Sunday, February 3, 2013

A little girl’s signature

I remember an old dispute between two very good friends—Ed Gerlock, former Maryknoll priest who has worked with farmers and the aged poor all his life, and Columban Fr. Mickey Martin, a genuine hero of the sugar farmers of Negros Oriental and former Irish football star. It was over a little street child signing her name for the first time.

Ed helped run an informal school and shelter for street children, which was housed in the Malate Church compound. Mickey was the parish priest. One little girl who came to the shelter couldn’t, or wouldn’t, write her name. She had the experts stumped: She was the only child who didn’t want to write. Then something happened, to which my friends had completely distinct reactions.

The little girl had written her name, but she had chosen to use a rusty nail in writing it on the fender of a brand-new car owned by one of the parish’s benefactors that was parked in the church compound. Ed was delighted: The girl had come in out of the darkness. Mickey was horrified: Who was to blame, and what would he tell the woman owner?

As the dispute developed, I could imagine what the two men might have thought of each other. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Mickey secretly thought that Ed was delighted that the little girl was not only writing, but was also striking a blow for social justice in picking out a new car for her first signature. Ed may have thought that Mickey was, deep down, more of a capitalist than the bred-in-the-bone friend of the poor he had been all those years with the sugar workers.

The two men are friends again. Little girls are still searched for rusty nails, of course.

In that old debate and the present people-government debates, both sides have arguable points. For example, the government has the right to evict poor families under certain conditions for the common good, but it must observe the rules imposed by the Philippines’ Constitution and laws and the United Nations Covenants on Human Rights it has signed. We should add here that Christianity and Islam have championed these rights since long before there was a Philippine government or a UN.

The government should also abide by the clear promises President Aquino has made to the poor, such as in-city, near-city resettlement. This position of the President acknowledges that the distant relocation sites the government once established—where no jobs were available—were a clear wrong that needed correction. No side has all the strong points, however. Anyway, in a democracy we don’t have to win by a knockout; a close decision is enough. Democracies compromise.

As I write this, a meeting is going on downstairs in our office of urban poor people. It is noisy, but music to the ears of people who desire more people’s participation in national affairs. The people are discussing the government announcement that it will evict some 16,000 poor families before May 15, either because their lives are endangered (families living in stilt houses on the waters of our Metro Manila esteros and rivers) or because the government wants them out for other reasons (for example, so it can build revetments or dredge the waters).

The debate at this moment may be about these 15,800 families. We hesitate to say “only 15,000,” since it is already a big figure, but the families concerned will grow in number very rapidly when we take into account the entire Flood Control Plan in which 209,000 families will be resettled—over a million men, women and children. Let us talk, therefore, about the 209,000 families. The Department of Public Works and Highways divides them into 154,728 families on the Pasig River-Metro Manila area and 54,800 families around Laguna Lake.

The sad truth is that deep down, the urban poor organizations don’t believe that government agencies care much about their welfare. They see the care and resources the government has put into the engineering plans of the flood control program, but do not see how it is preparing in an equally careful way for the resettlement of the 209,000 families. The government has little, if any, land set aside for their resettlement. It lacks accurate figures on how many poor families need to be relocated. Indeed, it may lack accurate figures on the total number of urban poor families in all of Metro Manila. The government says they number about 540,000, but the Asian Development Bank in 2004 said there were five million urban poor individuals in Metro Manila, or one million families.

What do poor people want of the government in this matter of the 209,000 families? They want the government to tell them in some detail what families will be resettled, and where. The government knows exactly where it will put the grand dam that will be the linchpin of the flood control work and the catchment basins. The poor also want the government to commit publicly to limiting resettlement to on-site, in-city, or near-city sites. “Near-city” means near enough so a wage earner employed in Metro Manila can commute to and from his or her home and job at affordable cost. Failure to limit resettlement along these lines flies in the face of the President’s commitment to the poor. They ask the government to make known at the beginning of each year where exactly it will resettle the families to be moved that year.

Finally, the poor want the government to treat them with respect. It is as simple as that: Bankers and lawyers are not forced onto trucks by police and shipped off to distant relocation, often in the very trucks that carry off the city garbage.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [].

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