Rescue Them, Not Penalize Their Poverty

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

My heart skipped a beat when I read what Public Works and Highways Secretary Rogelio Singson said about presidential instructions to relocate about 200,000 poor from their threatened habitat. These families are all living, if you can call it that after seeing their sardine-like existence, along river banks, esteros and drainage canals. I had written just last week that government and Philippine society cannot just quietly stand by while flood after flood will kill, maim and render homeless these same families. I had mentioned that government must bite the bullet by taking these families out of harm’s way and build them new communities elsewhere.

In the 90′s, there was the horrible Payatas disaster that killed hundreds of Filipinos forced by circumstance to survive by living and scavenging in a humongous garbage dump. A day or two after that incident, I was one of the guests in a despedida (farewell) luncheon in honor of a foreign diplomat about to end his term of service in the Philippines. In my table, people were discussing the Payatas tragedy and comments were made about the stubbornness of the families living around that mountain of garbage even after they were warned of the danger of landslides. I felt forced to react and said that those families in Payatas were not hardheaded, just desperate, and all of them would gladly live in Forbes Park if they had the choice to do so.

In truth, tens of millions of Filipinos live in harm’s way. That is the penalty for being born poor, that is the inheritance they receive from their parent generations who were born the same way. Those born dirt-poor and landless are not exempted from the rules of life. They need to live on land, they need to breathe and drink, and will get sick and die without the proper shelter. But the poor and landless cannot stay on land that they do not own – unless government or a landowner did not place enough value on that land to secure it. Thus, they invariably stay along the seashores where they fish to eat, along river banks where they can draw water, no matter how dirty, or near slopes of hills or mountains where they can plant and where there may be springs that they can reach for their water needs. In other words, poor Filipinos HAVE to live in danger zones because that is a necessary feature of poverty.

Those who live by the sea are harmed or die when typhoons hit their areas. Those who live by the slopes are harmed or die when landslides swallow them. Those who live by canals, drainage and river banks are harmed or die when floods overwhelm them. And those who stay in cities build inner communities on squatted land and face the horror of fires. That is the destiny of the very poor in the Philippines. And they cannot get out, they cannot find work abroad, because they cannot get travel documents.

Ever since I understood the life and plight of our poorest brothers and sisters in the Philippines, a learning I must thank my Gawad Kalinga advocacy for, I have tried to be one voice for them. There are many who heap the blame of poverty on the poor as though living a life full of fear, indignity and need is a choice. There are many who will use as an example poor people who managed to climb out of the hole they were born in to claim that those who cannot do the same are simply lazy or stupid. There are all kinds of justification why the poor are poor, including how God wants them to be poor. When people who can help do not help, they have to wiggle out of their wrongdoing by pinning the blame on the poor themselves.

Wrongdoing? It seems like a harsh word, wrongdoing. Yet, in a country of Christians and Muslims, not helping the poor is considered wrong. In fact, the Bible tells us in more ways than one that those who do not give food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, clothes to the naked, succor to the sick cannot be allowed to enter heaven. But I guess that is not as important as the RH Bill, whether one is for or against. Poverty is not worth the passionate attention that condoms get.

Until an Ondoy comes, until a Sendong comes, until a monsoon rain-with-no-name comes. Filipinos have to be shocked with acts of God to feel through their apathy. We have to see great destruction and suffering before our numbed consciences are pricked. With disasters that cause many deaths and awesome damage, we can then think of the poor who are the first victims.

Rescuing the poor families by getting them out of very dangerous areas, even forcibly, is saving their lives. But their inherited suffering must also be addressed with great understanding and a deep sense of justice. Beyond that, as people of faith, kindness is the virtue we are asked to bestow on them. We cannot force them out of their areas just to make them pay a penalty that they do not deserve. We cannot chain them from one form of slavery to another. We cannot save them from one hell to bring them into another.

Our impoverished Filipinos deserve a break. Centuries of destitution not of their own doing must be confronted and dismantled. This is what I mean by biting the bullet, that Philippine society cannot be defined as uncaring, as selfish in the face of suffering, that there is no price we must be afraid to pay to rescue our own people from a fate that tortures them daily. We are wrapped in a collective curse that will deny us peace, that will deny us prosperity, that will deny us success in our pursuit of happiness. That is the nature of a curse – that it will always deny us the final victory. And, today, justice, courage and kindness can free us at last.

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