Surveying squatters

When hear the word “squatter”, the images that come to mind are those that have been formed over the years by mindless movie and television scripts, ignorant government reports, and shallow social science.  These accounts tell us of a strange migratory breed of people, who multiply like rabbits and lead dissolute lives, who have no respect for private property, and who steal their food, their water, and electricity.  They tell us of nomadic clans from distant regions who have no concept of stable work, no desire to change their situation,  or uplift their lives by self-reliant and legitimate efforts.

They show us pictures of social parasites permanently dependent on the charity of others, derelicts without any visible social function, marginalized human beings so burdened by their own apathy, illiteracy, and lack of ambition that they seem incurably fated to reproduce their own culture of poverty.

At the height of the 1992 presidential campaign, contingency plucked a squatter named Mang Pandoy from anonymity and made him the icon of the country’s urban poor.  His story caught the imagination of the entire nation mostly because it satisfied in a dramatic way our own stereotyped image of the Filipino squatter.  He had come from the Visayas, tried his luck in the city, but had now reached what seemed like a dead end. He was sick, defeated and desperate.  Nongovernment organizations (NGO) activists welcomed the public attention showered on Mang Pandoy, but they were bothered that the dole-out approach to his situation perpetuated a misperception of the urban poor’s needs and  circumstances.

My wife, Karina, who heads an NGO called Hasik (Harnessing Selfreliant Initiatives and Knowledge), told me that no one among the organizations operating in Quezon City District 2, where Mang Pandoy lived, knew about him.  No one could tell how many were like him, for there were no existing systematically-gathered data on the urban poor of Metro Manila.  Yet various forms of social intervention in the name of the urban poor were being launched on the basis of such images as those exemplified by Mang Pandoy.

Many of these images are nothing but myths, says Hasik in a report of a path-breaking survey it recently undertook of Quezon City’s urban poor.  The findings, from a sample of 1,826 families, are significant, for they contradict the most tenacious impressions we hold of the Filipino squatter.

  1. Against the view that they are mostly recent migrants from distant rural parts of the country, the study shows that 51% of those surveyed were born in Metro Manila. Which provinces then does the balikprobinsya program expect them to return to?
  2. These are not the large extended households we imagine them to be. The average household size is only slightly more than 5.  Far from spawning children like mushrooms, 76% of the families do practice family planning.  They care about their children’s health and education.  More than 80% of all the children have had all the necessary vaccinations.  And more than 75% of their  children of school age are enrolled in school.  These are not simple-minded people; they prefer news and public affairs programs on TV over soap operas and variety shows.
  3. They are far from being idle. Sixty-three per cent of those employable have jobs, even if these jobs are mostly in the so-called informal sector of the economy.  The top 5 jobs are: vendor, clotheswasher, factory worker, construction worker, and driver.  Where would the bourgeoisie be without these workers?  Urban poor incomes, at an average of P7400 per month, however, fall below the poverty line, but that is hardly their fault.  Against all odds, more than half of the households surveyed keep savings.
  4. We sometimes complain that electricity and water rates are what they are because the utility firms pass on the losses from stolen water and electricity to paying consumers. And we assume that the poor do not pay.    Fifty per cent of the urban poor households have their own meter, and 9% pay collectively to Meralco.   Forty-one per cent are illegally connected.  Yet, 88% of those illegally connected are paying to someone; they are not getting it free.  On the other hand, water continues to be a major problem.  Only 27% have their own meter.  Of the 73% without meter, a good number (77%), buy daily from private owners.  No, the big water and electricity thieves are not squatters but corporations.
  5. Logically, a squatter is defined by non-ownership of the land being occupied. Only 2% of those surveyed claimed they had a title to their homelot.  But it would be unfair to label all the remaining 98% as squatters.  Among these, 65% said they had rights but no papers, 19% claimed rights backed by documents, one-half per cent were on the Community Mortgage Program, and only 14% said they just occupied the land.

In an earlier time, no one was a squatter on these islands.  Then successive governments began to farm out vast tracts of land to favored individuals, religious orders, and corporations.  These lands were often already cleared and settled by ordinary folk.  But their presence was ignored, and the lands were promptly titled to the new owners.  The ordinary folk never left the land, but the land left them. Today, we may not be close to giving them back the land, but we should not delay giving them back their pride.


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