“I call on Aquino to stand up for us and to put a stop to the demolition. Even if we are poor, we are also humans.” – Eunila Borito, resident of Isla Puting Bato
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
ISLA PUTING BATO, Manila – Their house that sits along Manila Bay near the Manila North Harbor is the first home Eunila Borito, 52, has ever had.
“This is our home and this is how we live. But we are happy no matter what happened. At least we are all safe,” Borito told Bulatlat.com.
Borito and her husband Artemio, 46, used to live along the streets, sleeping at the foot of Nagtahan Bridge in Manila. In 2005, Artemio’s relatives told them to build a house in Isla Puting Bato, where they have been living for some three decades now. Though their house sits in the middle of Manila Bay, Borito said, it was a lot better than were they used to live.
In 2006, the Borito family moved to another house, which is nearer to the shore. They bought the house from its previous owner with $23.26 that Borito managed to save from her husband’s meager income as a construction worker. A fire, unfortunately, razed down their community. Borito was not able to save anything except their lives.
They hardly recovered from the incident when another fire razed their community last May 12, 2012. “I just grabbed my two kids and my shoulder bag. My husband panicked and was worried about us so he only managed to grab our two pails and his bike,” she said, “Besides, we do not own that much. We do not have a television set or other appliances to save.”
Borito’s husband Artemio gathered burned wood and started rebuilding their home while their family stayed at the community’s hearing hall. Her family returned to Isla Puting Bato three days after the fire.
But not everyone managed to put up their own houses. They need other materials, which the guards of the Philippine Ports Authority prevent the residents from bringing in. “They do not want us to rebuild our homes. They want to improve the port at our expense,” Borito said.
New plywood, galvanized iron sheets
Like the rest of the families who were affected by the fire, Borito could not bring other materials aside from tarpaulins in order to construct their homes. Her neighbor Isabelita Solayao, 37, said the guards did not allow them to bring plywood inside their community.
“The guards told us that only the residents could go inside. We were forced to sneak in through other ‘entrances’ of Isla Puting Bato. We were like thieves,” Solayao said, “It did not feel right because I have been living here all my life.”
Solayao said she is determined to go back to her house in Isla Puting Bato because of the difficulties in living in Delpan Sports Complex, where all the other affected families were staying. “There is only one restroom that accommodates all of us. We pay $0.23 every time we take a bath in nearby homes. It is very noisy because there are so many of us. We could hardly sleep at night.”
Residents of Isla Putting Bato were forced to use tarpaulins to rebuild their homes. Luzviminda Sulayao, president of Ahon Isla, a local organization of the residents of Isla Puting Bato and a victim of the recent fire, also used tarpaulins to somehow construct a roof above their heads.
“But it is difficult especially now that it is rainy season. During the typhoon last week, we were all soaked,” Mama Luz, as dearly called by her neighbors and colleagues in Ahon Isla, said.
Mama Luz was very happy and thankful that progressive groups came to help them in these dire times. “Groups like Bayan Muna have always been helping us. And now more of them arrived today to bring us galvanized iron sheets and plywood,” she said.
On June 21, progressive groups went to Isla Puting Bato to bring galvanized iron sheets, plywood and coco lumber for families who were victims of the fire. About 35 families benefited from these. During the program in the community covered court, Dr. Genevieve Rivera of the Health Alliance for Democracy said these efforts to help victims of fire in Isla Puting Bato will not be the last.
“Today is a concrete proof that collective and organized action will bring success to our cause. Our assertion to bring these construction materials here in Isla Puting Bato is also the same struggle that our fellow peasants face by tilling disputed lands and what workers are facing,” Anakpawis Rep. Rafael Mariano said.
In a statement, Ahon Isla said “they are simply living out the bayanihan spirit of concerted community action in times of great need. “We joined hand in hand to assert our rights to our homes. We would not want to go back here if we can live somewhere else. We want nothing else but to rebuild our homes,” Mama Luz said.
She said the government’s public private partnership program is behind the ban being imposed by the Philippine Ports Authority on the residents from rebuilding their homes. “They are putting first the interest of these big businesses than the welfare of its people.”
On November 19, 2009, the Manila North Harbor Port Inc. forged an agreement with the government to operate and maintain the Manila North Harbor. The Philippine Ports Authority, on the other hand, has been handling the task of clearing the port of informal settlers such the community of Isla Puting Bato.
Residents said they are not doing anything illegal, citing the Manila City Council Resolution No. 94, Series of 2012 that declares Isla Puting Bato as a “staging area” allowing the residents “to go back to their respective places of abode, construct their houses” until the its local government has found a suitable relocation site.
“This is something that you can just pick up from the streets,” Borito said, happily pointing at the plywood inside their home.
Stay and fight
While there are several families who are still in Delpan Sports Complex and are awaiting their relocation, Mama Luz said they prefer to stay in Isla Puting Bato. Of the 1,300 families who lost their homes because of the fire, she estimated that about 200 would accept the relocation site being offered by the government.
But Mama Luz, Borito and Solayao said they prefer to stay in Isla Puting Bato. “This is where our livelihood is,” Solayao said. Her husband Christopher is a kuliglig (motorized pedicab) driver in Tondo, Manila, “How are we going to survive in Montalban when our source of livelihood is here?”
Mama Luz said residents should be vigilant at all times. With the threat of demolition their community is facing, she told Bulatlat.com, she is skeptical if the fire that razed their community was truly an accident. She added that residents, through Ahon Isla, have formed an initiative to do rounds in their community in case an “accident” would once again burn their homes.
Three days after the fire, three men covered with grease came to their community. They were pouring gasoline over one of the houses when a resident noticed them. “The people ran after them. But they could not catch them. Each time they tried to grab them, it would slip because of the grease. The three men ran toward the sea where a boat was waiting for them,” Mama Luz said.
Mama Luz challenged President Benigno “Noynoy” C. Aquino III to prioritize the calls of his people first. “They only come here when it is election time,” she said, “He said that we are his boss. But now I cannot see how that is happening.”