Why the poor come to the city

The P-Noy administration’s plan to clear Metro Manila’s esteros and waterways of informal settlers by offering them money and resettlement is commendable. But it is nothing new. Past administrations devised all kinds of schemes to entice families living in these unsafe areas to go back to their provinces. But, even before the flood and typhoon season was over, the same families, plus new ones, trickled back to the same danger zones to rebuild their shanties. This is not hard to understand. The city is where the livelihood opportunities, the schools, the hospitals, and the future of their children are to be found.

What was lacking in all previous efforts to solve the squatting problem in the metropolis is a willful long-term program to develop the countryside. The stress is on the word “willful” because the basic components of such a program are not as difficult to imagine as they are to implement. It entails, first of all, giving rural families who live on the produce of the land enough reason to continue in agriculture instead of abandoning their farms and migrating to the city. It also includes giving these families the technical and financial support they need to embark on rural enterprises to augment their incomes. Perhaps, most important of all, it means building more schools and health facilities for a growing rural population.

This approach to rural development is so conventional that one can’t help belaboring the obvious. Even so, it has to be repeated if only because some problems become so normalized that they turn into blind spots. This particular problem has been with us since the end of World War II.

The first squatter colonies in Metro Manila arose with the rebuilding of the city from the devastation of the war. Large numbers of construction workers were recruited from the nearby Central Luzon provinces and later from Southern Tagalog, Bicol, and the Visayas. The farther from Manila they came, the more they felt they had to take the whole family with them to the big city. Here they put up their frail shanties next to the very construction sites in which they worked.

The longer it took to finish a construction project, the greater the chance that a new community would sprout in its shadow. While the workers from Pampanga and Bulacan typically went home on weekends to be with their families, work schedules would sometimes keep them in the city longer than expected. In such instances, their wives knew that they would have to follow if they wished to prevent the risk of a second family being formed in the city by a wayward husband.

The concentration of development in Manila and its immediate environs came at the expense of the surrounding provinces. Instead of investing their money in the countryside, the landowning provincial rich brought their wealth to the city where they bought homes and acquired cheap real estate in what was then the sprawling suburb of Quezon City. As Manila quickly recovered from the war, the old prosperous towns that had formed the nuclei of the countryside economy progressively shrank.

Personal progress came to be equated with movement to the only city that kept growing—Manila. It was only much later, when an increasing number of overseas Filipino workers began remitting their earnings from abroad, that the major provincial towns came to life again and became hubs of commerce and higher education.

Ironically, OFW remittances failed to inject dynamism into the rural economy. Indeed, the culture of overseas work killed agriculture. The lure of travel, easy cash, and the prospects of personal autonomy drove young people to seek opportunities abroad. They quickly lost their taste for farming and for the artisan crafts that had sustained their ancestors. Families pawned their small farms and sold their work animals to raise money to pay labor recruiters for overseas jobs.

But, as important, the social organization of the local community had shifted dramatically. The traditional barrio that revolved around the church, the market, and the school was replaced by the more politically oriented barangay. The barangay unit functioned more as a structure of control in the service of higher authority than an organ of self-government in the service of the local community. Instead of being insulated from partisan politics, the barangay was totally coopted by the political system.

All this is crucial to an understanding of the unabated flow of the rural poor to the city. Nothing much can hold them in the old communities in which they were born; nothing of value remains that can draw them back. The ties of solidarity that once bound people together in these communities have loosened so much that they have lost any power to confer identity.

It is no different in Metro Manila. The barangays of the urban poor are not communities so much as they are vote-getting machines and organs of patronage. Assigned some powers as basic units of government, they operate as just another layer of rent-seekers in a corrupt system. Indeed it is they who facilitate and profit from the influx of informal settlers into the city. Unless the national government can make them accountable for every illegal structure built in their jurisdiction, there is no way of keeping this problem from recurring.

Illegal settlers in the city are just the most visible face of Philippine poverty. Any attempt to reduce their number can only succeed ultimately by eliminating the roots of rural poverty—landlessness, the unabated plunder of natural resources, lawlessness and warlordism, and government neglect of agriculture.