it more than anyone, because they live next to the waterways.  We will help Gina Lopez clean the waters.  We are part of her River Warriors who protect the water.”

She said the difference between the Lopez and the poor has to do with re-housing the poor.  PRRC and Lopez plan to put the poor in distant areas where there are no jobs, with the result people go hungry, return to Manila or divide the families—workers stay in Manila, while mothers, old people and children stay in the relocation site.  This is sure to damage family life.  Distant relocation promises greater poverty and suffering.  The poor want to follow the example set in Indonesia and Thailand of constructing homes for the poor on the banks of river and canals allowing three meter easements.

 Cinco said. “Lopez plans parks for the river banks.  The people want people there.  We want to stay on the esteros because we are near our jobs, schools and hospitals.

“The urban poor claim Palafox Associates one of the country’s great architectural bodies has developed housing design for the estero,” she added.

“Everyone wants clean esteros.  Gina Lopez wants to build parks and relegate the poor people to greater suffering in distant relocation sites.  The poor want to build houses on the esteros that will give the poor safe, affordable and attractive housing and allow them to keep their jobs, and hold their families together.”

The urban poor reminds President Benigno Aquino that he promised to help them and allow them to stay in the esteros in the Palafox designed houses.

The rest of the world finds solutions for their poor families living along canals.  Why can’t we do it here? the urban poor ask. They believe housing the poor where they are makes good economic and political sense.  It is first of all a cheaper solution than distant relocation, according to studies made by the DILG.  Politically it will win the loyalty of thousands of poor families.  The poor ask government to trust our people and architects.  We can make gardens of the esteros where no one lives now.  We can do both housing and gardens.  To sentence the poor to relocation in places like Calauan is to hurt the poor in a very serious economic and social manner. -30-

Monday, May 7, 2012

Occupy Wall Street alive and well


By: Denis Murphy
1:00 am | Monday, May 7th, 2012
Philippine Daily Inquirer

When we finally caught up with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) people on May 1, they were organizing New York City’s largest protest rally of the year. Some people we talked with in previous weeks had been pessimistic about OWS’ future. We found OWS well and as rambunctious as ever.

It was raining in the morning but the afternoon was lovely. Hundreds of OWS people, union members, and special cause groups of all sorts gathered to celebrate in Union Square in lower Manhattan on May 1, the world’s Labor Day. Some groups were truly unusual. For example, one man wearing a woman’s skirt carried a sign saying, “Queers against Israel.” He didn’t take questions, so we don’t know any more about his group.

Speakers repeated the OWS emphasis on inequality, the need for more funding for education and health services, the need for peace and rational immigration laws, and an end to all discrimination. All of the city’s minority groups were there. A man walked through the crowd shouting, “This is what democracy looks like!”

Many of the issues were new—student loans, for example—but just as many were age-old. These included the call of unions for solidarity. The old slogans appeared on aged-looking signs: “A people united will never be defeated.”  “Whose side are you on?” The Communist Party of New York State called for “Jobs, Peace, Equality.” Its demand for equality seems to be a result of the OWS exposure of the inequality in the American economy. An article in the New York Times (April 17) that discussed the work of two French economists said that between 2000 and 2007, the incomes of the lowest 90 percent of American workers grew by only 4 percent, when corrected for inflation, while the incomes of the top 1 percent of the super-rich grew by 94 percent.

At the end of the speeches, we all sang Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is My Land” and “Solidarity Forever.” At this point there were close to 10,000-15,000 persons lining up to march south toward the financial area on lower Broadway. The media on May 2 reported that there had been bloody clashes between marchers and police and a large number of arrests. We didn’t march. As the sun went down, the marchers were far down Broadway. We could see where they were by the flashes of red light from the police cars.

It is hard to evaluate the influence of OWS. Its effort at exposing economic inequality seems to have succeeded. President Barack Obama talks often about “fairness,” after he has cited examples of inequality and the crowds roar approval. OWS was the leading group in bringing together the many organizations that celebrated on May 1. It is a major political actor.

However, the crowds that OWS gathered were no larger than those it organized last year. It is still criticized for not reaching the poorer workers. There were no notices, signs, or mention in the media of the May 1 affair beforehand except in the social media, which the poorer people don’t use to any great extent. We saw only one postcard-size announcement on 14th Street the Sunday before May 1.

What, if anything, does this Occupy Wall Street activity mean for countries like the Philippines? There were up to 15,000 people in the May 1 rally, but most of New York City was scarcely aware of it. The same is true in Metro Manila, though we haven’t had big rallies in quite a time. We have to find ways to get our message out to the poor people who are supposed to benefit from the rallies so that they attend and become involved in what is planned, and so they can have a say on what is done.

We can gather people of different issues, as what happened on May 1. There has to be cooperation among workers, urban poor, farmers, women’s groups, children’s protection groups, anti-trafficking groups, and religious bodies, and other nongovernment organizations and people’s organizations. We have to work together. If we don’t work together, we will all fail separately, to paraphrase the old saying.
We have lost the ability to work together, which has weakened us all. We must not fight each other to garner the small benefits that society is now prepared to give the poor. Indeed, if we look closely we may find that the party-list system is itself divisive.

Union Square, where the rally took place, has been the scene of protest for decades. The offices of the Daily Worker, the Communist Party’s newspaper, were in a building on the square. Irish activists, including my mother, battled New York police there in the years after World War I.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates.

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