Growing in the Gutters
Half of Manila’s population lives in slums, but institutional corruption means that little has been done to help the urban poor.
Words James Bramble
Illustration Edward Carvalho-Monaghan
50% of Manila’s 13 million inhabitants 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 from friends and family, slum residents have scant opportunity to improve their situation. Every year a million Filipinos leave the country to work abroad, but this option is far beyond those still trapped in the slums.
Manila has expanded from 1.5 million inhabitants in 1950 to 13 million today, particularly in its greater suburbs, including Metro Manila and the wider Mega Manila. The largest slum, Tondo, houses approximately 630,000 in a density of 70,000 people per square kilometre. Prone to flooding during the city’s regular typhoons, Tondo is fashioned from corrugated iron, plastic and wood; its rats, cockroaches, rubbish and sewage make it as archetypal a slum as Kenya’s Kibera.
Carlos Celdran is a community activist and architectural historian who — when not being arrested for protesting reproductive rights during mass in Manila Cathedral — leads walking tours of the city’s slums. Celdran explains that the status of the slum in Filipino society, and its stubborn persistence, must be understood in context.
“If you look at Filipino architectural history it has always been about the bamboo house — temporary settlements that are renewable. If you go to any traditional village in the Philippines from the 17th century onwards, the most solid building was always the Catholic church. Every other structure which had to do with the civilian populace was made out of something unsustainable like bamboo or grass — something that could easily rot.
“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.”
“Tondo’s rats, cockroaches, rubbish and sewage make it as archetypal a slum as Kenya’s Kibera.”
Ferdinand Magellan landed on the Northern Islands of the Philippines in March 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, a waterway that runs westward through the centre of the city into Manila Bay. Tondo, on the North bank, was already populated, but was pulled into the margins of the city’s geography.
Significantly, the Spanish brought two imports: Catholicism and mercantilism, the former arguably fostering a fatalistic outlook which has made Filipino slum-dwellers resigned to generations of poverty and neglect. More certainly the Church’s position on birth control latterly 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 20th century, fuelled by the US occupation of the country during the Spanish-American war and the limited democratic and economic reforms that followed. US control and Japanese invasion also meant that much of the north of Manila — including Tondo — was destroyed in the Second World War. When the Philippines achieved independence in 1945, the foundations had been laid both for rapid economic growth and social polarisation, most dramatically under the authoritarian rule of Ferdinand Marcos from 1965–86.
“Imelda Marcos had whitewashed walls constructed to obscure the slums from visiting dignitaries to the Miss Universe pageant in 1974.”
During Marcos’ tenure the slums grew rapidly and became an embarrassment to his administration. 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 alleged to have built a façade of new housing in one slum solely for the benefit of 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 (MMINUTE), the Program for Removing Sewage from Streets (PROGRESS) — ultimately initiatives more about beautification than improvement, with funds largely disappearing into the pockets of landowners and developers.
Given 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. But 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’.
“I believe Cory Aquino was the worst president the Philippines ever had,” says Carlos Celdran. “She had a senator called Joey Lina who was kind of a leftist, and was pandering. When Lina became a senator he made a weird law that if anyone squats on your land you can’t kick them out unless you offer alternative housing. Isn’t that crazy? The Philippines in the 1970s was well on its 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 other authorities, like the Chamber of Real Estate and Builders Associations, are adamant that 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. But with the current poverty threshold estimated to be around US$300 income per month for a family of five, and slum dwellers making $2–5 a day, this includes most, if not all, slum dwellers.
Habitat for Humanity Philippines, a Christian charity promoting sustainable development and housing for the Filipino poor, state that their regular housing projects would probably not be possible if the Lina Law didn’t exist, though they also advocate the law’s improvement. 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 20th 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 to alleviate the situation have achieved little so far. A ‘developing a national slum upgrading strategy’ completed in 2014 doesn’t appear to have produced any strategy, nor had any mechanism to gauge success resulting from the use of $500 million of World Bank funds. Officials’ talk at stakeholder meetings and conferences suggests 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 Filipinos about the lack of progress and they will first blame massive corruption and the cynical, self-serving exploits of the political class. Minor improvements to infrastructure are bestowed upon the population as if they were gifts. Given the sheer size of the population in the slums and the keen harvesting of resident’s votes by politicians, it’s perhaps surprising that so little has changed. The mobilisation of that vote could be the key to real change, if only a real vote for reform were available.
“Ask Filipinos about the lack of progress and they will first blame massive corruption and the cynical, self-serving exploits of the political class.”
While Ferdinand Marcos is long gone, and Imelda relegated to the House of Representatives rather than the Malacañang Palace, for Carlos Celdran there has been little improvement in real terms. The slums are still hidden from view to avoid the discomfort of the same elites, but now Marcos’s whitewashed walls along the highway have been replicated by the ivy-clad perimeters of their new gated compounds.
“When you go to the provinces you can see it’s not so bad to aspire to 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 really the ones that control the country, they’re really our version of royalty. Thailand has a king, Malaysia has a sultan — we have the chairman of Manila Golf Club.”