Urban poor in Rodriguez, Rizal: Living on the edge of uncertainty*

Recalling life as a migrant worker, Magdalena shares her secret on how she was able to endure long years working abroad. Apart from the salary given her, she demanded her boss three simple things: “Treat me as a human being, provide me food and a give me a little freedom.” When asked if she receives those three simple things from the current Aquino administration, not a single word came out of her lips.

By MAX B. SANTIAGO
Bulatlat.com

“Ngayong gabi, sa paglipat nyo sa inyong bagong mga tirahan, makakatulog kayo nang mahimbing. Hindi nyo na kailangan na mag-alala na baka sa inyong pagtulog ay tangayin ng baha ang inyong bahay o sirain ang inyong mga pundar na kagamitan.” (Tonight, as you settle in your new houses, you can sleep tight. You never have to worry that your houses might be swept away by floodwater or your personal belongings might be destroyed.)

DILG Secretary Mar Roxas speech to informal settlers from Estero Tripa de Gallina in Pasay City

RODRIGUEZ, Rizal — It was 2:00 in the morning of September 20 when Magdalena de la Cruz, a 75 year-old resident of Block 1K-1 in Kasiglahan village, saw that floodwater was rising fast inside her home. She immediately cried out for help but all her neighbors were busy securing their own families. She thought of her husband who is suffering from asthma and quickly took the heavy trolley, which contains an oxygen tank and other important medicines.

Items from her small sari-sari (variety) store were swept away by the floodwater. Her television set was destroyed. Magdalena only managed to put some of her personal belongings in a hammock. Eventually, the couple managed to wade through the flood and made their way to an elevated shelter nearby.

Magdalena is just one of thousands of residents affected by dangerous floods in Kasiglahan village, a designated relocation site for displaced informal settler families all over Metro Manila. During the onslaught of typhoon Mario, the housing units along the creek were submerged up to seven feet high. She has been residing in the relocation site for three years and with each passing year, Magdalena says that the level of floodwater has been rising.

Danger awaits

Magdalena was once a resident of barangay (village) Old Balara in Quezon City when a road-widening project evicted her along with other informal settler families. All of them have been transferred to the Kasiglahan relocation village.

Magdalena dela Cruz relates how they survive the floodwater during typhoon Mario in September. (Photo by Max Santiago)
Magdalena dela Cruz relates how they survive the floodwater during typhoon Mario in September. (Photo by Max Santiago)

“We were taken out of a dangerous area only to be brought to the most dangerous area,” Magdalena said.
By 2014, Kasiglahan village is already home to some 24,000 informal settler families evicted from their original homes in the metropolis.

Kasiglahan village was first conceptualized during the Ramos administration in an attempt to clear the Pasig River from what the government called as ‘obstructions,’ referring to the informal settlers living along the river. The actual construction of the village took place during the term of former President Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, which initially covered 600 hectares. The developer of the site, New San Jose Builders, continued to construct low-cost housing despite the fact that the relocation site is considered perilous to lives. According to a study by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Philvocs), the whole village smacks right on the Western Marikina Fault Line. Its proximity to the Wawa dam also made it susceptible to frequent flooding.

Missing funds for informal settlers

Magdalena and her neighbors at Kasiglahan village were enraged upon learning of the funds supposedly allocated for informal settlers.

In 2013, the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam came into light after the revelation of Benhur Luy that high officials were allegedly involved in stealing funds in the billions pesos with the connivance of Janet Lim Napoles whose fake NGOs became conduits for illegal fund transfers. This opened a Pandora’s Box of anomalies, with the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) being exposed as a scam much bigger than that of PDAF. DAP’s existence was later confirmed by no less than the Secretary Florencio Abad of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). The DBM later on released a list of projects of DAP projects and among the top allocations on the list were projects intended for the benefit of informal settlers.

In October 2011, the DBM released P11.5 billion ($255 million) from the DAP for the in-city relocation of informal settlers living in danger areas. According to urban poor group Kadamay, the Informal Settlers Fund (ISF) amounts to P50 billion ($1.11 billion), and another P10 billion ($222 million) is allotted annually to the National Housing Authority (NHA) for the construction of in-city relocation housing projects.

On October 3, the Montalban Relocatees Alliance(MRA), an organization representing different associations in the village, held a picket protest in front of the local office of the NHA in Rodriguez, Rizal. They demanded a dialog with NHA officials to discuss issues faced by Kasiglahan village residents.

A dialog between Kasiglahan residents and the NHA took place on October 7. Elizabeth Matipo, NHA officer-in-charge assigned in Rodriguez Rizal, and Engineer Rene Samson of New San Jose Builders, Inc. spoke with the residents.

Matipo confirmed that the NHA has an allocation of P4.9 billion ($109 million) in the 2014 budget and P5 billion ($111 million) in the 2015 budget. She said that the money is not intended for Kasiglahan village residents but for the victims of typhoon Sendong, the Bohol earthquake and Yolanda victims. Matipo added that it is not the general manager of the NHA alone who decides where the funding goes.

Elizabeth Matipo, officer-in-charge of the National Housing Authority in Rodriguez, Rizal, speaks with residents of Kasiglahan Village residents, Oct. 7. (Photo by Max Santiago)
Elizabeth Matipo, officer-in-charge of the National Housing Authority in Rodriguez, Rizal, speaks with residents of Kasiglahan Village residents, Oct. 7. (Photo by Max Santiago)

Matipo and Samson both agreed that the long-term solution to the problem of flooding in Montalban, Rizal is the dredging of the river spanning Montalban, San Mateo and Marikina. The NHA official said the fund of the local congressman is insufficient and they need additional funding from the Senate and the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

Both Matipo and Samson declined to be interviewed after the dialog.

‘Treat me as a human being’

After surviving typhoon Mario, Magdalena’s top priority was to find money so that she could once again buy goods for her sari-stari store. She was able to borrow P2,000 ($44) from a kind neighbor. Meager earnings from the store serve as the main source of income for the old couple’s daily survival.

All her life, Magdalena was fighting poverty. Born and raised in the province of Antique, Magdalena decided to move to Metro Manila with hopes of finding greener pasture. After staying shortly in Manila, she became an overseas Filipino worker in the Middle East. After her contract as domestic helper in Saudi Arabia ended, she then moved to Lebanon where she spent a couple of years before returning back to the Philippines when internal conflict broke in Lebanon. She worked again as a domestic helper in Saipan, Taiwan, and Cyprus.

It was in Cyprus when she found a plastic bag full of money lying on the street. Despite being urged by her friends to keep the money for herself, Magdalena resisted the temptation and surrendered the bag to authorities. This incident was picked up by local news media, and in an old magazine clipping, when asked why she opted to return the money, she answered, “Still the fear of God and the dignity of my countrymen prevailed”.

Her contract eventually expired and was lured to fly to Japan but ended up with a recruitment agency providing erroneous and falsified travel documents. Soon, old age compelled her to stay in the Philippines.

Recalling life as a migrant worker, Magdalena shares her secret on how she was able to endure long years working abroad. Apart from the salary given her, she demanded her boss three simple things: “Treat me as a human being, provide me food and a give me a little freedom.”

When asked if she receives those three simple things from the current Aquino administration, not a single word came out of her lips. Her eyes then shifted to the creek beside her house. After a moment of silence, Magdalena slowly shook her head. ()

*The article was adjudged first place in the recently concluded 18th Lopez Jaena Community Journalism Fellowship of the University of the Philippines – College of Mass Communication. The author writes for the new alternative online news outfit, Manila Today.

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