The rise and rise of Manila’s informal settlers

Mong Palatino

bu-op-icons-mongThe government is always claiming that the number of poor is decreasing but it cannot deny the phenomenal growth of informal settlers across the country, especially in Metro Manila, in the past decade. According to a study cited by the government-funded Philippine Institute for Development Studies, about 5 percent of Metro Manila residents were living in informal settlements in 2003. The figure went up to more than 10 percent in 2009. Two years later, the Department of Interior and Local Government submitted a report to Malacanang placing the number of informal settlers at 2.7 million or about 25 percent of Metro Manila’s population.

What did these figures prove? First, they highlighted the utter failure of the government’s Balik Probinsiya, social housing, and relocation programs. Second, poverty cannot be adequately measured by family income and household consumption. And third, wealth disparity has worsened between the rural and urban regions, and among the social classes.

It is convenient to blame runaway population growth for the rapid rise in the number of the poor; and in fact, this argument is consistently used to justify population control measures. But this reasoning puts the blame entirely on the poor without addressing the historic inequities and structural defects in society. It must be emphasized that babymaking is not a supreme evil that must be exorcised.

Perhaps a better way to explain the poverty situation in Metro Manila as a starting point is to link it with other social catastrophes such as super typhoon Yolanda and the devastation these caused in the provinces. Weather disturbances and environment disasters are undeniably great factors that contribute to the cycle of inter-generational poverty in the country.

Days after Yolanda wrought havoc in the Visayas, thousands of desperate and traumatized residents fled the region and escaped to Manila. The exodus is poignant since it reflected the historic migration of our people from the countryside to Imperial Manila. We were instantly reminded that rural villagers who chose to settle in Manila (and they compose majority of informal settlers) were probably no different from Yolanda victims who were forced to leave their homes because of unexpected dire circumstances.

Yolanda displaced thousands of Warays and many of them sought refuge in Manila. It is safe to assume that deadly typhoons in recent years such as Pablo, Sendong, Pepeng, Reming, and Frank also forced many farmers and fisherfolk in the typhoon-ravaged provinces to find shelter in Manila.

But extreme weather events are just one of the reasons why informal settlers have grown considerably in the past decade. It cannot explain why the ‘transient poor’ within Metro Manila have become ‘chronic poor’ in a just a few years.

Manila is not an urban paradise or even a livable habitat by international standards; but economic opportunities are unfairly concentrated here. Right or wrong, it is perceived as a better place to live than in the provinces plagued by hunger, malnutrition, militarization, and feudal exploitation. Case in point is boxing champion Manny Paquiao who left Sarangani as a young stowaway in search of a better life in Manila despite the pristine waters, fertile fields, and mineral-rich mountains of his hometown.

The rise of informal settlers in the past decade actually coincided with the mainstreaming of neoliberal policies in various aspects of governance and in the handling of the local economy. The number of homeless and jobless poor swelled in the era of contractualization and unlamented decline of the manufacturing sector. There is a direct link between factory shutdowns and increased pauperization in the former semi-industrial enclaves and working-class districts in various parts of Metro Manila.

Then, the cost of living dramatically surged after the government turned over the operations of public utilities to big business. Higher prices, regressive taxes, and depressed wages became the new norm in a supposedly democratizing and modernizing middle-income society.

Privatization became a methodical blueprint to weaken unions while facilitating the systematic cash transfer from ordinary consumers to the very few mega corporations which control the economy. Development is insanely equated with the billions hoarded by the elite at the expense of the toiling poor.

Meanwhile, land conversions and dubious land reform deals forced many farmers and their families to eke out a living in the city. After years or even decades of subsistence living, many small farmers finally lost their livelihood when cheap and smuggled agricultural products flooded the local market while they receive negligible assistance from the government.

But Metro Manila’s embarrassing poverty is partly hidden by the frenzied construction of residential condominiums, call center hubs, and malls. They are false icons of progress but quite effective in masking the burgeoning poverty in the metropolis.

Unfortunately, informal settlers are not seen as victims of the mad rush to achieve high GDP but recidivist violators of property rights. They are castigated for blocking the growth process by refusing to leave their homes, which have been suddenly rezoned as prime commercial centers.

Today, the poor are given two options: return to the province or relocate to a remote housing area. They are told to self-demolish (actually, there’s no such thing as self-demolition. It is demolition). But they always have the choice to refuse the lesser evil. Indeed, their labor is belittled and their intellectual capacity is ignored in mainstream society; but they can use their collective strength to strike fear in the hearts and minds of their oppressors. They can fight the inhumanity of poverty caused by decades of exploitation and uneven distribution of wealth in society. They can organize their ranks and resist development aggression projects. They can challenge the violent machinations of the state. They can smash the structures of elitist power. In other words, they have every right to avail of the ultimate alternative: Revolution!

Evicting Metro Manila’s informal settlers is defended by bureaucrats and technocrats as a necessity so that we can proceed with our nation-building and wealth creation activities. But informal settlers are not the problem. They are actually part of the solution to the long-pestering crisis afflicting our sad republic. (

Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. Email:

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