“I know you know what is happening to us. You might have seen it on television. But it seems that rich people are more important to you. What will happen to us?” – a resident’s message to President Benigno Aquino III
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Nearly every day, residents of Cupang in Muntinlupa City face the threat of demolition. Whenever they would see policemen roaming near their community, one of the residents, Isabelita Laurente, 70, would make them sign a waiver that there would be no demolition.
“But the assurance is only for that day. Tomorrow is a different arena,” Laurente told Bulatlat.com.
Their community in Carmina Homes has been on the news recently when its residents blocked the East Service Road, which is parallel to the South Luzon Expressway, to stop the demolition team. Residents said they were only given three days notice to tear down their homes.
But Laurente said residents will fight for their right to remain in the community.
Laurente has been residing in Carmina Homes since she married her now late husband Teodoro in 1985. They were employed by a certain Col. Cuaresma to serve as “caretaker” of the land. Their task, she said, is to help families who want to build their homes in the land and collect P50 ($1.16) from them monthly. Laurente said the monthly payment is used to pay for the real estate tax.
“We covered the swampy parts with soil and stones to even the roads. We developed the community,” she said.
Over the years, more and more families arrived in the community to build their homes. Most of them are minimum wage earners and contractual workers employed in nearby factories. Laurente said that with the demolition at hand, many do not want to leave their homes because they have nowhere to go to and would be displaced far from their work.
“We barricaded the community. We blocked the way. We did not want to cause trouble. We just wanted people in authority to look into our situation. They will demolish our homes without a decent relocation. Where are we going to go? Where are we going to get food?” 50-year-old Lourdes Baylon, a friend of Laurente and a resident of Carmina Homes, said.
Laurente said that in 1988, a certain Sonia Lim was claiming the land and even presented a land title to prove her claim. The case went on for nine years. During this time, residents stopped paying their P50 ($1.16) monthly share for the land’s real estate tax.
“I did not collect anymore because of the ongoing case. I did not know where to remit the money I would be able to collect. I do not want to get into trouble,” she said.
Laurente said that from 1989 to 1995, Cuaresma paid the real estate tax out of his own pocket. But after he won the case in 1997, Cuaresma stopped paying the tax. Laurente said she does not have any idea why. “I could only speculate. Maybe he ran out of money because of the hearings that went on for almost nine years. I cannot be sure.”
When Cuaresma died in 2004, Laurente said, Lim once again filed a case to reclaim the disputed land. This time, Lim sued residents who are members and leaders of the Samahan ng Magkakabitbahay (Neighborhood Association), of which Laurente is a board member, on grounds of unlawful detainer that means “one unlawfully withholds possession thereof after the expiration or termination of his right to hold possession under any contract, express or implied.”
Residents’ legal battle
In 2004, residents faced their legal battle against Lim. Samahan ng Magkakapitbahay president Renato Lopez hired Leonor Hernandez to be their lawyer to replace their former lawyer who went to the United States to have his cancer treated.
“I cannot promise that you can have this land because it is already owned by somebody else. But I will still help you. And I will not render my service for free,” Laurente said, quoting Hernandez as saying in one of their community meetings, adding that members contributed $11.9 each to pay for Hernandez’s acceptance fee for the case.
Hernandez, according to Baylon, asked residents to sign an attendance sheet. But, she said, she, along with some others, did not sign. Later on, it was presented as a proof that majority of the residents are in favor of a compromise agreement and that they would be given $857 if they will leave the area.
With this, residents lost their case that year and it was subsequently followed by a demolition order in November 2010.
The following year, Laurente said, she resigned as board member of Samahan ng Magkakapitbahay. “Lopez is its president and acts as if he is also the vice president, the secretary and the treasurer of our local organization,” she said.
Laurente expressed her doubts on Lopez’s honesty when it comes to handling the organization’s funds. He has, she added, a long history of spending the group’s fund, which ranged from $71 to $666, for his personal interests.
“He has no work but he has his own house and lot in Cavite. He has his own car and can send his children to a private school,” Baylon told Bulatlat.com.
Instead, they established another neighborhood association, San Isidro Labrador, to help them counter the demolition order. The court eventually granted them a 15-day temporary restraining order, which was extended for another 20 days.
“Eventually we were granted a status quo order. Since then we have been living here,” Baylon added.
Determined to fight
Baylon said residents are determined and ready to fight for the land, despite uncertainties of who is really behind the demolition and who actually owns the land. The attempt to demolish their homes last July 1, she added, invoked the November 2010 demolition order.
The mere threat of a demolition, she added, has brought a lot of problems to their family. Baylong said her husband, who works as an air-conditioning unit technician for a bus company, was not able to report for work for several days now.
“It would be a big problem come pay day. How can I send my children to school,” Baylon said.
She said that while more than 100 families have agreed to accept the reported $857 that the land claimant Lim was offering, a lot has regretted that they voluntarily demolished their homes because not a single cent was given to them.
Residents who heeded the demands of Lim were later on promised that they will get $357 instead. But it was still not given to them. Because of this, there were families who were forced to leave their community empty handed. Others built make shift tents while waiting for the money that was promised to them.
“Our organization has already asked for the help of Vice President Jejomar Binay. One of the lawyers there told us that if there is no relocation, no demolition should take place,” Baylon said.
Baylon also recalled that in 1997, 120 families were offered relocation in Sta. Rosa, Laguna. “But residents did not accept this because the land parallel to the relocation site did not grant it a right of way. How will they go there?”
“We do not know why they are in a rush to demolish our homes. But if you look around, there are a lot of condominium units that are being constructed nearby,” Baylon said.
Police are still roaming their community. But Laurente and Baylon promised that they would never let their guard down. To President Aquino, Baylon said, “I know you know what is happening to us. You might have seen it on television. But it seems that rich people are more important to you. What will happen to us?”