Almost one year ago, on 1 April 2016, three farmers died in a violent confrontation between protestors and police in Kidapawan, North Cotabato.
Months before the tragedy occurred, rice farmers had petitioned the government for access to rice stocks to prevent famine caused by an El Niño-induced drought. However, as Francisco Lara of International Alert puts it, “in the face of an emergency, the government compelled victims to adhere to the slow and bureaucratic process of testing their means and verifying their eligibility, a feature of its cash transfer and cash-for-work schemes.” With no forthcoming aid, the farmers, along with activists from Anakpawis, Bayan Muna, and other Leftist organizations, blockaded the Davao-Cotabato highway. And, as we know, violence broke out and lives were lost.
In response to the tragedy, then-presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte said that “blood is written all over the hands of” President Noynoy Aquino and his family. Moreover, he accused the government of being “impervious to the suffering of the people.” In this particular case, he clearly believed that it was wrong for the government to forcefully remove the protestors.
One year later, President Duterte finds himself in a similar situation. Two weeks ago, on March 8, members of Kadamay, a national alliance of urban poor associations, occupied more than 5,000 housing units located in Bulacan. They come from Pandi, Bocaue, Navotas, and Caloocan City. Their action was, according to a press statement, prompted by, “The very depressed wages, especially in the provinces, lack of regular employment and the privatization of housing services…” On March 20, however, the government, with Duterte’s blessing, gave the occupants seven days to vacate the housing projects. Disobedience will mean eviction. Thankfully, Cabinet Secretary Jun Evasco said that “there won’t be any forced evictions for now” and that it will only be done if all other means have been exhausted. He also added that a composite team will be made to monitor the problems related to housing.
This protest is a litmus test for the President who has defined himself against the perceived callousness and bureaucratic rigidity of the previous administration. After all, Duterte has portrayed himself as someone who will—rules and procedures be damned—act decisively and compassionately when facing an unjust situation. As articulated in one of his campaign taglines: “Matapang na solusyon; mabilis na aksyon.” Well, as the Kidapawan massacre anniversary draws near, he, like President Aquino, finds himself confronted with the demands of a historically neglected and oppressed group of people: the urban poor.
It must be noted that these housing projects were built for soldiers, policemen, and other government employees. However, Kadamay argues that no one has been displaced since the houses they occupied have long been vacant and therefore derelict due to the refusal of the intended beneficiaries to move in. There are reports that the latter do not like the houses that were built for them.
In my view, the government should, under no circumstances, forcefully remove the occupants from the housing units. A win-win solution that satisfies the demands of both the protestors and the other stakeholders must be found. Pitting the urban poor against the intended beneficiaries must be avoided. But, more importantly, the government needs to address the economic and social causes of homelessness and urban poverty.
Of course, some will ask: Why extend maximum tolerance to these “lawbreakers”?
The answer is simply that the urban poor are among the most marginalized and neglected in our society. When I was a member of the UP Paralegals in the University of the Philippines College of Law, we used to say—“Walang squatter sa sariling bayan!” There are of course professional squatters who make occupying other peoples’ property their livelihood, but these are not urban poor.
The demands of Kadamay, which are mainly to recognize the claims of the occupants and to provide free housing for the homeless, stem from the long-standing grievances of the urban poor in the country. In the words of urban specialist Mike Davis: “With land inflation raging even on the distant urban edge, the only choices seemingly left to the poorest Manilenos are either to risk death in the flood-prone metropolis by squatting in the beds of esteros or along the precarious banks of rivers, or to occupy the interstices of wealthier barangays where violent eviction is an imminent threat.” Faced with such choices, it becomes understandable why the urban poor feel compelled to ‘break the law.’
The government must be mindful though that this occupation in Bulacan could result in unjust outcomes for policemen and soldiers who are already under-compensated and overworked. It would be wrong to solve one injustice by committing another.
Undoubtedly, if the situation deteriorates, then the government and their supporters will argue that the poor were “used” and “tricked” by the Leftists. After all, this has always been the favored line of attack against marginalized sectors in protest. You can see this rhetoric at work against the campaigns of the Lumads, farmers, or, potentially, in this case, the urban poor. This argument disregards the agency of the urban poor, and their ability to calculate the costs and benefits of civil disobedience.
What then should the Duterte administration do?
First, the government should not, under any circumstances, forcefully remove the occupiers. Instead, they must approach the situation from a social justice perspective. The worst thing to do is to inflict further violence on a historically oppressed and neglected group of people.
Second, the DSWD is doing the right thing in providing assistance and food packs to the occupiers. That is the mandate of the Department and it is good that they are fulfilling it.
Third, both the government and the occupiers must not treat this issue as a zero-sum game. They must be open to a win-win solution that will provide proper and affordable housing to not only the occupiers, but also the policemen and military that likewise have the same right to adequate and affordable housing. The government has failed to do its duty if it is true that the intended beneficiaries voluntarily rejected these housing projects because they are of poor quality. The men and women who risk their lives everyday for this country deserve better.
Fourth, most importantly, the problem of adequate and affordable housing must be solved. This means a successful peace agreement with the CPP-NPA-NDF and the subsequent ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms, which, among others things, calls for a “comprehensive nationwide program of mass housing for the working people especially, but not only, for the urban poor and semi-workers.”
In the past few months, the Duterte administration has been accused of, among other things, conducting a War on Drugs that is, in reality, a War on the Poor. The Kadamay situation is an opportunity for Duterte to show the poor, who voted for him in droves, that he is a man of the people. This President, who promised swift and brave solutions, cannot afford to respond to the rightful demands of the urban poor with legalese and excuses.
The urban poor, treated with contempt by many, deserve no less.
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