Sunday, January 19, 2014

Listen to fishermen’s wives

Commentary
By Denis Murphy

We stood, with a dozen or so women, wives of Tacloban fishermen, looking out to sea for signs of a new typhoon. They had heard rumors of such a typhoon (Dec. 15) and had sent their children to the rescue centers. The women told us they were terribly afraid that the monstrous power that had crushed their homes and killed hundreds of their immediate neighbors would return, and they would hear again the shrieking winds. Given a reasonable recourse, they wouldn’t want to live near the sea—if only for the sake of their children.

Immediately before us were the pulverized concrete remains of Barangay (village) 90. No one lives there now. The survivors still tell of the many adults’ and children’s bodies pulled from under the debris after the typhoon, so the area now carries about it the air of horror of an open grave.

We walked with Holy Spirit Sisters Nory Gabito and Pearl Probadora through Barangay 89 and met Barangay Chair Melba Villalina. She was meeting with workers of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. She looked exhausted. She said the government doesn’t have a detailed plan of what it wants to do with the 1,010 families of her barangay.

Given the government’s 40-meter-wide zone measured from the water, where housing is forbidden, a solution acceptable to both the people and government is difficult to find. Many families, she said, would accept relocation if their fishermen-husbands could remain near the sea to continue their work. Some 400 residents of the barangay died during “Yolanda.”

We walked a little further and talked to Belinda Guinoohan, 43, who lives in one of the tents donated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Her living situation could be worse—as it is in many other parts of the country at all times—and, to be sure, it is far from comfortable. As we talked, a wet wind blew through the tent. The women joked that they slept on a waterbed, only the bed was all, real water.

They said the UN people who gave the tents told the people the government would tell them what to do. So far the government hasn’t done so. In retrospect, it is good the UN gave the tents, since that enabled them to stay together—at the site—while a solution has yet to be reached.

Belinda told me that no one from the UN, government or international NGOs has asked her or her neighbors what solution they would prefer. Consultation between the local government and the people affected by the disaster is the number one priority recommendation of the UN and of many others who have suggested some guidelines for the postdisaster reconstruction work. Belinda repeated the gist of what the barangay chair told us about a “double form of relocation”: the families inland, the fishermen to a “fishermen’s area.” This solution separates families, so it is far from perfect. However, on this matter, there are only bad solutions to be had at this time.

“Do you have a people’s group of some sort?” we asked Belinda.
“No, we don’t,” she answered.

She said a few of them individually and separately have gone to authorities to complain, but no one listened to them. It seemed to us, sisters and people’s organizers who were listening, that some sort of people’s organization was needed—the only realistic way those in authority can consult with thousands of poor people. When the idea of such a people’s group was mentioned, the women we talked with agreed: It was a good and useful thing to have.

The floor of the tent was wet sand. When it rained the water collected in puddles inside the tent. Women told us their children would cry and refuse to go to school whenever it rained.

We had to admire the gritty decorum of the women who, even in very difficult circumstances, wash the clothes and try to get them dry, even as they struggle to find food for their respective families, nurse the very young and comfort all the children—day after day with patience and grace. Has any government ever had better people to work with? I don’t think so. Maybe good, but no one better.

Our last stop on our last day was at the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Palo, a 10-15 minute drive from Tacloban. We went there straight from the fishermen’s area and found what could be called an instance of divine democracy: There was great damage done there too. This relatively new and beautiful church was damaged much like the fishermen’s huts. Huge sections of the roof had been torn away by Yolanda. You could sit in the dry part of the church and listen to raindrops falling on the altar area. What is the message? Is it that the church must share the life of the poor? Behind the cathedral nearly 1,100 bodies of people are buried under a simple green field—people from all socioeconomic classes, we were told.

There are, according to media reports, tens of thousands of poor families along the shorelines of Samar, Leyte and other islands. They are in much the same bad situation as the fishermen’s wives in Tacloban we talked with. How the government “re-houses” them and helps to put the wage earners among them back to work may be the heart and soul of the whole reconstruction effort. My feeling is we need much more open, transparent discussions—and more ideas and alternatives—to find the right answer(s).

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (urbanpoorassociates@ymail.com).



Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Poor Look for Fairness

Commentary
By Denis Murphy
10:28 pm | Sunday, January 5th, 2014

We shouldn’t be surprised if God focuses all His concern this Christmas on the men, women and children of Tacloban and the other battered areas of the Visayas. We shouldn’t be surprised if He creates a storm surge of hope, peace and courage that sweeps over the victims and prepares them for the long effort to build anew with solidarity and vision.

The task ahead is so huge, so far greater than anything the country has done since recovering from World War II, that I am surprised more of our leaders are not talking explicitly of God’s help. Is there perhaps too much self-reliance? Is there overconfidence?

* * *
On Dec. 17 the urban poor of Metro Manila and their friends met to agree on the advice they would give to government and agencies working with the victims of Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” They were aware many groups of experts had already made suggestions on what should be done and what should be avoided. Still, they felt they had a special point of view and an organizing experience that would be appreciated by the poor people of the Visayas. Their advice is basically a request for government and others to encourage poor people to participate in all phases of development and to treat everyone fairly.

Half of the day at Ateneo de Manila was given to the presentation of suggestions by experts in and out of government, actual survivors of the storm and urban poor men and women. In the second half of the day the participants voted for the 13 most valuable suggestions. Nearly 180 people attended the workshop, but the number had dropped to 117 people by 6 p.m. when the vote was taken. The meeting was organized by UP-All, Urban Poor Associates, FDUP, PHILSSA and CO Multiversity. Here are the results:

• Number 1 with 90 votes. We need a social action structure that includes all the people willing to work: experts, Church, NGOs, fishermen and people’s organizations.
• Number 2 with 72 votes. We need programs that stress community values (solidarity,
sharing, democracy and equality), and pursue short and long-term goals.
• Number 3 with 60 votes. Here the people make a simple statement: “Distant relocation is no solution.” This refers in particular to families who may be moved from the 40-meter no-build zone. Where will they be sent? Will they have a choice of solutions?
• Number 4 with 59 votes. Have regular cluster meetings among LGUs, NGOs and people’s groups.
• Number 5 with 56 votes. The poor want a simple, transparent reporting of resources received and delivered, of plans made and rejected, of all successes and failures.
• Number 6 with 56 votes. Use community organization. In other words, get the people themselves involved in assessing, planning and acting according to their own lights.
• Number 7 with 52 votes. Treat everyone equally, especially in the 40-meter issue. In other countries there were efforts to remove poor people near the sea and replace them with resorts and businesses.
• Number 8 with 37 votes. Families should receive insurance for what they lost in the typhoon. In matters of health they should have full coverage.
• Number 9 with 28 votes. Do not let prices spike. Do something effective.
• Number 10 with 25 votes. Have common goals. All people must benefit equally. Perhaps it will be good to set up a special complaint office.
• Number 11 with 25 votes. Make sure there are at the end of the reconstruction agencies continuing to provide water, light, medical care, policing, day care and fire prevention.
• Number 12 with 19 votes. Encourage LGUs and barangays to adopt barangays.
• Number 13 with 2 votes. This suggestion wanted higher penalties be delivered by courts if people are guilty of stealing relief goods, hoarding, unjust allotment of land, etc. The suggestion was that these be made heinous crimes and therefore not bailable. Only two people voted for it. Why? Maybe the poor think it’s a useless recommendation. Even if only two people voted for it, why don’t we raise the stakes? If people decide to take advantage of a crisis, they should be fittingly punished.

The suggestions of the urban poor are in many ways similar to those of other groups. Their wish is for structures that would involve the poor, even in the planning. They stress justice and equality, fair treatment of all. They want community values highlighted, such as, solidarity and compassion. They want every child to have a chance for a healthy, well-educated and happy life.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [urbanpoorassociates@ymail.com].


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