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Life on the fast track: Mobilizing the urban poor for change
“Hindi kami squatter. Nakikitira lang kami rito.”
Bhoy Vino, December 2003
The poignancy of the above quote is, unfortunately, lost in translation. Bhoy Vino is a jeepney driver from Manila who has lived in an urban poor community along a railway track all his life. We are not squatters. We just live here, he says. Nakikitira is a participative conjugation of the Tagalog verb for “reside”. It connotes collectivity and shared action. There are many ways of avoiding the use of the word 'squatter': urban poor, informal settler, makeshift dweller. Politically correct language allows development planners, social workers and aid agencies to talk about urban poverty in terms of problems and solutions, devoid of emotional content. The people themselves are of course a different lot. The articulations of their lives, struggles and identities are steeped in raw emotions. Their indignation is palpable in every conversation, but so is their humor and wit. Bhoy's wife, Edna, has a different take on her husband's comment: “Hindi ako squatter. Maganda ako!” I'm not a squatter. I'm pretty! She laughs and goes on expressing her resentment at the derogatory meanings of the term. We are not thieves. We are no syndicate. We are not a problem. We know how to help ourselves. All we need are friends from the outside. This case study tells the story of the mobilizations that are taking place in Edna and Bhoy's community. The community spans a stretch of ten kilometers, alongside a single railway track of the Philippine National Railway (PNR). Tightly clustered along the track, within the 15-meter danger zone, are the homes of no less than 10,471 families2.
Although the views put forward here are those of the author, no research is a product of a singular effort. Without the stories and reflections of the people of HARF and especially Reynaldo Ablay, this work would not never have come to life. Invaluable support also came from Leonardo delos Reyes III and Rafael Albert of the Center for Popular Empowerment. My collaborators, comrades and friends: Mabuhay kayo! Government census data show that of the total number of households, about half are homeowners or co-owners. Of the 7,003 structures found in the community, 5,074 are purely
In many ways, their community is like numerous others in the developing world, in Bangkok or Jakarta. Driven by poverty, this is where rural migrants begin their “city lives” alongside descendants of Manila's underclasses. Lower echelon employees live next to contractual laborers. Women augment family income by doing other people’s laundry. Children earn a few Pesos by selling recyclable garbage to junk shops. Some peddle street food and cigarettes to motorists at the nearby highway. Living conditions are crowded and sanitation is poor. Many children suffer from chronic coughs. Supply of clean drinking water is uneven and there are only few streetlights at night. Drugs and alcohol are common forms of escape. Then there are the obvious dangers of being side-swiped, injured or killed by a speeding train. In some areas of the community, there is barely half a meter distance between the track and a home's doorstep. And there is also the human insecurity that is taking its toll on those living in the danger zone. Many have experienced the trauma of demolition: witnessing the destruction of one's home, uprooting one's school-aged children and the uncertainty of finding new work. Others have been hardened by periodic threats and “false alarms”. Yet, despite the insecurity, not all have lost their sense of control over their fates. Associational ties at the grassroots level have given rise to numerous local neighborhood organizations, which in turn have federated into a local movement that is giving expression to people's contentions and assertions. The aim of this study is to surface the history, inner workings, external context and significance of this urban movement, both as a unique example of local collective action and a reflection of wider urban struggles. The local movement in focus is of particularly interesting, since it represents a community that has not benefited from external development interventions. It thus provides insights into self-mobilizing strategies of the urban poor, autonomous of Church or NGO-led community community organizing found in adjacent localities.
The urban condition: the push and pull of modernization
“Cities are living systems, made, transformed and experienced by people. Urban forms and functions are produced and managed by the interaction between space and society, that is by the historical relationship between human consciousness, matter, energy and information. “
Manuel Castells, Introduction to The City and the Grassroots, 1983. residential, while the rest of the structures combine residential with commercial use (small stores) or serve as storage or small-scale workshops.
This case study of one of numerous urban poor communities in the Philippine capital is set against the backdrop of the urban drama of a “primate city” (Evers and Korff, 2000) such as Manila. Traffic is horrendous, the mass of people and vehicles suffocating3. Air pollution coats the entire city in gray dust. Everyday, people make even the most uninhabitable parts of the city a place to live and call home: river embankments, garbage dumps, shorelines, bridges. Amidst the greyness, are islands of green: sprawling lawns surrounding shopping malls and government buildings, church yards, and the homes of the upper class who live behind tall, white walls. It is often said that Manila is both the country's biggest sewer and gateway to the world. It is a smoldering waste site and temple of consumerism all at once. It is an orphanage to the downtrodden and playground to the rich. The contrasts are stark, by any measure. The urban poor community in focus is located in the southern tip of the metropolis, bordering the province of Laguna. Muntinlupa City, literally translated, means “little land”. It is one of twelve component cities that comprise Metro Manila. With a view of rolling hills and the Laguna de Bay Lake, Muntinlupa used to be a sleepy suburb to the mega-city of Manila. This is no longer the case. Within the last decade, the city has grown into an important information technology hub. It boasts of an ultra-modern business park and one of the country's most advanced medical facilities. Yet at the same time, it is home to more than 40,000 urban poor households out of a total household population of 78,0004. Like in the rest of Manila, these urban settlements are populated by migrants from different parts of the archipelago, their children and grandchildren, the proverbial melting pot of various local identities. Dissecting the city, from north to south, is the train system of the Philippine National Railway. The trains have become a symbol of urban decay. Dilapidating trains ferry people and goods to and from nearby provinces—not the most convenient from of transport. The carriages offer little protection from heat and rain. In some parts of the city, it has become a bizarre sport to hurl objects at trains passing by. In the year 2003, the subsidized government corporation registered a net loss of 644 million Pesos5.
Based on 2004 figures, Metro Manila has a total population of 10,330,100. Population density is about 15,600 people per square kilometre. According to the Asian Development Bank, the share of informal 'slum' settlers in all of Metro Manila is 35 percent. This amount is roughly equivalent to 11.5 million US dollars [current exchange rate: 1
All this, however, will drastically change soon. The decongestion of Metro Manila is one of the cornerstones of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's ten-point agenda, the guiding framework of her second term of office, which began in June 2004. Although her predecessors also had ambitious plans of rehabilitating the capital city's train system, they lacked the capital to do so. President Arroyo was able to clinch the necessary deals. The northern stretch will be financed by a four hundred million US dollar loan by Chinese investors. South Korean creditors will infuse another thirty-five million US dollars for the southern stretch. State-of-the-art passenger terminals will be constructed and brand-new, airconditioned carriages introduced to cater to the upwardly-mobile commuters. Loan agreements have been signed and the government is beginning the 'social preparation' phase of the project. The Philippine counterpart consists of clearing the right of way, so that construction can begin. In other words, the government is in charge of demolishing urban poor communities that are, literally, “in the way” of development. Within Metro Manila alone, at least 70,000 families stand to be affected. What picture are we presented with here? The subject of this case study at hand is an example of a global-national-local dynamic that is emerging not just in Manila, but in urban centers the world over. Evers and Korff (2000:2) find that: “The primate cities are the places of articulation of globalization, national integration and localization. These processes have their origin and reach beyond the metropolis but, and this gives a specific quality to the primate cities, coincide within the cities which gives rise to an ambivalence. The cities are neither global nor local or national. They are a combination of all these, and although they are regarded as foci of alienation and corrupted ways of life.... they are equally much developing into showcases of global modernity and expressions of national selfconsciousness.” This dynamic is not entirely a recent phenomenon. In preparation of the 1974 Miss Universe beauty contest, the city of Manila was cleared of an estimated one hundred thousand 'squatters', and another sixty thousand were uprooted for the 1976 International Monetary Fund-World Bank conference6. The public face of
US$:56P]. These figures are cited by Carroll (1998:119), based on Walden Bello, at al. Development Debacle: The World Bank in the Philippines (San Fransisco: Institute for Food and
such “beautification” drives, which continued until the early 1980's, was no other than First Lady Imelda Marcos. One distinct characteristic of the urban system of Metro Manila is thus its orientation towards national political structures (Karaos 2003). It is not enough for urban poor communities in the capital city to grapple with administrators in their local districts. By necessity, because national political figures have an interest in the 'development' of Manila, these mobilizations must also be oriented towards political processes emanating from the top--be it the president in power or the national bureaucracy. In broad strokes, this case study at hand is about a local community, which is asserting itself against a national modernization project, which in turn is made possible by global capital. It is about urban poor mobilizations that are local in nature, but targeted at players and forces that are at once local, national and global. It is about the experiences of local self-mobilization in the context of the urban push and pull of modernization, where communities are struggling for their basic economic entitlements but also for the recognition of their political rights as citizens of the republic. To borrow Castell's (1983) words, the case study is about the unleashing of a local urban movement through the interaction between “human consciousness, matter, energy and information”—the components of which we examine in succeeding sections.
'Subsistence mobilizations': the role of primary organizations
“Dito isa lang ang siga: tren”
Mario Papa, December 2003.
Poverty is not a hindrance to building a community. The people call themselves “taga-riles”, those from the railway. In a sense, the tracks have become part of who they are and how they refer to themselves. Although people readily acknowledge that the community is composed of migrants from various ethno-linguistic groups, these become less salient markers of identity over time. Second generation settlers, in fact, hardly speak the language of their parents7. The lingua franca in the community is Tagalog, the national language spoken in Manila and surrounding provinces. “Masaya kami rito,” shares Edna Vino, who owns a small store along the tracks. We are happy here. “Buhay na buhay ang bayanihan dito.” The community spirit is very much alive here. Every morning, she begins her day by stepping outside her house to greet her neighbors and share in their lives. Houses are seamlessly
Development Policy, 1982). Berner (1997:68-73) in his survey of Metro Manila urban poor localities finds that although migration is patterned after personalistic and kinship ties, ethnicity is irrelevant to marriage patters as well as social distance and closeness. Moreover, “there are hardly any ethnically homogeneous residential areas in Metro Manila” (Berner: 1997:70).
built next to each other in a single row, to the left and right of the single railway track. There are no backyards and the front porch is the railway track. Leading and unanimous existence seems impossible in such a setting. The railway track is a marketplace and social hub rolled into one, where children play and adults gather. It's where chicken are raised and vegetables are peddled. It's where meals are cooked and bathwater is pumped. It's where clothes are washed and dried. It's where people have a drink after work and the women paint each others' fingernails. Activity on the track is only momentarily interrupted when a train passes through the people's “front yard”. First-time visitors to the community are often amused at the ingenuity of the local means of transport: the trolley. Propelled by “human power”, these wood and bamboo constructions are fitted with bearings and wheels to glide on the railway tracks. Resembling queen-sized beds, they can comfortably fit six adults. Some even have huge umbrellas as a protection from rain and blazing midday sun. Because light-weight materials are used, trolleys are easily lifted from the tracks, in case a train or another trolley from the opposite direction passes by. The first settlers moved to the area in the early 1960s. The first houses were few and far between. In fact, the pioneers in the area maximized the available land by planting vegetables. The first demolition happened in 1972, at the onset of martial law. But less than a month later, they returned. Although 'squatting' was criminalized during martial law, the Philippine National Railways used to sell 'rights' to settlers. Writes Berner (1997:69): “The fact that squatting is illegal, and consequently, not regulated by the state not mean that it is not regulated at all. On the contrary, there is an elaborate system of 'and rights' that are bought, sold, inherited, l leased temporarily, most often based on the original development of the area.” These rights are no substitute for land titles, but in a sense, acknowledge the people's 'claim' to their homes. These rights are recorded and remain in effect to this day, although they are of no market value at present, given the impending threat of demolition. The first neighborhood associations came about from the mid-1980's to the early 1990's. Bhoy Vino recalls the first efforts at gaining recognition: “That was in May 1993. This is when Barangay Tunasan celebrates its fiesta8. We were never invited to the barangay
Fiestas are a legacy of Spanish colonialism. They are annual celebration's of a locality's' patron saint. The barangay is the lowest political-administrative unit in the Philippine setting, roughly equivalent to a rural village or urban settlement. A large barangay may be further
center. The captain never paid attention to us, because we were not legal, That's when we started to organize ourselves. We first formed a neighborhood organization, then, eventually, we were recognized as a sitio. We decided to name our place 'Sitio Pagasa' [place of hope]. This is how we got our address.” The act of naming a place and of having an address is both of symbolic and practical importance. Noel Sibulo tells the story of his place, Losan: “We made our own name. This was in 1991. Our area is in between two subdivisions: Lodora and Sto.Niño Village. The issue at that time was the right of way, because both subdivisions tried to ease us out. Anyway, they were not able to stop us. We decided to name our place Lo-san, because we are right in between those two villages.” To name a place is to assert one's ownership over it. It is a powerful act. At the same time, having an address endows people with a sense of belonging. The instrumental value of an address is obvious. Without an address, one cannot write and receive letters. One cannot become a registered voter. And one cannot avail of basic services. Many of these 'primary' organizations, in fact, came about because of an electrification program in the early 1990's. This scheme made it possible for locally registered neighborhood associations to apply for a legal connection—as opposed to the common practice of illegally tapping into the system. The meter is registered in the name of the organization. Members pay their bills to the organization. In the absence of piped water services, water systems were another motivation for putting up local organizations. It is no secret that local politicians methodically woo poor communities, where there is a high concentration of voters9. Politicians routinely donate water pumps to such local organizations. Members pay a onetime bond and monthly fees to avail of water10. Earnings are used for maintenance or community purposes, such as celebrations or beautification drives. Streetlights, where available, are managed in a similar fashion. These are one-time donations by politicians and people pay an affordable monthly contribution of ten Pesos.
subdivided into sitios (or clusters), although these demarcations bear no official functions. Unlike many of its neighboring countries, the Philippines has a century-old tradition of holding sub-national elections. Direct election of municipal executives and councilors was gradually introduced during the American colonial administration in the early 1900's. The average rate is a P500 bond and about P300 monthly dues. In some areas, however, rates are based on consumption. One cubic meter is usually priced at P25. [current exchange rate: 1 US$:56P]
Local associations place a high premium on community participation. Members are expected to help in keeping their surroundings clean and contribute their labor to maintain the make-shift sewerage system—although officers usually contribute more of their time and efforts than ordinary members. Problems arise when leaders abuse their position to 'enrich' themselves.11 In their typical humor, people complain that there are presidents who are in favor of “privatizing public utilities”. Meaning to say, they pocket the earnings and withhold audit reports. This kind of betrayal of trust is a common reason for organizational splits. Disgruntled members bolt the original organization and regroup into a new one. Another source of conflict has to do with the lack of inner democracy. There are many cases where local organizations' officers do not make themselves accountable to the membership and refuse to hold elections—going against the by-laws of the association. There is also the infamous case where a president passed away, an his widow singlehandedly took over the organization. Holding a position becomes enticing, because it places the person inside the patronage system. This “solicitation culture” is widely acknowledged to be a fact of life in the community. Solicitations are not just means of availing of water systems. Even youth basketball leagues or community dances are funded through this mechanism of approaching local politicians for support. It is what makes local leaders greedy for positions, and cooptation an omnipresent reality. This is heightened in a political culture, where officials dispense of donations as if these were personal favors, not part of their public service. Many officials often go out of their way to support local leaders of their choice, who in turn become their local campaigners during election season. Elections for association officers have thus become a highly politicized affair. Patrons channel campaign funds to their chosen candidates, which they use to build support. Allegations abound that the mayor's office supplies sample ballots to association elections. There have also been cases wherein association members who opposed incumbent officers were unilaterally de-listed and prevented from participating in association elections. What this shows is that the people's attitude towards the official state and the political arena, as a diffused entity, is a complicated one. On the one hand, people in the community are not naïve. They openly distinguish between 'genuine' leaders motivated by the public good and 'career' operators linked to politicians. They have a better grasp of how local patronage politics works than many a university-based political scientist. And they are not
In one part of the community, people decided to disconnect the motor and pump water manually instead. “It's better that way, at least there is nothing to fight about and we don't make enemies,” they say.
afraid to talk about their deep resentment over this mis-use of power. On the other hand, the struggles of these local organizations cannot be characterized as a “rage against the system”. Their struggle is not a push for a radical alternative, but an effort at taking part in the mainstream. “Becoming legal” is a wide-spread aspiration. People prefer having a legal electricity connection to illegal connections, so that they can monitor their consumption. Although quite a number of households are in the possession of mobile phones, which do not require a complicated registration process, many would like to avail of regular telephone land lines to call their relatives in the provinces. In Muntinlupa, it has become a local tradition that newly elected officers of local people's organizations are sworn in at the community affairs office at the city hall. Organizations inform the office of the date of their elections and set a date for the oath-taking. After the officers are sworn in, the organization receives a certificate and the office prepares snacks for a simple “victory party”. Association members of all stripes find this important, likening it to a christening ceremony. Without a baptismal certificate, no one will recognize a baby as a person, they say. During the fieldwork for this research, people in different parts of the community repeatedly spoke of their desire to be fully recognized as Filipino citizens. This concept of citizenship is juxtaposed to the the discrimination they experience as 'squatters'. We are Filipino citizens, we also pay taxes. Every time we light a cigarette or have a beer with a friend, we pay taxes, they say. Another joke in the community is that it's alright to pay taxes—anyway, it comes back to us: in the form of demolitions! People feel very strongly about the current state of injustice. They know that the state's resources belong to the people, not to elite politicians. This is also mirrored in their assertion that this is government land. And the government is for the people. Those who sit there [in positions of power] are just servants, not masters. People also complain about the lack of good candidates precludes any “wise choice” during elections: Of course we take money from politicians who want to buy our votes. But that does not mean we will actually give them our vote. Then again, they are all the same, the politicians here. What do you expect?! Although members are grimly aware of the power of patronage, they are little impressed by those who take advantage of this system. They have no respect for such self-aggrandizement. Mario Papa, a commanding figure in the community, knowingly shares: “Dito isa lang ang siga: tren.” There is only one tough guy here: the train. This sentiment is echoed in a remark by Luzviminda “Minda” Heng:
“Wala akong kinatatakutan, lalo na pag nasa katwiran ako. Sasagutin kita, kahit pulis ka pa, kahit sino ka pang nasa pwesto.” I'm not not afraid of anything/anyone, especially when I'm on just grounds. I will answer you back, whoever you are, from the police or any other any other office holder. Electricity, water, fiestas—local organizations are pre-occupied with concerns that are local, if not parochial in nature. Local association meetings are usually called to resolve conflicts between individuals or over the management of services. These 'primary' organizations are struggling to make life in the community more livable through what we might call 'subsistence mobilizations'. These forms of collective action are not aimed at changing the political culture, but at fulfilling basic, material needs. “Larger” political issues are outside their purview. As the succeeding section will show, the movement character of their actions emerges at a different level of organization.
Home Along da Riles: heading for another track
“Ang pagiging lider ay hindi isang benipisyo kundi sakripisyo.”
Rey Ablay, December 2003
Home Along da Riles was a popular Philippine television sitcom throughout the 1990's. Its setting and humor were of unmistakable mass appeal, depicting the everyday lives of a fictitious urban community along the railway track. It is also the name the federation of railway residents' organizations chose for itself upon its formation in 1996—an interesting case of life imitating 'art'. Community organizing along dilapidating railway tracks is no joke. Rey Ablay, a founding leader of the Home Along da Riles Federation (HARF) knows this too well. Being a leader is not a privilege, it's a sacrifice—is one of his favorite sayings. Rey's story mirrors some aspects of the “typical” urban poor struggle: the tale of migration and brushes with different kinds of organizing. He will always remember the date he arrived in Manila: May 15, 1978. Born to a family of sugar plantation workers in the province of Negros Oriental, the twentyyear old decided to escape the poverty at home and join relatives in the big city. The fast-pace city life took some getting used to. In his home province, he says, people used to go to sleep at eight o'clock in the evening, whereas Manila is a city that never seems to sleep. After drifting from one job to another for a year--planting tomatoes and washing bloodied hospital laundry--he landed a job in a factory in Muntinlupa. For three
years, he worked hard and gradually adjusted to his new life in the city. Then, in 1982, a month-long strike changed Rey's outlook on life forever. The protest songs and chants woke me up to reality, he recalls. I started to question why workers were treated so unfairly. He joined the trade union and eagerly participated in political education sessions. Before he knew it, he rose to become a union leader, which by that time, affiliated with the radical left movement at the height of the anti-dictatorship struggle in the mid-1980s. Rey moved to the riles community in 1988. A married man by then, he moved his young family into an empty apartment. Though not an activist herself, none of his organizing would have been possible without his wife. She supports the family through her work at a local factory. Rey, in between meetings, took on more and more household chores, such as attending to his children's needs and washing clothes. Rey began roaming around in the community, getting to know the people and their daily struggles. He quickly learned that the poor in the community tended to be quite passive and showed little interest in politics beyond their neighborhood— unlike the more militant orientation of union members at the factory. Then, in 1996, an impending demolition set events into motion. The alarm galvanized scattered primary organizations into an alliance across neighborhoods. The Home Along da Riles Federation, or HARF for short, was born. The threat later out to be a false one. The local government of Muntinlupa took sides with the community and successfully countered the plans of the national government. This initial coalitional effort soon outlived its original purpose. The federation was formalized and registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission in May 1996. From fourteen organizations at the onset, HARF is presently composed of twenty-one primary organizations from the eight barangays that encompass the railway community of Muntinlupa. Aside from security of tenure, perhaps the most fundamental concern, HARF's other battlecries revolve around service delivery and livelihood demands. A seasoned labor organizer, Rey was conscious of building a collective from the start. Some of his comrades at the factory who also lived at the riles site joined HARF and together they consolidated the agitated neighborhood organizations into a local movement over the years. The role of HARF is essentially to politicize localized aspirations and bring in a more external orientation. The federation leadership thus lobbies with local government units and represents the community in inter-agency committees of the national government. The engagement with the local legislature has borne some encouraging results. Because of pressure from HARF and other organizations, the municipal council passed a resolution requiring local enterprises to hire at least seventy per cent of
rank and file employees from among Muntinlupa residents. Another lobbying success resulted in the creation of an Urban Poor Affairs Office at the city hall. HARF harbors no illusions about these engagements with local government. Although these gains seem impressive on paper, implementation remains problematic. But at least, HARF members are proud that they are able to make themselves heard. Relating to the city's executive branch is trickier. An inter-agency committee12 was created in view of the social preparation for the railway modernization. HARF participated in initial meetings in 2002, but soon realized the reality behind the operation. A so-called census and tagging initiative was organized to survey existing structures in the community and identify beneficiaries for the relocation program. This master list is the basis for the allocation of the government's socialized housing program for railway communities to be demolished. HARF members were outraged to find names of the mayor's employees at the city hall on the list. Since this discovery, HARF has done its best to expose this and watch over the process. Consultation meetings have become suspiciously irregular since then. HARF's relations with the mayor remain strained. The federation did not support his re-election bid in 2004, due to his disregard for their concerns. By contrast, HARF considers the Muntinlupa District Representative to the national legislature an ally13. When the need arises, he gives financial assistance to HARF membership activities, such as meetings and celebrations. HARF depends on such solicitations to sustain its operations since there are no alternative sources of income. There are no NGOs or Church groups that operate in the area, nor does the federation collect membership fees, since community members already pay monetary contributions to their primary organizations. Although the community is illegally occupying government-owned land, the people have laws on their side. For once, there are constitutional provisions14 for urban land reform. Thanks to a strong civil society lobby, a landmark piece of
Composed of representatives from the Department of Transportation, the Philippine National Railways, the National Housing Authority and the local government of Muntinlupa, alongside representatives of urban poor organizations such as HARF. It is important to note here that in the Philippine political system, local politicians are not elected on a party ticket. All positions are filled through direct election of individual candidates. The 1987 Constitution has often been hailed as the “People Power” Constitution for its declaration of principles and state policy . Article XIII, Section 15 thus reads: “The right of the people and the organizations to effective and reasonable participation at all levels of social, political and economic decision-making shall not be abridged. The State shall, by law, facilitate the establishment of adequate consultation mechanisms.” Section 9 specifies: “The State shall, by law, and for the common good, undertake, in cooperation with the private sector, a continuing program of urban land reform and housing which will make available at affordable cost decent housing and basic services to underprivileged and homeless citizens in urban centers and resettlement areas. ...”
legislation was drafted and passed in 1992, the Urban Housing and Development Act15. The law lays down the parameters for the resettlement of informal communities: the availability of basic services, the accessibility and proximity to economic opportunities and a due consultation process with beneficiaries. No doubt, Rey's and his comrades' prior organizing experience has been a positive influence. They are knowledgeable of the legal frameworks protective people's rights. Rey himself is not intimidated by officials and his years as trade unionist have taught him valuable negotiating skills. He also makes it a point to infuse democratic practices into local organizations. Even if members are busy, he insists on holding periodic consultation meetings and tries his best at keeping records of the federation. One of HARF's local leaders knowingly shares: They say I'm an activists. Why? Because I always like to attend meetings. One difficulty HARF organizers repeatedly encounter is the resistance of ordinary residents. Many are too busy with making a living to become involved in caucuses and activities. Others have been threatened with demolitions so many times before, many refuse to take HARF actions seriously. Many people only believe what they want to believe, and most of it is hearsay, says Edna Vino. She makes it an effort to share any information she obtains from government agencies not just with the rest of the HARF membership, but also with her neighbors who are not active in local associations. Instead of listening to what she learned, people accuse of her of lying. This can be a frustrating experience. Aside from gossip and hearsay, much information, true or false, is spread through leaflets. A few years ago, a number of people were duped into “registering” for a socialized housing program for a small fee—a scam as it later turned out. Information is crucial in organizing. When it comes to the recent railway modernization plans, government agencies—city hall and inter-agency committees—cannot be relied upon to disseminate relevant information on timetables and relocation plans. This burden falls on HARF. Obtaining and comparing updated information with a critical eye is thus one of the major roles of the federation. It is significant to note that HARF members are not opposed to modernization. People are not fighting to maintain their homes in the danger zone. They are willing to relocate as long as their livelihoods and housing situation is assured; as long as their lives will become better, not worse in their new homes. Rey and Bhoy explain:We are not against progress. Our bottom line is that we want to be part of this progress. The people do not wish to be obstacles to modernization;
Republic Act 7279 envisions “equitable utilization of residential land… with particular attention to the needs and requirements of the underprivileged and homeless citizens and not merely on the basis of market forces.” See Karaos, Gatpatan and Holtz (1995) for a case study on the multi-sectoral legislative advocacy effort.
all they are asking for is take part in the nation's development. Networking is another task of HARF. With the help of NGOs16, HARF is taking its struggle to another level. It is one of the founding members of the Bantay Riles (“Railway Watch”) advocacy network, which was first convened in July 2004. It brings together more than two dozen grassroots organizations from across the metropolis affected by these modernization plans. The demand to be part of the process that will fundamentally change their lives is the underlying unity of network members. Their top priority at the moment: getting the right information and exacting accountability from implementing agencies. In the span of six months, the network held assemblies and a press conference to bring their cause to the public. When the different groups organized a protest march leading to the presidential palace, it was their first time for many grassroots members to participate in a rally. A more specific target of their advocacy is the Philippine House of Representatives. Securing the support of close to twenty parliamentarians, they were able to lobby for House Resolution 165, calling on government agencies concerned to present their concrete plans for the resettlement of the families occupying the danger zones to be vacated. An important component of this inquiry is pinning down the funding source for the development of resettlement areas. The affected urban poor are understandably worried by the fact that none of the national government agencies involved has been able to reassure them of the sufficiency of such funds. The loan agreements and project contracts are silent on where the money for the development of resettlement sites will come from. From a legalistic standpoint, this raises important questions on how government agents interpret the constitutional mandate on urban land reform. From a moral perspective, it uncovers the state's fundamental outlook on the urban poor “problem”: people are seen as “disposable populations”. Their socio-economic rights to humane treatment and decent housing are not necessarily seen as an entitlements. Responding to their needs is less a matter of public service, but as an act of benevolence on the part of individual leaders who expect gratitude in return. For sure, the magnitude of the problems accompanying urbanization—the prohibitory cost of land and the sheer number of people—are overwhelming. The problem is that the Philippine government neither has the cash nor the bureaucracy to implement sweeping solutions. Yet even finding intermediary
Incidentally, the network grew, in part, from the working relations established during the course of this collaborative research among HARF, the Institute for Popular Democracy and the Center for Popular Empowerment.
solutions to long-standing issues is complicated by the players.
convoluted web of
At the local level, urban poor organizations must deal with local government units, which together with the police, are ultimately in charge of demolitions. To leverage their clout at the local level, they may find allies in either the mayor, the vice mayor, local legislators or their district representative to Congress 17. Having secured allies, they must then find ways to take advantage of factionalism between these power wielders to further their goals. At the supra-local level, urban poor groups must content with a dizzying array of national agencies as well. These are the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor (PCUP), the Housing and Urban Development Council that oversees the National Housing Authority (NHA) and the Community Mortgage Program (CMP), and the Philippine National Railway (PNR) under the Department of Transportation and Communication. An additional layer is the Office if the President of the Republic. In the Philippine political system, the president is vested with a far-reaching set of powers, which includes the power to virtually give away government land to the poor. This kind of asset redistribution is not subject to any targeted, measurable poverty alleviation schemes. Instead, this special power serves as political tool of the incumbent to secure and maintain the support of different constituencies. In the case of Muntinlupa, this has meant that when in August 2002, President Arroyo freed five hundred thousand square meters of government land for the incity relocation of informal settlers occupying danger areas (Presidential Proclamation No. 234), it was just as easy to for her to change her intent six months later and declare the land open for mixed use (Presidential Proclamation No. 335). The riles community leaders are worried that the land area might not suffice. Yet, other than voicing out their concern through the Bantay Riles network, they have no way of holding the president accountable for this unilateral decision.
HARF's mobilizations: a different diskarte?
“Ang mabuhay ay parang hagupit ng tren. Kung hindi ka maingat, madiskarte at magulang pupulutin ka sa kangkungan.”
Jun Acosta, March 2004
Social movement literature sometimes tends to romanticize rural struggles over land and natural resources, where people claim what is rightfully theirs from
Urban poor groups are also affected by local politics outside their district. A few years ago, when the residents of Calamba, Laguna heard that the Muntinlupa 'squatters' were to be resettled in their locality, they staged a sustained citizens' protest until the mayor caved in and closed his doors to them.
unscrupulous local and foreign elites. Proletarian urban mobilizations, by contrast, tend to be portrayed as opportunistic enterprises, where the urban poor allow themselves to be “used” by politicians. Still fresh in the collective memory of observers of Philippine social movements is the “EDSA 3” phenomenon, when urban poor rioters stormed the gates of presidential palace, demanding President Arroyo to step down on May 1, 2001. This failed uprising has alternately been portrayed as an illustration of the increasing anomie experienced by the under-classes or a dramatic example of mass manipulation by opposition elite forces. Yet it would be far too simple to dismiss HARF members as a coopted force. If Rey and other leaders would negotiate with politicians only during campaign season, it might be easy to categorize them as 'ward leaders'. If they were to pocket funds for private ends, they could be accused of being 'political entrepreneurs'. If they offered their organizing services to just any politician, it might be possible to view them as pawns in populist games. But this is not necessarily the case. While it is true that the urban poor are vulnerable to electioneering (Boudreau 2001:61 and Karaos 2003), we cannot conclude that these engagements are devoid of principled resistance or any overarching vision towards social change. So-called clientilism can work both ways. Political bosses dispense patronage in exchange for political support and votes. Candidates need large-scale urban poor support to garner winning vote margins. HARF members know this. They are no clientilistic dupes. To them, these relationships with political players are ways of furthering their 'subsistence mobilizations'. Far from being passive, they know very well that they have the warm bodies to command attention. They are also aware that it is not in the interest of local politicians to uphold all their campaign promises—this would break the fragile relations between officials and clients. As a matter of organizational principle, any gains are ploughed back to the federation. As the chairperson of the federation, Rey could easily engage in oneon-one negotiations with candidates and officials. But he refrains from doing so, making sure that he is accompanied by other HARF leaders and members. He severed ties with left formations, because he felt that higher party organs were not transparent enough in their dealings. He is not about to repeat the same practice in his own federation. It is significant to note that any small amount of money secured do not pass through Rey's hands. Instead, it is HARF the treasurer, an elderly woman people affectionately call “Mommy”, who holds the purse. This bespeaks of HARF's flat organizational structure, which the leadership consciously nurtures. I want to make sure people have no grounds to doubt my service and leadership, says Rey.
Aside from organizational safeguards, it is their Muntinlupa People’s Agenda that keeps HARF grounded. This detailed list is anchored on basic demands of security of tenure, livelihood programs, access to basic services and an end to discrimination against the urban poor. If a politician is unwilling to sign onto their agenda, they turn their backs. They know all too well that in the Philippine politics, numbers speak. If a politician is not supportive of their agenda, they can easily find a supporter from the opposing camp. They have the vote mobilizing capacity to be a significant enough force. Factional competition between local politicians can work to their advantage. This strategy is most appropriately captured in the “street” concept of diskarte . It refers to ordinary people's capacity to get through the trials of everyday life, suggesting experimentation and possibilities (Biron and Espiritu, 2004). Another characteristic HARF members pride themselves in is that of being magulang. Loosely translated, it can mean being “street smart”, “cheeky” or “tricky”. It describes a person who can turn a certain situation to his or her advantage, without being obvious about it. The quote at the beginning of the section reflects this attitude: Those who lack diskarte, land in the swamp (loose translation). Karaos (2003) in her study on “Populist Mobilizations and Manila's Urban Poor” also cautions against the “... sterility of reductionist paradigms of urban politics based on the assumed predominance of patron-client bonds as the organizing principle integrating the poor within the elitist political system. Indeed what we are seeing is a new kind of politics that makes use of collective mobilization oriented toward the achievement of a collective good (e.g. land and housing for the community) but being played out in a manner that utilizes traditional patronclient ties. ” (italics mine) What we find on the ground is an urban political terrain marked by shifting engagements and dis-engagements between local power wielders and grassroots-based associations. This phenomenon is not unique to the Philippines. Writing on urban struggles in Brazil, Kersting and Sperberg (2000:157) find that “The leaders ... have the task of ensuring improvements for their neighborhood on the basis of their individual power resources (contacts with politicians, town administrator, etc.) Neighborhood organizations are often coopted by certain politicians, who mobilize their members before elections as a means of ensuring votes. However, such loyal and dependent relations ... have become short-lived and flexible, so that competition for votes between politicians has increased... .” Also in reference to the Brazilian context, Abers (2000:30) advocates a more “balanced approach” and “realistic conception of the role of urban movements,
which combine forms of protest and resistance with other forms of action that more closely resemble the clientilistic legacy... [engaging] in a 'double game' of struggling for their rights as citizens and seeking to improve the material conditions of their life”. The scaling-up of urban mobilizations can also bring new dynamism to local mobilizations by forcing local community activists to look beyond their own backyard. For local movements such as HARF, becoming part of a broader movement for urban change, such as Bantay Riles, is indeed a significant step and challenge. By working with NGOs and alternative political movements, HARF members will be challenged to develop more comprehensive advocacy frameworks that go beyond instrumental negotiating strategies. It will challenge HARF members to articulate their vision for themselves to a broader public, outside their local milieu—not by connecting their community issue to the interest of local politicians. Part of this development is HARF's solidarity affected communities that are less organized than in Muntinlupa. Rey, on his own initiative, is actively reaching out to community leaders in neighboring cities of Taguig and San Pedro to share the lessons and experiences of HARF—without any direct gain for himself or HARF.
This case study describes some of the challenges in organizing the urban poor for change: the imperatives of 'subsistence mobilizations' and the persistence of patronage politics on the one hand, but also the varied opportunities in selforganization and engagement with state actors. This conclusion offers three points of reflection. First, the case study points to how civil society organizations that are in the “business” of urban development, might best help facilitate the growth of local grassroots movements. It shows that the urban poor of Muntinlupa, equipped with progressive organizational practice, are effective at organizing themselves. The same is true for advocacy. The urban poor are the best advocates on their own behalf. Only they can give substance and emotional content to claims directed at the powerful. They don't necessarily need heavy-handed guidance from NGOs to accomplish this. What they do need is information. The study illustrates the value of having access to data from relevant government agencies for community organizing and advocacy. This critical information on the status project implementation and policy developments does not find its way to the urban poor. It has to be sought out pro-actively. NGOs can act as important portals to such information, help in assessing the facts, and facilitate further contacts. Second, the HARF experience challenges us to re-consider urban poor groups'
engagements in the political process. Just because urban poor groups are trapped between different sets of old-style political patrons does not mean that there is no room for transformative collective action to emerge. The HARF experience is an example of “new” democratic impulses being channeled through “old” clientilistic forms of relating to individual politicians. It provides a more nuanced political critique of urban systems in the developing world, where “clients” are not necessarily equated to passive receivers of patronage, but active negotiators for their constituents. Third, however, we must bear in mind that these “negotiated” outcomes do not signal a shift in power relations. Subsistence mobilizations such as those described in this case study are short-term solutions to pressing problems the community experiences. These do not represent a qualitative break in the way the state and its agents relate to the poor. Karaos (2003), writing on a specific case where urban poor groups benefited from President Arroyo's graces, cautions: “The power of the president to literally give away land to the urban poor has removed the necessity to press for thoroughgoing urban land reform law. What is encouraged instead is the ability to negotiate with the state as distinct communities to effect the transfer of land within the existing legal and institutional parameters. It has cultivated an utilitarian attitude on the part of urban poor communities seeking to gain security of tenure by focusing on the immediate goal of gaining land which is rendered achievable by the power of presidential proclamation.” The urban poor's “utilitarian attitude” is often an outcome of territorially circumscribed struggles they face. It breeds a kind of short-sightedness, when self-organized groups operate without a vision for greater social and political change. What we often find is the lack of a “deeper analysis of insecurity of tenure that relates interdependence of rural and urban development, implementation of legal frameworks that is biased for the rich and restructuring of economic system where resources are not justly allocated” (de Leon and Chavez 1994:252). Through its participation in the Bantay Riles network, HARF is increasingly able to connect local issues with national (and even global) developments. To the extent that the movement will be able to frame its struggle within a broader agenda for urban renewal, through its exposure to other movements and activists, it can become more of a socially transformative force than it already is.
Books and monographs
Abers, Rebecca Nearer. 2000. Inventing Local Democracy: grassroots politics in Brazil. London: Boulder. Berg-Schlosser, Dirk and Kersting, Norbert. 2003. Poverty and Democracy: Selfhelp and political participation in Third World Cities. New York: Zed Books. Berner, Erhard. 1997. Defending a place in the city: localities and the struggle for urban land in Metro Manila. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press. Boudreau, Vincent. 2001. Grass roots and cadre in the protest movement. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press. Carroll, S. J. John J. 1998. “Philippine NGOs Confront Urban Poverty” in Organizing for Democracy, eds. Siliman, G. Sidney and Noble, Lela Garner. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press. Castells, Manuel. 1983. The city and the grassroots. London: Edward Arnold. De Leon, Annie and Chavez, Percival. 1994. “Urban Poor Coalitions” in Studies on coalition experiences in the Philippines. eds. Cala, Cesar P. and Grageda, Jose Z. Makati, Metro Manila: Bookmark. Evers, Hans-Dieter and Korff, Rüdiger. 2000. Southeast Asian Urbanism: The meaning and power of social space. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Karaos, Anna Marie A. 2003. Populist Mobilization and Manila's Urban Poor. Quezon City: Institute for Popular Democracy. Karaos, Anna Marie A., Marlene V. Gatpatan, and Robert V. Holtz, S. J. 1995. Making a difference: NGO and PO policy influence in urban land reform advocacy. Quezon City: Institute on Church and Social Issues. Kersting, Norbert and Sperberg, Jaime. 2003. “Political Participation” in Poverty and Democracy: Self-help and political participation in Third World Cities, eds. Berg-Schlosser, Dirk and Kersting, Norbert. New York: Zed Books. Magadia, Jose J. 2003. State-society dynamics: policy-making in a restored democracy. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
Polo, Jaime Biron and Espiritu, Francis. May 2004. Elections and the People's Diskarte. http://www.ipd.ph/elections/resources/diskarte.htm Velasco, Djorina. May 2004. Tale of Two Cities: Elections in Muntinlupa. http://www.ipd.ph/elections/resources/muntinlupa_politics.htm
Laws, resolutions and ordinances
Republic Act 7279, an act to provide for a comprehesenive and continuing urban development and housing program, establish the mechanisms for its implementation and for other purposes. Republic of the Philippines, House of Representatives, Quezon City, 13th Congress, 1st Regular Session, House Resolution 165, Resolution directing the committees on housing and urban development and on civil, political and human rights to investigate the Northrail and South Manila commuter rail rehabilitation project and its effects on the residents living in areas adjacent to the railway tracks. Presidential Proclamation No. 234, excluding a portion of the five hundred thousand (500,000) square meters from National Bilibid Prison Reservation administered by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in Brgy. Poblacion, City of Muntinlupa, registered under the name of the Commonwealth of the Philippines with transfer certificate of the Title Nos. 183326, 183327, 183328 and 183329, containing an aggregate area of 4,310,872 square meters more or less as socialized housing site for Muntinlupa informal settler families occupying danger areas. Presidential Proclamation No. 335, Amending Proclamation No. 234 transferring the administration of the 500,000 square meters area of the National Bilibid Prison Reservation under the National Housing Authority. Pamahalaan Lungsod ng Muntinlupa, Sanggunian Panlungsod Resolution No. 96-272, a resolution requesting the PNR to hold in abeyance the demolition of houses located within the five meter danger zone on the Muntinlupa PNR railroad tracks pending the determination and availability of the relocation and resettlement site. Pamahalaan Lungsod ng Muntinlupa, Kautusan Panlungsod Bilang 96-80, kautusan panlungsod na nag-aatas sa lahat ng kompanya/bahay kalakal na nagnenegosyo sa Lungsod ng Muntinlupa, na sa pagtanggap ng karaniwang kawani (rank and file), and hindi bababa sa pitumpung porsiyento (70%) ng manggagawa ay dapat residente ng lungsod.
Pamahalaan Lungsod ng Muntinlupa, Kautusan Panlungsod Bilang 96-91, kautusan panlungsod na itinatatag and tanggapan ng “Urban Poor Affairs' Office”. Pamahalaan Lungsod ng Muntinlupa, Kautusan Panlungsod Bilang 99-027, kautusan panlungsod para sa “house-tagging” sa kahabaang riles ng PNR mula Barangay Tunasan hanggang Barangay Sucat, Lungsod ng Muntinlupa, at ang paglalaan ng pondo para dito. Pamahalaan Lungsod ng Muntinlupa, Executive Order No. 19, Series of 2002, amending Executive Order No. 11, creating the Local Inter-Agency Committee (LIAC) and for other purposes.
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