Thursday, June 27, 2013

Knowing and unknowing

Marietta, a woman of buoyant good humor with whom we have worked for years on the R-10 road in Tondo, was telling us why she was happy with her new home in the resettlement area in San Pedro, Laguna. “I have a real home now,” she said. “When I die, my wake can be inside my home, not out in the street.” Traffic on the R-10 roars dangerously close to the poor people’s houses. Holding a wake there is a risky matter. We were surprised that Marietta, still in her 40s, should be thinking of her death and wake.

There are many things we don’t know about the urban poor, including the depth of their unawareness of matters that affect their lives. In a survey made of poor families living along the San Juan River in San Juan City and Quezon City, we found that most of them knew almost nothing about the Urban Development and Housing Act that sets limits on evictions, and nothing about the “Covenant with the Urban Poor” that was signed by President Aquino. The covenant restricts resettlement to on-site, in-city and near-city relocation areas, and forbids the distant relocation patterns of past years that saw up to 80 percent of the people sent to far-off sites abandoning their homes there and returning to Manila. There were no jobs. The poor are not aware they have housing rights guaranteed by law and the Constitution.

When the survey respondents were asked about eviction, they told the interviewers that they knew they were living illegally on the land near the river and therefore had no rights. They told the interviewers to talk to their barangay captains because they would do what these leaders told them to do. The barangay captains traditionally do what the mayor wants in eviction matters, so the poor were in effect turning over all decisions on the matter to the mayors who often are the source of evictions orders.

This ignorance of their rights can be a temptation to the government to ignore the people’s rights, though it seems that the government’s first task should be to inform the people of their rights. These days, even deadly criminals are so informed. We all know the short speech the detective gives as he puts on the handcuffs: “You have the right to remain silent. What you say may be held against you in court. You have a right to a lawyer…”
Are poor people denied similar information? Are they told, “You have a right to question the eviction orders, you have a right to near-city or in-city resettlement”?

We found that 90 percent of the communities along the San Juan River were unorganized. There may be a leader who takes care of Mass in the  capilla  during the fiesta or intercedes with the mayor in special cases, but there is no organization that brings the people together to discuss matters such as imminent eviction and how they should respond. The people, through lack of awareness of their rights and lack of an organization capable of a critical stance toward evictions, are very vulnerable to government “bullying.”

Most importantly, the poor people are not aware of how God looks on their situation, which is, of course, the way we should look on them. God doesn’t want them to live in slums. Neither does He want them forced or talked out of their homes and sent to places that, for lack of jobs, may be more injurious to them than life in the slums. He wants His people to be treated justly. Pope John Paul II once said through his Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace: “Every family that finds itself living in slum-like conditions through no fault of their own is a victim of injustice.” That’s injustice committed by the rest of society.

I feel we may be caught up in a gigantic typhoon of propaganda and spin. People are told they are being evicted “for their own good,” but the people say they have lived along the esteros and rivers for 20 or 30 years and no one has been hurt by the many floods they have experienced. Then we are told the poor families along the waterways are blocking the flow of water and causing the floods that bring the whole city to its knees. Actually, most families along the waterways are at least three meters from the water, and public works officials and World Bank experts have said they do not interfere with the flow of water. We are also told the same poor families pollute the rivers and Manila Bay itself. Research tells us only 5-10 percent of pollution is from the poor. If all the poor along the waterways did nothing all day except “make  ihi,” they still couldn’t pollute the rivers and bay, so vast is the volume of water.

What we need in the matter of pollution are waste treatment plants for industry that really work and treatment plants to serve the hundreds of thousands of families of all income levels whose waste is now poured directly into the Pasig River.

Our haste to evict may be leading us to illegal actions. Some lawyers believe the government plan to give evicted families P18,000 for rent in lieu of resettlement, with a promise to resettle them after a year, may be illegal.

We are gradually shifting all guilt and all necessary sacrifice connected with flood control on to the shoulders of the poor. Reality is much more complex. We are not informing poor people of their rights, though Ramon Magsaysay once promised, “Those who have less in life should have more in law.” We are not helping them organize so they can fully understand and deal with the evictions they face.

Does the country want to go down such a self-righteous road, blaming the poor for our ills, or can we face the huge, complex flood problem, and other problems linked to climate change, as one people, giving new meaning to the old slogan “one for all and all for one”?

There is time. The engineering work for flood control will not even begin for a few more years. Why not solve the problems we face with compassion for all our people?

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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