squatterIt was year 2009 when tropical storm Ondoy wreaked havoc in some parts of the Philippines. My classmates and I delivered relief to the typhoon victims in San Andres, Manila. The way leading toward the place was muddy and dark (thanks for the light bulb which provided faint luminescence as we trailed along our way). The residents went outside their humble abodes, welcoming us as we passed by them. It was a community under a concrete bridge and beside a waterway. Their houses were not those grandiose ones we use to see in drama films. After all, we were not in the posh Forbes Park or Ayala Village.

Urban poverty remains to be one of the chronic maladies of the country. Though the 2008 Philippine Poverty Indicators Survey reveals a drastic decline in the urban poverty incidence rate, the reality does not seem to say so. Squatters, more commonly referred to as informal settlers, have become the personification of urban poverty in the country.

Since they live on or alongside esteros (estuaries) and creeks, the informal settlers are often blamed for the clogging of major waterways and worsening of floods in Metro Manila. The Metro’s flood management plan reveals that waterways must be free of obstruction to allow the rainwater to flow into Laguna de Bay and Manila Bay. As a part of the incumbent administration’s program to address flooding in the metropolis, Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II revealed that the government will offer Php 18,000 as a “relocation fee”  (rent subsidy) to almost 20,000 families which will vacate their houses along the banks of crucial waterways in Metro Manila.

On the one hand, the plan was met with praise as it offers incentive for those estero-dwelling families to leave their perilous place of residence. On the other, it was butchered with criticisms as it tolerates the dependence of the poor to the government and their defiance to housing laws. Even a television personality expressed her disdain in Twitter, stating why does the government need to cuddle the poor like babies.

The frequent flooding in the metropolis does not only stem from clogged waterways (though it really is a factor to reckon with) nor can the predicament of the informal settlers be only solved by a rent subsidy and relocation. These problems have some serious implications that the government may or may not be aware of.

The other share of the blame

Whenever one happens to see tons of rubbish floating on the river and catch a glimpse of shanties standing nearby or on the river, the association can be easily deduced: they did it. The poor who live in these precarious shanties are certainly the ones who block drains and prevent water from flowing freely, resulting to dreadful floods. End of discussion.

Time and again, the poor are bashed when it comes to disregard for the environment since one tends to make sense of things as he/she sees them. Sadly, the illegal miners who exploit the country’s forests abusively are not taking their share of the blame. It is because they are not seen along with trashes, denuded forests, and contaminated bodies of water. Instead they are seen beside economic gain. The government cannot bash mining firms as it deems the gain much important than the loss it generates, no matter how big or small the loss is. The government has its policy to move informal settlers out of their homes to free waterways from obstruction, but it has no action whatsoever towards the curious case of mining firms which, apparently, have mastered with erudition the exploitation of the environment and of indigenous people’s ancestral domain.

A palliative solution

Though the government wants to get rid of the informal settlers and salvage the poor from living in a “dangerous zone”, it does not provide a long-term solution to their grave predicament. The issuance of rental subsidy among the informal settlers is only a palliative solution as it does not totally cure the wound; it only puts bandage on it.

Building relocation sites is the government’s primary response to the infamous problem of squatting in the country. However, this has been marked by flaws. The sites built in the provinces adjacent to Manila remain to be far from the people’s source of livelihood and hardly accessible to schools, churches, and public markets. As such, most of those who are offered relocation go back to their former place of residence to gain easier access to things vital for their survival. In the process, a shanty community reverts to its normal shape, or another one is established anew. Either way, the cycle of life among the returnees continues.

Most of the informal settlers come from the rural sections of the country. Because of extreme lack of economic opportunities in the countryside, they migrate to and settle in the cities, only to be turned down by highly competitive and too rigid job requirements. The credential-oriented urban society does not seem apt for someone whose inclinations are in agriculture rather than in business, office or construction work. With hopes and dreams gone awry, the rural migrant is incarcerated in a virtual cell, far from the rice fields, to face his challenge: make living as less costly as possible. This leads me then to proposing another possible solution: strengthen the agricultural economy and provide job opportunities for the people in the rural areas to incentivize them to not seek anymore “greener pastures” which they falsely associate with the cities.

The powerlessness of the poor

The informal settlers should not be easily viewed as perpetrators of an anomaly nor should they be criticized because of their stubbornness and inaction towards their deplorable condition. Poverty is not only the state of being penniless nor is it only the situation of living in shanties and slums. It is also the state of being powerless. To render the urban poor as the ones who are solely blameworthy for the worsening of floods in Metro Manila is to construe things in a narrow and reductionist perspective. If living in a slum makes one vulnerable to all types of physical, health and social risks, then why would an informal setter dare to jeopardize his well-being and physicality? Certainly, even Alice would not spend her adventures in that so appalling a Wonderland (if that would really count as a Wonderland). As much as it exemplifies powerlessness, poverty is also a situation where one experiences lack of or inaccessibility to resources which include, among others, education, healthcare, and income.

The convoluted problem of squatting in the country cannot just be answered by relocation sites nor the worsening of floods in Metro Manila be addressed by just getting rid of the informal settlers residing nearby the waterways. Instead of banking on solutions not sustainable, it is now time for the government to go beyond giving each qualified family a meager amount of subsidy.

Image Source: sowhatsnews.wordpress.com