“How do we stay at home?”: Demolitions continue to hammer urban poor amid pandemic

Story by Noelle Mejia and Bernadette Anne Morales

As thousands of Filipinos are forced to live in uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic still in full swing, families in urban poor communities continue to lose their homes from demolitions and forced evictions.

The Department of Local and Interior Government (DILG) issued a memorandum in April 2020 ordering the postponement of all administrative demolition and eviction activities during the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ).

Despite the supposed legal interventions designed to protect communities from demolitions during ECQ, urban poor group Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (KADAMAY) estimates displaced and homeless families at around 50,000 Filipinos settling in the dwellings of Tondo, Intramuros, San Roque, Navotas, Valenzuela, Cavite and Bulacan. 

No one to turn to

Among those affected is Pook Malinis in Diliman, where in-campus security personnel which they residents refer to as ‘blue guards’ in charge of UP communities came to demolish dwellers’ houses in September 2020. 

Pook Malinis resident Ednard Tumlod, who works as a buko juice vendor while studying in a nearby senior high school, said that he had to pay for the damages done by blue guards to his house out of pocket. 

It cost him almost 1,000 pesos to repair their house’s roof and plywood partitions – a large dent on the 20-year-old’s meager earnings, which he uses for his education and his family’s expenses. Ednard shared how he tried to reason with the blue guards by mentioning their struggle amid pandemic but it was to no avail. “Sabi nila, pasensya na raw kasi utos lang daw sa kanila. ‘Pag hindi raw nila sundin, matatanggal daw sila.” Ednard shared.

Pook Malinis residents Ednard and Norlita Tumlod sit inside their tiny house, dimly-lit and filled with portable containers to store their belongings in case of the arrival of the blue guards. / Photo by Bernadette Anne Morales

Because of this, Ednard would always keep a keen eye on the blue guards coming to demolish their house. He also tries to avoid improving their house despite its frail condition, saying it causes blue guards to threaten them even more. 

“May time na yung mga higaan, bumibigay. Pero sabi nila, ‘wag na raw magdagdag. Kapag nagdagdag pa raw, gigibain na talaga nila ito.,” said Ednard.

Mother and son Norlita and Ednard Tumlod demonstrate the lifting of their detachable roof, a necessary adjustment they made to easily dismantle their house when threatened by the demolition forces. / Photo by Noelle Mejia

Ednard’s mother, Norlita Tumlod, said they have tried to ask for help from the UP Office of Community Relations (OCR), but they were “shunned away.” They were allegedly told by former officials to relocate themselves and why they still ‘didn’t have money to find their own house.’

Norlita recalled an argument they had with the officials when they asked to for assistance.

“Ang kinikita namin ngayon, tama lang sa kakainin namin. Ano ang ipapang-upa namin? … [Nakiusap kami na] pansamantala lang, hangga’t di niyo pa gamit ang lote, dito muna kami, dahil hindi naman namin inaangkin ang lupa niyo,” she said. 

It was not the first time that the OCR refused to listen and respect their side, the Pook Malinis resident said. Dozens of Pook Malinis residents previously attempted to request a dialogue with the Commission on Human Rights regarding their situation. They were also turned down.

“Pumunta kami dati ng CHR, hindi rin kami natulungan kasi sabi ng CHR wala silang right magsalita dahil ang tinitirhan nila, [sa] UP din,” she said.

While the Tumlods and the rest of Pook Malinis continue to struggle in Diliman, a three-years-long strife for housing rights for those living in the coastal areas of Bacoor, Cavite took an insidious turn which rendered almost a thousand families homeless amid pandemic. 

A trail of fire

More than 700 families consisting of 3,500 individuals in Brgy. Alima and Brgy. Sineguelasan, Bacoor were left shattered in November 2020 after they returned to their community with only its burnt ruins on the ground.

It started when the residents of the two barangays had to evacuate their houses during the peak of Typhoons Rolly and Siony.

Nanay Asinita said that the residents were instructed by the authorities to evacuate quickly to the nearby schools as the storms would hit the area badly.“Sabi ng mga pulis, kailangan daw isa lang ang maiiwan sa bahay. Kasi, kalakasan po ng bagyo,” said Nanay Asinita.

Nanay Asinita looks over the burnt remains of her barangay. She has been a resident of Brgy. Alima for over 35 years. / Photo by Bernadette Anne Morales

Only Nanay Asinita’s husband stayed at home while the rest of the family relocated to nearby evacuation centers. When the fire broke out, her husband could only save so much of their belongings. 

Nanay Asinita said it was the first time that she saw a fire as huge and uncontrollable as that in her 35 years of living in the area. The rest of Alima and Sineguelasan residents had saved little to none of their belongings after the explosion of power lines caused by the fire scared them from trying to return to their homes. “Ito, kakaiba, parang biglang boom kaagad. At saka wala kaming nailigtas kasi natakot kami sa kuryente. May pagkakataon pa sana kami na makasalba pero natakot kami sa kuryente,” she said.

Carlo Anduque looks at some broken houses in the middle of the burnt remains of his barangay. / Photo by Bernadette Anne Morales

After witnessing their houses getting burned down, 20-year-old Carlo Anduque of Brgy. Alima and his neighbors strongly believe that the fire in their community was not a mere accident.

“‘Yung usap-usapan dito namin, sinadya raw. Kasi habang binubuhusan ‘yung sunog, naliyab pa lalo ‘yung apoy. Kumbaga gasolina ‘yung nasa ilalim,” Carlo said. 

Streaks of gas can be seen flowing on the waters of the coastal barangays of Alima and Sineguelasan. The residents strongly suspect that this was the trigger for the fire. / Photo by Bernadette Anne Morales

After the news broke out, fisherfolk group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA) expressed its suspicion on the reported nature of the fire incident, saying it was “deliberate and intentional.” 

This was only the most recent occurrence in a series of fire-related incidents in nearby communities covered by the Bacoor city government’s reclamation projects.

PAMALAKAYA recalls that residents in Bacoor are not the only common targets of these supposed burning accidents. A similar accident also happened in Obando, Bulacan in January 2019 when a fire razed down houses of hundreds of residents in Sitio Rafael, where the 2,500-hectare Aerotropolis of San Miguel Corporation is set to be built. 

PAMALAKAYA Southern Tagalog spokesperson Ronnel Arambulo said the string of fire “accidents” started in Brgy. Maliksi III where some 500 families lost their homes to a fire in April 2017. This was followed by Brgy. Tabing Dagat in January 2018 and Brgy. Maliksi I and III in June 2018.

Residents visit their burnt communities to scavenge for belongings and anything that might be useful enough to sell. / Photo by Kel Malazarte

KADAMAY National Chairperson Gloria “Ka Bea” Arellano said that ‘hot demolitions’ are commonly used by the state to fast track the displacement of communities settling in areas covered by impending development projects of local government units (LGUs) and private corporations. 

“Ilang beses na ring nasusunog ang Bacoor dahil gusto na nilang mapaalis agad ang mahihirap. ‘Yon ang madaling pwedeng gawin ng gobyerno ‘pag nagdedemolish, dahil hindi na nila kailangan magbayad sa mga demolition teams, mga pulis,” Ka Bea said. 

Destruction under “Build, Build, Build”

While certain private corporations work hand in hand with LGUs to implement demolitions, Ka Bea also blames the Duterte administration for “spearheading harsh programs and policies” that push the Filipino people into suffering.

The similarity of the demolitions in the UP Community and the hot demolition in Cavite stems from the Duterte administration’s Build Build Build! (BBB) program, she said.

“Kung saan mayroong proyekto ang gobyerno at mayroong itinatayo, nandiyan nagkakaroon ng mga sunog kaya doon natin nailalantad dahil nagiging pattern na ng gobyerno ‘yan at parehong pareho na lang lagi,” Ka Bea added.

In 2014, the UP Board of Regents approved the UP Master Development Plan (UP-MDP) that aims to “develop the University’s land resources to maximize its academic and administrative uses for the community.” Aside from widespread criticism from the UP community, the vagueness of the UP-MDP has also become an issue for thousands of families residing inside UP Diliman. 

Ka Bea points out that the UP-MDP is also a manifestation of mixed-use Central Business District development in Quezon City — a phenomenon of converting areas into a mix of expensive commercial and residential spots for private consumption. She says such ventures are strengthened by the BBB program in recent years.

Meanwhile, Manila Bay currently houses three of the country’s largest reclamation projects in Cavite, including the 320-hectare Bacoor Reclamation and Development Project and its attached 100-hectare Diamond Reclamation and Development Project, both of which were proposed by the City Government of Bacoor under Mayor Lani Mercado. 

The twin reclamation projects were green-lit by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources despite strong opposition from affected residents of Barangays Sineguelasan, Alima, Tabing Dagat, Kaingin, Maliksi III, Maliksi I, Talaba II, Talaba I and Zapote V. 

Holding the line

Apart from committing housing rights violations, the government’s attempts to contain the coronavirus and to recover from its economic fallout continue to be out of touch with the realities on-ground. “Sinasabi ng mga dinedemolish, saan sila pupunta? Kahit na sinasabi nilang ‘stay at home,’ paano mag-stay kung naka-amba na idedemolish ang bahay ng mga tao?” Ka Bea said.

A child from Pook Malinis joined the community’s Kariton Protest last March 1 by attaching placards with different calls and advocacies in her family’s cart. / Photo by Anakbayan Pook Malinis

On March 14, the DILG lifted the moratorium on demolition and eviction of urban poor communities. According to Undersecretary Bernardo Florece Jr., this was due to the General Community Quarantine (GCQ) and Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ) imposed on the majority of the regions.

It is evident that the government hasn’t been upholding its own moratorium for the past year, but the formal removal of such legal protections proves the continued criminal negligence of the state towards the country’s poorest.

Last February 17, fisherfolk group PAMALAKAYA went to the Office of the Ombudsman to file a complaint against Bacoor City Mayor Lani Mercado over violations of environmental laws through approving reclamation projects in Manila Bay. / Photo by Kodao Productions

Bearing the burden of the pandemic’s impacts pushes the urban poor to confront the risks of getting uprooted from their own homes. Lockdowns upon lockdowns left them with uncertain prospects that continue to cripple their only means to survive. 

For urban poor communities, the struggle for adequate housing, job opportunities and daily resources has taken greater urgency and importance during the pandemic. In the days ahead, their struggles reaffirm their desire to resist policies endangering their rights.“Kaya lumalaban ang mga maralita ay dahil matagal na nilang karanasan ang mga iyan. Kumbaga, lutong luto na sa mga karanasan ang mga mahihirap at kailangan matutunan nila ang kanilang karapatan at patuloy nilang ipaglaban ito,” Ka Bea said. 

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