Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume 3,  Number 34              September 28 - October 4, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines


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Bagong Lupa: The Village Built from Garbage
(First of two parts)

Nineteen years ago, a tenant farmer from Leyte in central Philippines built a shanty on what was then known as Isla Buga, a dump in Manila’s Port Area. The garbage island has been developed into a full-fledged village by the first settler and other families who also came to occupy it. It has been renamed, appropriately, Barangay Bagong Lupa by city officials who came to the site in 1998. Since then the once quiet community of provincial migrants and urban slumdwellers, now numbering 6,000 families, began a struggle to protect land ownership.

By Zelda DT Soriano

It was like Ferdinand Magellan rediscovering the Philippines centuries ago.

Government officials, playing Magellan's role, found a paradise about five years ago at a point where the Pasig River intersects Manila Bay. The shore is carpeted with white sand and shell fragments. The strip of land points to the horizon where the sun sets beautifully and darkness comes quietly.

Behind it is a familiar metropolitan scene: tall buildings, highways, chimneys, container vans, people, cars and jeepneys.

Barong-barong (shanty) in a Manila slum

From afar, "Isla Buga" found at the tip of the delta protruding from a shipyard of the Romualdez family-owned Bataan Shipyard and Engineering Company (Baseco) in Port Area, Manila, almost looks like a perfect spot for recreation or residence for the rich and famous. But that is not the case, at least for now.

Thirty years ago, Isla Buga was a square-meter garbage dump. Wastes were dumped from government dredging and hauling operations. Along with other trash washed ashore by waves from the river and the sea, these wastes converged and hardened into a stretch of elevated land. Thus became Isla Buga (literally, spewed island).

The island was later bridged over the Baseco mainland by soil and stone fillings courtesy of the island’s early settlers. Most of the first settlers were rural migrants and families displaced from the slum communities by government demolition in different parts of Metro Manila.

Now a 56-hectare stretch of land and mud atop tons of garbage and fillings, Isla Buga has become a full-fledged community of urban poor families.

In 1998, the Manila government entered the scene and initiated a development project with a housing program. Three years later, officials renamed the area as Barangay Bagong Lupa (or new land village).

But as the Magellan story goes, the inhabitants are resisting what to them is an unwelcome entry by authorities and businessmen and are now in engaged in what is growing to be a struggle for the garbage land.

First settler

Roger A. Del Valle, 56, who 19 years ago first stepped foot on what was then known as Isla Buga, remembers the area as just a square-meter tip of hardened garbage. "Putok sa buga" (born out of spontaneous spewing) is how he describes the history of Bagong Lupa.

Mang Roger, a tenant farmer, left his hometown in Leyte central Philippines in 1984, in search of the proverbial greener pasture in Manila. He never found it. Instead, he found himself settling on the heap of garbage. He has lived there since. Lacking in skills that would have earned him a work in a factory in the city, he resorted to fishing near the mouth of the Pasig River leading to Manila Bay. He traded his catch with sailors aboard commercial ships then docking at the port of nearby Baseco for water, rice, clothes and other materials.

With earnings from fishing not enough to be able to rent even the cheapest room in the community across the river, Mang Roger built a makeshift hut made of driftwood and jute sacks on the garbage heap. He played hide-and-seek of sorts: he had to disassemble the hut at the crack of dawn to avoid being spotted by Baseco guards and government soldiers who manned a detachment by the bay.

Edsa Dos in 1986 gave a temporary relief for Mang Roger. The military detachment at the delta was pulled out and the Baseco guards stopped patrolling the area. Believing better times were ahead, he fetched his family from Leyte to join him in his "new-found" land.

Soon, the small garbage heap where Mang Roger and his family settled expanded by accretion. As it got wider and longer in the next several years, people were coming in. Many of the new settlers had come from communities in the metropolis that were earlier demolished.

The long process of settlement saw Mang Roger and the new residents making improvements on the land of garbage. They began to fill it with stones, rocks and soil hauled in from the bay and the riverbank. They also built wooden bridges that served as side streets and alleys. Water wells, a simple drainage system and other community facilities followed.

A community

Bagong Lupa however is not unlike any typical urban poor community – it is depressed, squalid and stinking. Just the same, it has become a full-fledged community with a school, a chapel, basketball court, a barangay hall and wet and dry market. Today, the ghetto is home to more than 6,000 families.

Just as when the settlement had been recognized as a new barangay and residents thought they had a community of their own, two big fires hit Bagong Lupa – the first on March 26, 2002 and the second on March 6 this year. The second fire engulfed a big portion of the barangay and rendered 2,000 families homeless.

Police have investigated the two fires and found no leads except to say both were caused by “faulty electrical wire.” But many residents suspect arson was behind the calamity.

Mysterious fire

In the first incident, a midnight fire razed blocks of squatter huts in an area where today a housing project has been started. Random interviews by this writer found residents saying they heard an explosion they thought came from an LPG tank a minute before the fire broke out in the middle of the crowded community. No one was in the house where the fire reportedly started, they also said.

Surprisingly, the community demolished by the fire was instantly cleared to make way for a government development project.

The second fire – this time bigger – struck in the afternoon of last March 6. The fire burned down more than a thousand huts beside the Manila city government housing project, sparing about three rows of houses in-between the fire and the project site. Just like in the 2002 fire, fire officials cited “faulty electrical wire” as the culprit. Accounts of fire victims, however, suggest arson.

Citing neighbors’ accounts, Melinda Gosun, 28, says that minutes before the fire broke out two unidentified men came asking if somebody is at the Gosun house. A neighbor answered none and the two men walked away quietly. Shortly, the neighbor's child saw the same men walking back toward the Gosun house carrying a Coca Cola bottle that contained a yellowish fluid believed to be petroleum.

About 30 minutes later, the Gosun house was on fire. The flames quickly spread and burned down a whole block.

The two fires easily uprooted about half of Bagong Lupa’s population. In both cases, residents recall, it took several days before government officials would respond to the calamity and bring some relief goods, some kind words and some promises of assistance.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself went to Bagong Lupa and last March announced that a grand housing project would rise in the community for the fire victims. She also promised to develop the community into a commercial and residential haven.


Such pledges however have not stopped suspicions about arson in both incidents. A Bagong Lupa resident who refused to be named comments, "Alam ko ang style na yan ... Dati na `kong sumama sa ganyang operasyon. Susunugin ang isang lugar para mapalayas ang mga squatter kasi may proyekto raw o kaya'y gusto nang kunin ng may-ari ng lupa" (I know that style…I used to join such operation. A community is set on fire in order to force the squatters out to make way for a project or for the property claimant to take over the place.)

Many residents believe that the first fire was meant to clear an area and the second fire to widen the cleared area. A common fear is that the remaining uncleared (that is, unburned) portions in Bagong Lupa are only "waiting for their time."

An urban poor group, Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihitap (Kadamay or Alliance of United Poor), has a record of slum communities in Metro Manila widely believed to have been deliberately burned down to give way to a private business or a government project. A Kadamay staff admits, however, that their report is based only on testimonies of fire victims, adding that the government should look into the allegations about arson.

But police authorities dismiss the arson angle in the Bagong Lupa fires. "Pwedeng totoo, pwedeng hindi,” says a police officer stationed at the area. “Ang mahirap lang dyan ay ang magpakita ng mga ebidensya dahil ang mga tao dito ay ayaw namang magsalita. Maraming krimen dito ang hindi natatapos kasi walang gustong mag-witness" (That may be true - or false. Problem is, no proof has been shown because residents don’t want to talk. Many crimes here remain unsolved because nobody wants to stand as witness.)

Indeed, Bagong Lupa has an average of two crimes each month, police said. In the last 10 months alone, six persons, including a former barangay chair and a barangay tanod were killed by unknown gunmen. Not a single crime committed in Bagong Lupa has been solved by the police, records show however.

Barangay chief Teresita Lumactod explains: "Yung sunog dito, sabi ng iba ay pananabotahe raw sa 'king pamumuno. Kung totoo man, walang posibleng tumestigo kasi nangangamba sila na bweltahan ng mga hired killers" (About the fires here, some people said these were meant to sabotage my leadership. If that’s true, nobody wants to testify for fear they would be killed to silence them). She also admits Bagong Lupa harbors some smugglers and drug pushers.

Lumactod could only guess the possible motives of the alleged arsonists. "Baka may gustong kumontrol sa lugar na ito" (It’s possible some people are out to control this community), she says. Bulatlat.com

Countdown Begins for Bagong Lupa’s Settlers (Last of two parts)

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