This photo taken Feb. 10, 2014 from the home of Emmanuel and Maria Rosevilla Margate shows homes left in ruins in Tacloban, Philippines. The family huddled together in their block home Nov. 8, 2013, as Typhoon Haiyan made shambles of many homes in their community. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

Philippines relocation of storm victims like ‘Siberian gulags’

By 
  • May 18, 2015

While Philippines President Benigno Aquino III was in Ottawa signing a May 8 agreement to govern how more than $90 million in Canadian aid is spent, the Canadian bishops’ development agency was holding community meetings in the Philippines trying to ensure local people get new permanent homes close to their jobs, family and community.

Pope Francis Village, sponsored by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, has been inching through the complicated process of approvals and may be ready for shovels in the ground in July and occupancy by 600 to 700 families within a year. The pilot project for permanent housing and jobs is located just six kilometres from downtown Tacloban and one kilometre from the fishing docks.

In the immediate aftermath of 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan, Development and Peace teamed up with the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services to build 1,300 transitional houses. But nearly two years on there are still more than 9,000 homeless in Tacloban City and the local government wants people in transitional housing to move on so it can expand the coastal highway and go ahead with tourism-related development plans.

It plans to move 14,000 poor families to areas outside of Tacloban, 25 kilometres north of the city, where there’s no way for former coconut farmers and fishermen to make a living, said Development and Peace program manager Jess Agustin in an interview from Tacloban.

“They’re saying they’re going to build a satellite city really far away from their source of livelihood,” said Agustin.

Meanwhle, residents of the new government project are already moving back to the city.

“They are abandoning the so-called permanent housing,” Agustin said.

Fr. Denis Murphy of the Catholic Filipino NGO Urban Poor Associates compares the government relocation plans to “Siberian gulags.”

“People living in the relocation areas in Montalban... complained of hunger, violence, including regular killings, an upsurge in drugs, absence of jobs, high transportation costs and often a lack of water, light and sanitation,” Murphy wrote in his May 5 Philippine Daily Inquirer column.

Problems in finding a permanent solution for people further dispossessed by the most violent typhoon to ever make landfall have been complicated by political rivalries and the seeming impossibility of redistributing land, said Agustin.

Local government and local landowners in Tacloban are all connected with the Romualdez-Marcos family, political archenemies of Aquino’s clan currently in power in Manila. The local government complains the national government is withholding reconstruction funds. The national government claims the Tacloban government has not presented proper plans.

“Meanwhile the people are caught in the middle,” said Agustin.

To get around the governmental freeze-up, Development and Peace took the extraordinary step of shopping for real estate. This was a difficult decision because Development and Peace isn’t able to legally own land.

The Canadian agency formed a consortium with the Archdiocese of Palo, local Redemptorist priests, Urban Poor Associates and the Philippine Caritas agency to buy land on the P7 bus line to downtown Tacloban.

“We want to prove to the local government and to the humanitarian organizations that on-site, in-city relocation is possible,” Agustin said. “That they don’t have to throw them like garbage away from the city.”

The Archdiocese of Palo will own the land, holding it in trust for the community that will eventually live there. Residents will manage Pope Francis Village co-operatively.

Once the new site plan has environmental approval, both the local and federal governments will be committed to providing city services, grading the land and other aspects of infrastructure. By using some of the $12 million in contributions Canadians made to Development and Peace after the typhoon, the agency has been able to leverage another $5 million in government commitments to make Pope Francis Village work.

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