Friday, February 22, 2013

Arson in Manila?

Every year, 240,000 displaced rural residents (displaced by the IMF model of agribusiness plantations) move to Manila, Philippines, making it the fastest growing city in the world. The World Bank reports squatters now comprise 40% of 12 million Manila residents. They are mostly unemployed or part of the informal economy & live on USD$1.00 a day or less. They live along waterways including Manila Bay, railroads, around garbage dumps. Hundreds of thousands live in Tondo, a section of Manila which fronts Manila Bay & is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. For the past many years there have been dozens of slum fires in Tondo with tens of thousands made homeless but with no place to go & no public housing most simply move back to the site & rebuild.

Waste management has long been a massive problem in Manila. It is excluded or privatized under IMF austerity programs. Factories operate without waste management facilities while the municipality generates over 6 thousand tons of garbage every day. An estimated 500 tons of garbage along with industrial wastes, sewage water, & fecal sludge are illegally dumped daily into numerous waterways & the seven major rivers which eventually discharge into Manila Bay. Eighty-percent of discharged wastes come from industries & businesses situated along the bay. Manila Bay is a major shipping harbor sustaining discharge of garbage, raw sewage, oil, & chemical effluents from vessels & oil rigs. Manila Bay has become a 1,200 square mile septic tank. The pollutants & contamination combined with an immense volume of floating plastic trash has smothered vital marine ecosystems & the plant & animal life these support & directly affected the health & livelihoods of millions of people.

Degradation of Manila Bay has long been at alarming levels so it would seem laudatory that in December 2008 the Philippine Supreme Court ordered the Department of Environment & Natural Resources (DENR) to rehabilitate the bay & restore its waters to suitable for public swimming & spawning fish. This is not just a monumental engineering feat but a daunting political undertaking since the project involves conflicting jurisdictions of several municipalities & provinces whose waste management affects the bay. The first priority would be developing a strategy to get collaboration between the contending agencies & governments. The purpose would be to lay down the law & force compliance from polluting industries. The court set the date for enjoining industrial waste management facilities at “the earliest possible time.” At a 2011 court review of progress made, there were no sanctions for ignoring the mandate to set up waste management facilities & no sanctions for continued industrial dumping--which explains why no progress has been made to date.

The 2008 Supreme Court ruling also authorized the Manila Development Authority to demolish all “illegal structures & dwellings” along all waterways connected to Manila Bay & ordered it over & done with by December 2015.  The court ordered authorities to clear out the shanty residents with no relocation guidelines established. President Aquino & other government minions have made it quite clear they intend aggressive action to clear tens of thousands of squatters & to relocate them to the rural areas they originally fled from to find work. One government official said he had received orders from Aquino that “If push comes to shove, we will have to blast those houses.” This is the court & government’s way of blaming the fishers & urban poor for the deterioration of Manila Bay.

The reason resident relocation takes priority over waste management facilities is because the Philippine government (the Supreme Court, the Executive branch, & other agencies like the Philippine Port Authority & Philippine Reclamation Authority) are pulling a fast one. Under the IMF investment strategy, public domain lands now inhabited by squatters must be privatized for commercial & industrial development, including expansion of harbor facilities for international shipping, a casino & resort complex, mega-shopping malls, special economic zones. Cleaning up Manila Bay has very little to do with it since shipping-generated contamination will only increase. There are many Philippine laws, including the 1987 Constitution & historic heritage laws which prevent the sale of public lands for commercial or industrial purposes. It will come as no surprise that USAID is consulting with the Philippine Reclamation Authority (the agency tasked with privatizing public lands) to overturn or dodge these restrictions to unfettered plunder. As Aquino has stated, clearing public lands of slums is preparation for private developers to move in.

There are hundreds of slum fires every year in dozens of countries since one billion people now live in sprawling urban squatter colonies of makeshift housing. Fire forensics are seldom reported but fire officials routinely cite a list of causes including faulty & pirated power lines, inflammable building materials (including cardboard, wooden planks, & plastic), gas tank explosions. Residents often claim arson & criminal negligence by municipal authorities. The locations of slums in areas targeted for gentrification & development renders the claim of arson entirely credible--even likely. One telling indication is that in these fire-prone zones, there are very few functioning fire hydrants.

In Manila, slum residents, fishers, health, church & environmental groups are organizing themselves against government aggression & taking to the courts to fight the encroachments & violations of human rights & Philippine law. Their efforts make clear that resident concerns about arson are not misplaced or paranoid. Here Tondo residents use a firefighter’s hose to battle a fire last Tuesday which killed three people, including a small girl, & made thousands homeless.

(Photo by Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

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