From Luzon to Mindanao, urban poor relocatees tell stories of hunger, worsening poverty and desperation.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – For urban poor relocatees, the year 2014 glaringly belied President Aquino’s claim that his “righteous path” would lead to ending poverty.
Maligned as “picky,” “demanding,” “sloths,” and a burden to the government, urban poor communities are the ones who make the biggest sacrifice for the sake of government “development” projects, as they are forced to give up the space they occupy in the city.
In the pretext of clearing “danger zones” and bringing informal settlers to safety, government relocates them to sites where they find it hard to find work, or to live.
Meanwhile, government projects that would supposedly deliver services have, instead, only fattened the pockets of the chosen few.
“We have been debased as lazy,” Gina Bola, spokesperson of Montalban Relocatees Alliance (MRA), said in a gathering of relocatees on Dec. 4. “That is twisted logic. If only they let us be in the city where we can work, then our stomachs would not grumble.”
The conference brought together urban poor from relocation sites from Luzon to Mindanao, whose stories belied the government’s promise of safety and better living conditions.
The threat of eviction continues even at the relocation sites.
As if it’s deja vu, relocatees receive eviction notices for failing to pay their monthly amortization and its monthly interest. Families who cannot pay their amortization get their electricity and water supplies cut off.
“Why can’t we pay the monthly amortization? Simply because we were displaced from our jobs. There is no available livelihood contrary to what was promised to us,” said Thelma Milo, a resident of Northville, a government relocation site in Bulacan.
Even in the supposed “nearest relocation site” being offered by the government, decent livelihood are also not promising, said Bola, resident of Kasiglahan Village in Rodriguez, Rizal. Bola was relocated from Quezon City.
Pedicab drivers should be more than grateful if they earn $1 a day, which, ironically, Bola added, is above the poverty line, according to government standards.
“In the morning, it’s rice porridge. For lunch, we try to remember what we had for breakfast. For dinner, it’s just coffee,” Bola described their usual daily fare.
The dire situation in government relocation sites has pushed some to engage in anti-social activities such as prostitution, drug-dealing and drug abuse.
In Batangas, Arnold Evangelista of Kadamay-Batangas said some women in relocation sites consent to sex in exchange for two cups of rice. He added that they did not have to resort to prostitution when they lived in the port area, where they had decent sources of livehood.
Evangelista said that women used to earn from selling native cakes in or near the port. But in relocation sites, they could hardly make a dollar out of a bilao (tray) of rice cakes.
Among those transferred by the government to relocation sites are informal settlers whose homes are either razed by fire or destroyed by calamities. But instead of relief, urban poor families said relocation sites are nothing but a double whammy to their suffering.
Lourdes Omar, 45, a resident of Paniran village, Zamboanga City in Mindanao, doubted if the fire that razed her community in 2005 was intentional or accidental, but still, she agreed to be relocated. For years, they had a hard time adjusting due to lack of income sources. Then, another havoc wrecked their community. This time, their homes were destroyed due to military airstrikes in the Zamboanga city siege in September 2013.
Omar’s daughter, 22-year-old Aiza was among the hundreds arrested for being suspected as Muslim rebels.
Omar stays at the Joaquin F. Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex in Zamboanga City where thousands of evacuees from the siege are still staying. Though several houses had been constructed at a relocation site, Omar said most residents chose to endure the difficulties in tent cities than in the new houses, which they found too small and structurally weak.
“We survived the armed conflict. But we might die in our sleep in those houses, which might crumble on us,” she said.
No water, electricity, social services
Relocation sites also lack access to potable water, electricity and social services.
In Bacolod City, Ireneo Longinos said at least 34 relocatee families share one deep well for their water supply.
In Kasiglahan Village, Bola jested that residents can get sick only on Mondays and Tuesdays as these are the only days that the infirmary is open.
The nearest tertiary, general hospital to Kasiglahan Village – which is located east outside of Metro Manila – is the East Avenue Medical Center in Quezon City.
Other families were given empty promises.
Celso Vender, 52, a survivor of Typhoon Pablo, said government officials promised to provide them P10,000 cash assistance and a housing project. As of this writing, his family has not receive any.
Families torn apart
Evangelista of Kadamay-Batangas said he is saddened with the social cost for families in relocation sites.
Families are forced to live apart, he said. Most of the time, Evangelista said, one of the parents would work in the city, coming home only every weekend to the relocation site to bring their week’s salary.
“Filipinos are known for close family ties. Living apart, they lose the very essence of what a family is,” he said.
Victims of corruption
But who really benefits from these so-called projects for the poor?
In 2011, the Department of Budget and Management released a P10 billion fund to develop on-site medium rise relocation sites for informal settlers. The fund, years later, was discovered as the biggest lump sum appropriation under the Disbursement Acceleration Program, declared by Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
President Aquino, in a live televised speech on July 14, 2014, said DAP was used to relocate informal settlers to a “safer place.”
“We are not safe here,” Mercy Merilles, a resident of Kasiglahan Village, a government relocation site, said following Aquino’s pronouncements.
In September, Typhoon Mario brought heavy flooding to Kasiglahan Village. The same thing happened to the area in 2012 and 2013 when monsoon rains battered the country, said the MRA.
Kadamay has long assailed Aquino’s ties with businessman Gerry Acuzar, brother-in-law of his executive secretary Pacquito Ochoa. Acuzar is the owner of the New San Jose Builders Inc., the private contractor of Kasiglahan Village.
The New San Jose Builders has been criticized by relocatees for what they call as “insensitive policies” on their access to electricity and water rates.
Urban poor communities are also being demolished not because they are in the so-called danger zones, such as those whose homes sit along waterways, but to give way to big businesses.
Apart from the Quezon City Central Business District, urban poor communities, including those who are already residing in relocation sites, are being demolished. Tenement houses both in Taguig City and in Tondo, Manila were declared condemned buildings and that residents should leave their homes.
Residents, however, argued that the government has yet to conduct a more thorough studies on the buildings.
Lorenzo Calamios, a resident of the tenement in Taguig City, cited conflicting reports from the National Housing Authority that declared their tenement as a condemned building while Department of Public Works and Highways said it only needed retrofitting.
In Dasmariñas, Cavite, a market that relocatees helped establish is being threatened to be demolished to give way to a public-private partnership project, a construction of a big mall chain, said Elvie Luza of Kadamay-Cavite.
The urban poor leaders lamented how relocatees continue to be neglected and pushed around.
“To push for changes in relocation sites, we attend dialogues left and right. Officials would pass around the blame and responsibility. At the same time, we can also see who are conniving and those who are benefiting at the expense of our suffering,” Bola said.
This year, 2015, is bound to be a busy year for many urban poor communities. The struggle to remain in their homes is true for both those who are still in their respective communities and those who have been relocated.
Many urban poor dwellers that this writer has interviewed swore they would have never turned into activists if only the government did not choose profit over their welfare. But the government has paved the way to create their so-called “enemies” and now urban poor families are ready more than ever to fight for their rights.
Luza of Kadamay-Cavite recalled how back in the days the relocatees struggled hard to fight for their right to livelihood, shelter and access to basic social services. They conducted “land occupy” protests, locked down and, consequently served an eviction notice to NHA’s satellite office, among others.
The same battle, she said, is expected as conditions have gone for the worst. Their earlier victories, she added, were bastardized with the left and right reclassification of land use in Cavite, threatening their homes and the livelihoods they have established.
But Luza is positive that the urban poor, united, can repeat their earlier victories and fight for their rights.
This year, relocatees from Luzon to Mindanao hope to unite as one, learn both from their victories and mistakes in the past, and struggle hand-in-hand.