Page 7, 6th January 1989

6th January 1989
Page 7
Page 7, 6th January 1989 — Back to basics in the Philippines

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Locations: Manila, Medellin, Davao City


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Back to basics in the Philippines

The urban poor are organising themselves against the bulldozers. Nicholas Dunne reports

CELESTINA is an active member of her local basic Christian community. Now aged 53, she has lived in Manila since the age of 21. In that time, like the other million and a quarter residents of the capital city (one in four of the population) who are squatters, she has never had a secure home. The word for "eviction" in the Philippines is "demolition". The dictionary defines "to demolish" as "to knock to pieces, to destroy utterly." Celestina has experienced demolition 18 times.

In 1985, her neighbours in the squatter community of Pook Ricarte, on the northern outskirts of the city, were faced with demolition. The community was an established one. Some residents had lived there for over 20 years. The landowners, the prestigious University of the Philippines, had new plans. They wanted the squatters to leave.

In the process of "demolition" there are a number of stages. First, if the landlord has been collecting a rent from the squatters, collections cease. Any financial benefit this brings to the squatters is offset by the loss of what tenuous recognition their status as rent-paying tenants had given. Like a cool breeze before a tropical storm, it is a warning.

The next stage is the instruction to leave. Some landlords give several days notice. Others just three hours. This is the moment of decision for residents. Do they accept the loss of their houses but save their belongings? Do they travel to the relocation site if one is offered, even though it is far from their jobs with no existing facilities and no greater security of tenure? Do they take the chance of being able to rebuild their homes in another established squatter community? Do they stay and fight the demolition?

If they stay and fight and win their homes will be safe, for a while. If they fight and lose, their homes and their possessions will all be crushed by the bulldozers. Either way staying risks injury and death. Can parents ask that of their children?

It is a terrible decision for a family to have to make. More so if it has to be taken alone. Prayer is central to the majority of people's lives. Most homes have a small shrine, with statues of Our Lady prominent. It is often the family custom to pray together each morning. Since the late 1970s, it has also been common for groups of families to meet together regularly for Bible study, prayer, and the sharing of everyday problems and experiences. These arc the Basic Christian Communities (BCCs).

In 1985, the BCCs in Pook Ricarte were an important forum within which families could discuss the impending demolition. Discussion led to resolution led to action. The residents decided to stay and face the bulldozers.

On the morning of February 4, 1985 the demolition crews prepared to move in, supported by 200 heavily armed troops. The residents had been joined by families from the neighbouring squatter communities of Pook Dagohoy, Old Balara, Daang Tubo and many others together with students from the University of the Philippines, Maryknoll College and Ateneo University. Celestina was there too.

"It was a bloody demolition. The military fired on the people. Two were shot. There were dozens of injured."

Nonetheless, the resistance was successful. Only a few buildings were demolished before the troops and bulldozers were forced to withdraw. The community had survived intact, and the demolition has remained officially "delayed" to this day. The Philippines is a Catholic country, a collection of islands colonised by the Spanish in the 16th Century, then ceded to the USA after the Spanish-American war in 1898. Although granted full independence in 1946 it remains firmly under America's influence. When a visitor comments on the bewildering mixture of the religious and the commercial in popular culture, the common response is "What do you expect from a country that has spent 300 years in a convent and 50 in Hollywood?"

But if much of the image is Disneylike, the realities of everyday life are far more serious. The 20-year rule of ex-President Marcos was characterised by government corruption and military terror. Civil war in rural areas, against the Communist New People's Army and, in the South, against Moslem secessionists polarised communities and led to more draconian responses from state and rebels. In 1986 Cory Aquino won the presidential election despite widespread vote-rigging by the supporters of Marcos. Peaceful demonstrations in Manila denied Marcos the military support he needed to stay in office. "People Power" became a sign of hope throughout the world for those believing peaceful change was possible in countries suffering corrupt and brutal government. It brought Cory Aquino to the presidency, but the country's problems still remain. The ranks of the urban poor continue to swell with people fleeing the fighting in the provinces. Mrs Aquino is sympathetic to their needs but, as one nun asked her after receiving her support for a project to pipe water into her slum community, "what kind of country do we live in if the poor have to ask the President for water?"

In 1969 the Bishops Conference at Medellin, Colombia gave its support to experiments in the Latin American Church which were building hundreds of base ecclesial communities in the region. Maryknoll missionaries working in the southern islands of the Philippines decided to adopt these ideas and initiate a programme in Mindanao. By 1971 the first Philippine-based Basic Christian Communities had the official recognition of the Catholic Church.

A BCC was formed by a priest nun or lay catechist gathering together from within the parish a group of up to about 30 families for Bible study novenas and seminars to discuss the latest theological and pastoral developments.

A deteriorating national economy forced many BCCs to broaden their responsibilities. Housing, health and literacy programmes; income-generating projects; credit-unions and marketing cooperatives were among the activities taken up.

BCC members run high risks. The first case of "salvaging" — arrest and summary execution by police or military — was that of two BCC lay leaders in the barrio of Davao City, Mindaneo's capital. Hundreds of BCC Catechists have been arrested, tortured or murdered. "Salvaging" continues even after the People Power revolution.

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