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Weapons of Reason, Megacities Issue

50% of the over 11 million inhabitants of Manila live in slums. Here, people scrape by as domestic or construction workers, collecting recyclable rubbish from the nearby dumps, making charcoal, peeling garlic, or working in the market. With little income and no access to credit beyond small loans by friends and family, slum residents have little opportunity to improve their situation.  The choice of more than a million Filipinos every year - to leave the country and work abroad – is far beyond them.


Manila has expanded from 20m in 1950 to 100m today,– particularly in its greater suburbs including ‘Metro Manila’ and the wider ‘Mega-Manila’.  The largest slum, Tondo, houses approximately 650,000 – in a density of 70,000 people per sq km.  Prone to flooding during Manila’s regular typhoons, built of corrugated iron, plastic and wood, its rats, cockroaches, sewage, mosquito larvae and rubbish makes it as archetypal a slum as Kibera.


Carlos Celdran is a community activist and architectural historian who – when he is not being arrested for protesting reproductive rights during mass in Manila Cathedral – leads walking tours of the Manila slums.  According to Celdran, the status of the slum in Phillipino society, and its stubborn persistence, must be understood in context.


“If you look at Phillipino architectural history its always been about the bamboo house, temporary settlements that are renewable.  If you go to any traditional village in the Philippines from the 17thcentury onwards the most solid building was always the Catholic church and every other structure which had to do with the civilian populace was made out of something unsustainable like bamboo or grass or something that could easily rot. 


Take that mentality, aesthetic and take it from being a bamboo house to bamboo and scrap metal and scrap wood. We’ve never really been able to solve the informal settlement problem.  It’s nothing new, it’s been around since Spanish times. It’s going to be even harder to get out of as it’s become such a great part of our society”


Ferdinand Magellan landed on the Northern Islands of the Philippines in April 1521 and was killed within a month. Over the successive centuries, until Spain ceded the country to the US in 1898, the Spanish developed the south side of the Pasig river that runs Westward through the centre of the city into Manila Bay.  Tondo, on the North bank, was already populated, but became increasingly on the margins of the city geography – both real and imagined.


More significantly, the Spanish brought two imports:  Catholicism and mercantilism.  The first arguably fostered a fatalism which has made Phillipino slum dwellers resigned to generations of poverty and neglect.  More certainly, the Church’s position on birth control has contributed to population growth, fuelling increasing population density and impoverishment. Spanish trade brought a new ruling class of land-owners to the Philippines, while the vast majority of the country became the property of the Church.


Spanish and Mestizo ruling classes developed through the centuries, but a true Philippine middle class emerged only in the 20thCentury, fuelled by the US occupation of the country from 1898 to 1945 and limited democratic and economic reforms. US control and Japanese invasion also meant that much of the North of Manila – including Tondo - was destroyed in World War Two. When the Philippines achieved independence in 1945, the foundations had been laid both for rapid economic growth and social polarisation, most dramatically under the military dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos from 1965-86.


The slums quickly grew and quickly became an embarrassment.  Most notoriously, Imelda Marcos, first lady and ‘steel butterfly’, had whitewashed walls constructed to obscure the slums from visiting dignitaries to the Miss Universe pageant in 1974. When Pope John Paul II visited the Philippines and asked to see the slums, Imelda is supposed to have built a façade of new housing in one slum, solely to visit with the Pontiff.


The Marcos administration borrowed heavily and introduced a cavalcade of acronym-laden programmes for slum improvement:  the Zonal Improvement Program (ZIP), Metro Manila Infrastructure Utilities and Engineering Program (MINUTE), the Program for Removing Sewage from Streets (PROGRESS). In fact, these were more about ‘beautification’ than improvement, with funds largely disappearing into the pockets of landowners and developers.


Given Ferdinand Marcos’ corruption and brutality, it is surprising to hear the greatest responsibility for the slums levelled at his successor, Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino – mother of the Philippine’s current President, Benigno Aquino III. In an understandable haste to end the legacy of Marcos, Aquino issued a new ‘Freedom Constitution’ emphasising democracy, human rights, and social justice.  However, the constitution is seen by Aquino’s critics as rushed and poorly drafted. 


When Aquino cleared the notorious ‘Smokey Mountain’ slum, where fires and collapses of rubbish would regularly claim lives, the result was merely to disturb the livelihood of inhabitants and relocate them to another slum in disused dockside warehouses, ironically dubbed ‘Happyland’.Most significantly for the slums today, Aquino’s government introduced the ‘Urban Development and Housing Act (RA 7279)’, otherwise known as the ‘Lina Law’.


Celdran: “I believe Cory Aquino was the worst president the Philippines ever had. She had a senator called Joey Lina who was kind of a leftist, and was pandering.  When he became a senator he made a weird law that if anyone squats on your land you can’t kick him out unless you offer alternative housing. Isn’t that crazy?  The Philippines in the 70s was well on our way to being a disciplined society, and then Cory Aquino came in. The Lina law explains why squatters own the city now.


Lina himself and others such as the Chamber of Real Estate and Builder’s Associations state the law on compensation is misunderstood.  In fact, it only states that ‘squatters’ whose monthly income is below a poverty threshold are entitled to affordable housing from government or the equivalent of 60 days minimum wage. However, with the current poverty threshold at around US$200 income per month for a family of five and slum dwellers making $2-5 a day, this will include most slum dwellers, if not all.


Habitat for Humanity Phillippines, state that their regular housing projects would probably not be possible if the Lina Law didn’t exist, though they also advocate for the law’s improvement. Whether you consider it reasonable or not, it is clear the law’s interpretation has become a major hindrance to reform. In 2011, The Filipino government estimated the cost of rehousing slum dwellers in Manila at about a third of the entire national budget. While the economy continues to grow (Goldman Sachs estimates that by 2050, it will be the 14th largest economy in the world), unless the proceeds of growth are shared, and the growth of the slums curtailed, the problem will remain.


The initiatives that do exist seem to have achieved little in the Philippines. A ‘developing a national slum upgrading strategy’ completed in 2014 doesn’t appear to have produced any strategy, or had any mechanism to gauge success resulting from $500k of World Bank funds. Officials talk of stakeholder meetings and conferences, that ‘the Philippines still has a long way to go in terms of institutional reforms, and approaches’ and that ‘there is no magic wand’.


Ask Filippinos and they will first blame massive corruption and the cynical and self-serving exploits of the political class. Minor improvements to infrastructure are bestowed on the population as if they were gifts.  Given the sheer size of the population in the slums, residents’ votes are keenly harvested by politicians and yet little changes.  The mobilisation of that vote could be the key to real change, if only a real vote for reform were available.


While Ferdinand Marcos is long gone, and Imelda relegated to the House of Representatives rather than the Malacañang Palace, for Carlos Celdran little has changed - the slums are still hidden from view to avoid the discomfort of the same elites, Marcos’s whitewashed walls along the highway replicated by the ivy-clad walls of the ‘gated compounds’.


“When you go to the provinces you can see it’s not so bad to be so organic and aspire for less. Middle class Filipinos don’t want to take public transportation, they wouldn’t want their children in public schools, the middle class want to go from an agricultural society to ‘I have a maid, I have a house, I have parking, I have a car.


The elites of the Philippines are the really the ones that control the country, they’re really our version of royalty – if Thailand has a king, if Malaysia has a sultan – we have Manila Golf Club". 

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