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Informal settlers: A decades-long problem

The government has announced a very ambitious goal: “Halve the number of poor people from the present 27.9 percent of total population to 16.6 percent by the end of 2015.” That means lifting about 12.5 million people out of poverty in less than three years.

Senator Manny B. VillarI think Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan’s statement that achieving the goal set under the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDG) would be a “big challenge” was an understatement.

In my view, the goal is formidable. And I also believe that the government’s resolve and capability in reducing poverty will be tested in the renewed effort to relocate informal settlers from danger areas. It is safe to assume that majority of the families that live along riverbanks, under the bridges and other areas identified as prone to flooding and other calamities are among the nation’s estimated 25 million poor.

The problem of informal settlers, identified in a study by the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) as households whose tenure status is rent-free and without the consent of the landowner, has been with us for decades.

The Philippines “is becoming a nation of squatters,” wrote Seth Mydans in a report published by The New York Times in May 1988. He cited a report of the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor that estimated 44 percent of the city of Manila’s population lived below the poverty line (at that time) of P3,282 a month. And he cited another study by the United Nations International Children’s Education Fund that said about 25 percent of all city dwellers in the Philippines lived in “slums and squatter colonies.”

As the largest urban area, Metro Manila hosts the largest population of informal settlers. In a paper presented at the 11th National Convention on Statistics in October 2010, HUDCC Director Jeanette Cruz cited the National Housing Authority (NHA), which estimated the number of informal settlers in Metro Manila at 544,609 families. The figure is similar to the estimate made by the Metro Manila Development Authority, which identified 517,175 informal settler families in 13 local government units.

Administration after administration has undertaken different measures to solve the informal settler problem to no avail, as the current situation tells us. For instance, the Marcos administration prohibited the construction of new factories within 50 kilometers of Manila to encourage industries to put up production facilities far from the metropolis, in the process deviating migration out of the urban center.

President Cory Aquino, in an effort to generate employment, spent billions of pesos to improve infrastructure far from Metro Manila. The initiative did not only stimulate business in the Visayas and Mindanao; it also partly mitigated migration to Metro Manila. About two decades later, we still have a large informal settler problem, despite numerous relocation activities conducted by the national and local governments.

In January 2013, the Department of Interior and Local Governments (DILG) said it would relocate about 100,000 families who were living in waterways in Metro Manila as part of the measures to eliminate or at least reduce flooding during the rainy season.

Removing families from their makeshift houses where they have lived for 10 or 30 years has never been easy. Often, settlers clashed with the demolition teams and the police. We saw that live on television last week, when demolition teams tried to enter informal settlements in Valenzuela City and in Quezon City.

We have also heard the stories, even from informal settlers themselves. Some families agree to be transferred to a relocation site, only to go back to the waterways later.

The government has been spending billions for relocation activities. Agencies have been extending as much assistance as they can to keep families in the relocation sites.

Alas, the problem persists! So, I believe it is time to sit down, identify the reasons why families refuse relocation and why they are unable to stay in their new homes. (To be continued)

(For comments/feedback email to: mbv_secretariat@yahoo.com. Readers may view previous columns atwww.senatorvillar.com)

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