Where They Live Is How They Die

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

If there is a God, then He will bring disaster after disaster to the Philippines. He will have little choice but to do it. It remains the gentler way through which He can trigger change, much kinder than war and violence for the same purpose.
I accompanied the Gawad Kalinga leadership to Cagayan de Oro and iligan Cily the other day so we could best determine with local volunteers the most effective way to help with our limited resources. In the heat of a disaster that has just struck and afflicted great numbers, there is that understandable flurry of help activities from many sectors beginning with government to NGOs and simply ordinary citizens who want to help. There is also that burst of concern, sympathy and resources generated abroad among Filipinos living in foreign lands. Yes, disaster reminds us we are brothers and sisters after all, and the fate of one necessarily affects the other.

When the exhaustion of being in the center of relief work forces this senior citizen to rest, I cannot help but see a tapestry of a situation that is truly just one even though it may look like separate events. I refer to disasters and how often they strike and how consistently they target the poor. I am not talking about the wrath of nature, I am talking about her victims, I am talking almost always about the poor.

Coincidentally enough, a fire hit a community of informal settlers in Iligan City around 2003 and prompted the mayor the with the infant movement, Gawad Kalinga or GK, to build a new community for them. That community, called GK Missionville, still stands. But an even earlier community built on a former garbage dump in the same city was destroyed by the floods of Typhoon Sendong. This is a lesson we have long learned – do not build on former garbage dumps. It is not just the sanitation problem, it is an expression that the poor are severely undervalued and a garbage dunp is good enough for them.

After that fire, GK went to relief and rehabilitation work in Pinut-an Island of Souther Leyte when landslides hit three towns, Liloan, san Ricardo and San Francisco. This was quickly followed by the great fire of Baseco in early 2004. Razed to the ground, the old colony of informal settlers numbering over 5,000 families went into shock and paralyzed even their traditional pattern of violence there. When GK started building homes and communities, Baseco had a record of 28 unsolved murders just the year before. All these post-disaster relief and reconstruction work prepared GK for the great disaster at the end of 2004 when four typhoons hit Luzon in a period of three weeks. GK waded into the most massive relief and reconstruction work of its young history, concentrating in Mindoro, Bicol, Quezon, Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya and Isabela.

There have been other disasters since then, of course, where I have participated in helping with relief and rebuilding work. It seems non-stop with a recurring face and story. Disaster is mostly the face of the poor. Because they are landless and can stay only in areas which are undesirable or of no value to the rest of society, the poor invariably have four favorite habitats – seashores (without white sands), river banks and canals, upland slopes, and squatter colonies in urban areas. By their choice of where to stay, the poor also choose their most probable way of dying. Those who live in seashores are killed by typhoons. Those who live along river banks and canals are killed by floods. Those who live along the upland slopes are killed by landslides. And those who build colonies in the cities are killed by fire. Those who escape live lives shortened by illness, malnutrition and inner city violence.

Disaster do not spare the rich, or the not-so-poor. Some are killed as well. But the places where their homes are situated can withstand natural calamities better, more insulated from floods, fires and landslides and more resistant to the winds and rains of typhoons. I do not have figures but have a good memory of the social terrain of disasters where I was personally exposed to because of my Gawad Kalinga advocacy. I have seen the ratio of rich and poor victims of disaster and they follow closely the economic brackets. If one thousand have perished so far in CDO and Iligan, I can venture to assume that victims will be 9 poor to 1 rich, or even higher for the poor. That is why there are many who are intuitively drawn to sympathize and help – because they know that the victims are mostly, and often, only the poor. If disaster strikes Forbes Park or Ayala Alabang, there would be sympathy, of course, if there are many deaths – but money will be raised for them, food packs prepared and distributed, or boxes of used clothes and blankets shipped to them.

When death and destruction stare us in the face, our souls cringe from empathy and our hearts are awakened enough to immediately help. But the last eight years of post-disaster intervention has shown me, and will show me again with CDO and Iligan, that most who help today will shirt their attention to their daily concerns pretty soon and that empathy for the plight of victims, for the plight of the poor, will fade away until the next great tragedy. It is not that they are less humane, I believe. It might be that the natural caring for one another is largely absent in a country where solidarity among Filipinos is virtually non-existent outside of catastrophic situations. The clear lack of a sense of nation manifests itself in a clear lack of concern for one another as a people in our day-to-day lives. That is why poverty persists over extended periods, over centuries, without a sense of urgency to solve the legacy of poverty.

If there is a God, He has to intervene, to find ways to make us understand we are one people, one Filipino race, that rich and poor are not the same but not different enough to live and die in such ugly contrasting ways. So far, God chooses natural calamities to remind us. Let us not force Him to find more painful ways. It is Christmas, we might hear better this time.

“There is always a philosophy for lack of courage.” —
Albert Camus


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