Monday, September 27, 2010

The bosses have spoken

This was my column on the date indicated above.

Traffic in Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare ground to a complete halt last week when thousands of squatters barricaded a portion of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue to dramatize their protest against a demolition being pushed by the National Housing Authority. By barricading Metro Manila’s main thoroughfare, the squatters in fact staged their own hostage situation. But then, the victims weren’t tourists from another country but hapless commuters; ordinary people trying to go about their daily business and make a decent living so nobody really paid attention.

Besides, we’ve been there a lot of times already. Wasn’t it just a couple of months ago when a similar drama was staged somewhere in Quezon City? I remember former Vice President Teofisto Guingona trying to play a role in that one, interceding for the illegal settlers. This time around, the contested lot is a huge government property: A 29-hectare property of the Quezon City government right next to the Trinoma mall. Quite a valuable piece of land, for sure. No wonder people are willing to fight to the death for a piece of it.

For the longest time, that swathe of land was idle and served mainly as feeding ground for the goats that some enterprising individuals later on butchered and sold at makeshift stalls right on EDSA. It was Kambingan country. And then the illegal settlers came. My daughter works in a building right across the area. She says that the community grew algebraically when Trinoma became operational and it became obvious that the value of the area was going to skyrocket. Settlers smelled opportunity and descended like a plaque of locusts.

Why, the whole place even got a legitimate name. It now goes by the name Sitio San Roque. The settlers got organized. And now they have set claims on the property and now speak with authority about land valuations, the law, and the workings of the Quezon City government. These are illegal settlers who sure know how to fight back. Their president, Josie Lopez, is one feisty lady who knows how to work the media. She was all over the morning shows last week spewing quite a mouthful against the Quezon City government, the National Housing Authority, and the developers.

A defiant Lopez challenged authorities saying they would never give up the land. She said that if their shanties got demolished, they would just rebuild them. Their logic: They developed the land. They said that before they settled in the area, it was overrun by Cogon grass. I don’t really know what she meant when she said they developed the land—perhaps she was referring to the fact that they created alleys, dug toilet holes on the ground, and had electricity wiring (both legal and illegal) strung into the area.

She said the relocation site given to them in Montalban, Rizal didn’t have the amenities of North Triangle. Their children go to school around the area (must be Ateneo de Manila University, Miriam College, or perhaps the Philippine Science High School), their livelihoods are within the area (Trinoma Mall, or perhaps SM North City), ergo, they should be allowed to stay in the area. It’s difficult not to raise eyebrows at their demands: A hospital, a school, and livelihood projects in the relocation sites in addition to free housing.

But then again, the settlers are really just asking for basic services that ordinarily should be made available to citizens anyway. The problem is that this whole squatting phenomenon has been made complicated by greed and opportunism. It is very obvious that a number of the squatters are “professional squatters”—people who have turned the whole thing into an enterprise of sorts. They avail of relocation sites, promptly sell them, and then look for other places that they can “settle” in. I have been told that some enterprising people actually make a lot of money by settling in slums—they provide the services that informal settlers need at a very high premium. At the Baseco Compound in Manila for example, there are illegal settlers who operate grocery stores and “water concessions.” In case you didn’t know, informal settlers pay as much as ten times for water what residents in Forbes Park do.

The current efforts to relocate the settlers from Sitio San Roque to Montalban or Rodriquez, Rizal will cost the NHA around P200 thousand per family—not a small amount of money given the number of illegal settlers in the area. Reports say there are at least 5,000 families living in the area. If government paid guards to make sure no one settled in the area, the cost would have been a tiny fraction. Sadly, strategic thinking is something alien to people in government.

The problem of illegal settlers is something that requires a comprehensive solution. We need to amend the Urban Development Housing Act of 1992, otherwise known as the Lina Law. Everyone keeps talking about it, but obviously no politician will dare touch this law because it will earn him or her the ire of the millions of squatters in this country. It will be tantamount to political suicide. This law effectively made evicting squatters from private and government-owned properties a virtual impossibility. I am aware though that amending the law is not enough. The problem requires a comprehensive solution —one that would include managing urban migration, providing education, jobs, etc.

The drama in Quezon City has been temporarily put on hold by two interceding events. A trial court issued a temporary restraining order stopping the NHA from pushing through with the demolition. The President of the Republic has also issued a status quo order all the way from the United States. A still defiant Lopez, speaking for the illegal settlers, reminded the President of his inaugural message: Kami ang boss mo (we, the people, are your bosses).

The reference to politics is indicative of just how this whole squatting problem is strongly linked to Philippine politics. In fact, the roots of the problem can be linked to politics!

The truth of the matter is that illegal settlers flourish because a number of politicians coddle them and use them during elections. This is certainly true in Quezon City and in Makati and in other urban centers where squatter colonies produce the votes that elect people into office. Lopez claims former President Joseph Estrada even promised the land to them. She also dropped hints that incumbent Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista also did the same during the last election campaign. Lopez challenge Bautista directly: “what happened to your promise during the campaign that there will be no demolition?”

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