For nearly 30 years, Ka Gani has called the Waterhole-A community his home. “We have been living here since 1979,” he said. In search of greener pastures, Ka Gani migrated from his province in the Visayas to Manila and has since raised his family in the Waterhole-A. “When we first came here there were no alleys or roads that could be passed by, grass grew past the height of humans,” he added. But through the collective effort of the people, Waterhole-A, once a piece of land known only as a receptacle of rainwater, hence its name, is now a well-developed peaceful community of fishnet-makers.
The Waterhole-A community’s land, located in Diamond St., Unit I, Barangay Commonwealth, Quezon City, was an unclassified public forest land from 1900 to 1972. It is also part of the 150 hectares declared by the National Government Center (NGC) as public land to be used as location for housing projects for the poor under President Corazon Aquino. The one and a half hectare-land has since been populated by 100 families.
In 1998 however, a woman named Wilma Billote made claims about the land where the Waterhole-A community resided in. Billote, a said employee of the National Home Mortgage Finance Corporation (NHMFC), claimed that the land was the property of her ancestors and presented an Original Certificate Title (OCT) 333.
On the contrary, according to the Philippine Title and Deeds Assistance Service during the Ramos administration, lands with titles OCT 333 are declared null and void, making Billote’s proof of claim a fake land title.
Coincidentally, it was also the same land title that the president of the barangay organization, Rosa Tabuzo, distributed to the residents, also in 1998. The community leaders decided to enter the Community Mortgage Program (CMP) of the government, a housing project program that loans money to a community, so that they may buy the land they are “illegitimately” residing in, collectively. It was through this that tax payments and other fees were collected from the residents by the Waterhole-A neighborhood organization, Kapit-Bisig.
“The payments have ballooned to 28 million pesos,” Ka Millet, a Waterhole-A resident said.
Waterhole-A residents claim their right to keep residence through the declaration of the Bureau of Lands, wherein residents who have kept tenure from 1900 to 1992 in unclassified public forest land owned by the government are entitled to the land.
Recently however, the CMP has been the least of the community’s worries as threats of demolition continue to intimidate them. “We are being pressured to leave because the area needs to be surveyed so that the official sale can be made immediately,” Ka Millet said. The buyer is said to be the Lopez-owned Rockwell Corporation. Rockwell is reported to be interested in developing the land into prime real estate.
Unfortunately on May 6, the threats became real as police and men in SWAT uniform came to tear down houses that took almost a lifetime to build. “They showed us a court order but gave us only 15 minutes to verify it on a Friday, a non-working day for government offices. How were we to defend ourselves?” Ka Millet stated.
Nine houses were destroyed after eight hours of razing, leaving only dirt and rubble to remind them of what once was. “They said that was only a sampling of what is yet to come,” one resident said.
In fact the community is anticipating demolition on May 18, one they fear could be more violent and may even end in bloodshed.
But the residents remain unfazed, “This fight is not just for our houses but for our dignity and principles,” said Ka Sylma, one of the residents whose houses were torn down.
Ka Sylma will take her battle on the frontline. She knew she would not be alone for Ka Ed and Ka Roy, remain to keep their candles of hope lit. Ka Ed and Ka Roy are from the Kalipunan ng mga Mamamayang Mahihirap (KADAMAY), a research-based non-government organization that extends help to urban poor communities. KADAMAY has been the partner of the Waterhole-A since Billote and Tabuzo appeared in the picture to seize and sell the land.
Due to the illegal demolition last May 6, KADAMAY plans to file a complaint in the Commission on Human Rights. KADAMAY said that the writ of demolition that the demolition team brought with them did not bear the signature of the clerk of court that issued it. KADAMAY also said that in legal demolition process, there should be representatives from the Philippine Commission on Urban Poor (PCUP) and the local city hall. In the said demolition, no representatives were present. Two out of the nine houses that were demolished were not even included in the court order. KADAMAY wants the government to take action on the problem, to stop the demolitions, to let the responsible party pay for the damages, and to award the title of the land to the residents of Waterhole-A community thereby giving them security of tenure.
Demolished Help, Flickering Hope
Attempts to demolish the Waterhole community began in 1990. The residents fought for what they believed was their land and made sure that it was guarded from the alleged fake claimant. They organized themselves into what is now known as the Samahan ng mga Nagkakaisang Mamamayan Para sa Katiyakan sa Paninirahan (NAMKAPA). Through the help of KADAMAY, NAMKAPA sought the assistance of various government agencies to ascertain the legality of their occupancy in the area and to determine the validity of the claimant’s papers. NAMKAPA’s first stop was at the Urban Poor Association Office (UPAO) through Thadeo Palma. Since the office ideally caters to the needs of the poor, NAMKAPA trusted the agency to help them but to no avail. So, they requested immediate action from PCUP. Still, nothing happened. Hopeful that they would be listened to by the “second most powerful man in the country,” NAMKAPA wrote to Vice President Noli De Castro, now the new housing czar. Atty. Rabbi Deloso from the Office of the Vice President then sent a letter dated December 4, 2003 to the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) chairman Michael Defensor asking him to meet with NAMKAPA in the soonest possible time. Defensor in turn sent a memorandum to the National Home Mortgage Finance Corporation (NHMFC) eight days later. NHMFC was asked to provide assistance to NAMKAPA in clarifying the legality of their occupancy in the property. On October 8, 2004, after ten months of waiting, NAMKAPA decided to inform Senator Rodolfo Biazon, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Housing regarding the status of the Waterhole-A community. NAMKAPA requested that the upcoming demolition be stopped, that proper and just investigation of the anomalies in the matter be done, that coordination among government agencies that are tasked to address the urban poor situation and NAMKAPA be set, and that the Waterhole-A area be given back to them.
NAMKAPA also requested legal advice from the UP College of Law Office of Legal Aid (OLA) but was denied of it for “ethical reasons.” OLA was actually handling the case of Billote. The Office said giving NAMKAPA legal assistance would surge a conflict of interest in their firm.
NAMKAPA officers said they have exhausted all possible means to inform the government of the sorry state of the urban poor. The least that the government can do, they stressed, was to listen to them.
Government Action, People’s Reaction
Apparently, the government failed to save the settlers from their plight despite their incessant call for help. Nine houses were pulled down, families were left unsheltered. Seeking help from Vice President and Housing secretary Noli de Castro and being passed from one agency to another could not but make NAMKAPA conclude that their appeal ended in the waste basket.
The residents would like to know what the program of the government was, and if it was indeed for them. “More than one government agency handles the affairs of the urban poor yet not one of them was ready to listen and to ensure our welfare,” a resident mused.
Under the administrative supervision of HUDCC is the National Housing Authority (NHA), a government agency that according to General Manager Federico Laxa, “envisions a dynamic, enterprising and progressive society of Filipino families with unlimited access to basic social services and abundant economic opportunities.”
What does the government do to solve the problem of the homeless urban poor? Besides the Waterhole-A community, which feared from being demolished, are countless others who hope to stay in their neighborhood and not end in the same situation the informal settlers relocated in Montalban, Rizal did. Evictees from San Andres, Manila and the victims of the Payatas tragedy were relocated in the resettlement program of the government in Rizal. With the promise of being awarded her own housing unit upon voluntarily leaving her make-shift house in Manila, Riza Perlas, along with hundreds of hopefuls, believed and favored resettlement.
According to her, contrary to the local government’s promise of a house of her own on relocation, NHA levies P400 a month and will do so until the 25th year for Perlas’ total ownership of the housing unit. If she failed to pay the said amount when it is due, she will be forced to leave and her house will be padlocked. The informant also relayed that the units were not fully finished when they were disposed—no doors, no windowpanes, no toilet bowl—only the naked structure. The whole neighborhood depends on pumps for water supply. Power connections are also their problem since not all of them have the money to apply for a power meter. And, since the relocation site is in Rizal, many evictees can no longer afford to report to their workplace in different areas in Metro Manila for transportation expenses alone eats up a big lump of their wages. Manpower is also being spoiled, most of them are unemployed. There is no means of livelihood to sustain the community.
“Before we moved here, we thought that it would be for our best interest. Life in San Andres was hard, but we could manage. Life here is harder and we can do nothing about it,” Perlas said.
Trace the Roots, Heal the Wound
The government deems demolition and relocation as the best solution to the urban poor phenomenon. The cases of the Waterhole-A community and the Montalban relocation site are only fragments of the 28.9 million urban poor who live along sidewalks, in parks, streets, and private or public land. This number, which has grown from 23,000 in 1946 to 28.9 million (National Statistics Office, 2004) is 36.125 percent of the total population of the country, and continues to grow.
This urban migration traces a pattern not uncommon to all of us. Most of these people are from provinces outside Metro Manila, dreaming of a brighter future in the metropolis. “It’s very difficult to farm. Earning money takes a lifetime, which most often than not, is insufficient for our daily needs. So I tried my luck here in Manila because they say it’s great to be here,” Perlas said.
Urban migration took a giant leap after the World War II according to the website of the local government of Manila. Thousands of the rural poor moved to urban areas looking for employment. The fortunate of them live with their relatives while the rest live wherever there is space and opportunity.
As the lure of a better and easier lifestyle continues to be the main factor of migration, the population of the homeless and the landless will ultimately grow. Demolition and relocation will only remove “squatters” from a parcel land temporarily. Like grass, once they are cut, they stop growing for a while, but they will still grow afterwards because they are rooted in the land.
Government Intervention, Possible Solutions
Effective governance ideally responds to the needs of the highest down to those in the lowest rung of the social ladder. Institutions formed by law to serve its people can be at their best if they work on and for these people not passing them around the network of government agencies. They are tasked to provide immediate action and simpler procedures for the access to basic social services.
In the case of the Waterhole-A conflict, it is these agencies’ obligation to determine the legality of selling the piece of property, which according to them is an unclassified public forest land—a property of and for the people, people like Ka Gani, Ka Millet, Ka Sylma, and Ka Riza.
When asked what his dream for his family was, Ka Gani looked down and smiled. “I only hope to send my children to school, go to work that can sustain us and put food on our table everyday, and sleep under a roof we can call ours without fearing to be demolished anytime,” he said.
The point is that the problem of informal settling does not end in evicting the squatters or criminalizing the homeless, for they will always have to be somewhere—under another bridge, in another squatters’ area.
(A Special Report by EILER, 2005)