Wasteland Trawling: The Path of Smokey Mountain Development

When the SMDRP was first launched, the government promised to transform the garbage dump into a paradise, with adequate housing, jobs, and livelihood training. The current condition of Smokey Mountain indicates otherwise. The promised jobs have not materialized, and the housing is substandard and costly.

Philippine Collegian
Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 46, December 23, 2007 – January 5, 2008

The worn stereo crackled as Fe de los Santos , president of the activist women’s organization GABRIELA– Smokey Mountain chapter, spoke into a microphone. “Bumaba kayo dito,” she called. “Kailangan nating pag-usapan ang nalalapit na eviction niyo.” (Come down here. We have to talk about your impending eviction.)

She gazed up at the five floors of the building’s dim interior, which contrasts sharply with its bright orange façade. Other low-cost housing buildings in Smokey Mountain are similarly colored, from blue to pink to green, an incongruous sight in an area of Tondo, which is notorious for its bleak conditions.

As De los Santos spoke, people began trickling down the stairs. Years ago, they had signed a contract with the National Housing Authority (NHA) that made them official beneficiaries of a housing project, but now they could no longer afford their “low-cost” units. Thus, they were keen to learn about the finer points of the contract that most of them were unfamiliar with. Beneath them, within the foundations of the buildings, are layers of trash, hidden beneath the cement. A stench lingers, along with the signs of extreme poverty that the government, in spite of its efforts and promises, has not eradicated.

Trash talk

Smokey Mountain, where Metro Manila had disposed its waste for decades, consists of two million tons of garbage, rising in some areas to a height of 12 stories. Originally known as Barrio Magdaragat, the surrounding area and water was soon polluted. Former fishermen lost their livelihood and turned to trash scavenging. Other informal settlers quickly followed until the population ballooned to over 200,000 families.

Government attempts at relocation did more harm than good. During the Marcos administration, the Tondo Urban Development Project moved the informal settlers to Batangas, more than a hundred kms. south of Manila, where they lived in overcrowded quarters with no electric or water utilities. The lack of jobs in the province eventually forced them to return to the city to earn a living in Smokey Mountain.

Later, the Aquino administration conducted feasibility studies. Acknowledging the lack of funds, the government conceived of an alternative plan. A private company would shoulder the cost of developing Smokey Mountain by constructing low-cost housing units. In return, the company would receive sole discretion over a reclaimed area in Smokey Mountain.

The Ramos administration inherited the concept and acted upon it. The NHA and R-II Builders, a construction firm, signed an agreement for the Smokey Mountain Development and Reclamation Project (SMDRP). The program aimed to develop the garbage dump into a residential and commercial area.

Under Reghis Romero II, a wealthy businessman with links to then-President Fidel Ramos, R-II
Builders spent millions of pesos on the construction of 21 five-story buildings, with around 20 units
per floor.

However, R-II Builders built fewer units than the 1993 contract required, and at one point required additional funding, which was sourced from various government agencies including the Overseas Worker Welfare Administration.

Yet, the government continuously renewed the SMDRP contract with R-II Builders. During the Arroyo administration, a Senate committee challenged the legality of the SMDRP contract, noting that R-II Builders failed to complete the project throughout three administrations. The Supreme Court, however, upheld the legality of the SMDRP on August 2007, and awarded 79 hectares of reclaimed land to R-II Builders.

Business as usual

Despite such legal and political maneuverings, residents began signing contracts with the NHA as early as 2001. The contracts stipulated that the signatories were buyers of housing units, which were payable over a 30-year period. The contract was in Filipino, but lengthy queues during the procedure compelled people to sign without reading, eager to move into the housing units dubbed as “ Paradise Heights.”

Ramos declared, to much praise from the international community, that the SMDRP was a victory in the fight against poverty. The succeeding Estrada administration touted the signatories of the contract as “awardees.”

The “award,” however, was not free housing for the Smokey Mountain community, but a contract that only reaffirmed their right to purchase a unit. Residents complained, at the meeting with GABRIELA, that only a few of the units have running water or electricity. They lambasted the “poor” construction, inadequate ventilation, and leaky roofs of the units. Diseases like tuberculosis and dengue spread quickly in the cramped conditions.

They traded stories of poverty. A man moved to the fifth floor after suffering a stroke, because the upper units are cheaper, though he could barely climb the stairs. A couple divided their unit into three and rented each portion separately, despite the restricted space and the ban on renting out a room. Furthermore, eviction without notice is the stated penalty for violating the contract rules, which include paying the NHA at the beginning of each month.

The rates are supposedly socialized, yet the cost of taxes and additional expenses often amounts to more than the principal payment itself. There is the standard housing tax, the penalty tax and loan interest for late payments, and the monthly fire insurance. Also, older residents are charged higher rates, since they presumably have less than 30 years to complete their payments.

As a result, a principal payment of P600 can be bloated up to P1,400. “Ginagawang negosyo ng gobyerno,” (The government is making money out of this.) said Des Abiao, a Smokey Mountain resident and GABRIELA organizer. “Tumutubo sila sa pamumuhay naming mahihirap.” (They profit from the livelihood of the poor.)

Problematic politics

The recent purported distribution of cash gifts by Malacañang to congressmen and local politicians has reinforced the Smokey Mountain community’s distrust of the government and contractors.

“May kwento ako sa inyo tungkol kay Romero,” (I have a story to tell about Romero.) said De los Santos during the meeting. The people listened as she told of Senator Panfilo Lacson’s claim that part of the money used to finance the handouts had come from Romero’s bank account. This, said Lacson, was deposited by the Department of Budget and Management in partial payment for the P3 billion ($72,254,335 at an exchange rate of $1=P41.52) collectible of R-II Builders from government. Romero denied the accusation.

Abiao lamented, “Ang dami sanang ibang pinaggamitan ng perang ‘yon. Puwedeng sa malinis na tubig, dagdag na tirahan, clinic para sa buntis, o kaya palaruan para sa bata.” (That money could have had many other uses. It could have been used to provide safe, clean water, additional housing units, maternal and child care clinics or playground for children.)

When the SMDRP was first launched, the government promised to transform the garbage dump into a paradise, with adequate housing, jobs, and livelihood training. The current condition of Smokey Mountain indicates otherwise. The promised jobs have not materialized, and the housing is substandard and costly.

After the meeting, members of the community gathered around GABRIELA representatives, asking them for help and advice. They have no one else to turn to, for the current and past administrations, along with RII Builders, failed to fulfill the terms of the SMDRP.

Corruption flourishes in the upper echelon of government and businesses. The consequence is unalleviated poverty for the masses who are promptly forgotten in the muddled state of affairs. Philippine Collegian/posted by Bulatlat

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