Remembering Dexter Condez and the continuing Ati struggle in Boracay

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Dexter Condez, the spokesperson of Boracay Ati Tribal Organization (BATO)

This was the privilege speech delivered by Rep. Barry on 5 March 2014 to remember and honor the struggles of a leader of Boracay’s indigenous Ati people, Dexter Condez, who was murdered by suspected goons of a land developer last year. Many advocates of indigenous people’s rights continue Condez’s fight for social justice and right to self-determination. The text of the speech was also published at the InterAksyon.com website on the same date as the speech.

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I rise today in commemoration of the life of one of our promising young Filipino leaders, Dexter Condez, a young man whose life and promise was tragically cut short when he was gunned down in Boracay Island, just over a year ago. As spokesperson for the Boracay Ati Tribal Organization (BATO), Dexter was a stalwart advocate for the Boracay Ati tribe of which he was a proud member. Along with the other members of his community and tribe, he worked tirelessly to obtain the land, homes, and livelihood to which the Atis of Boracay were, by right, entitled to, and which they had long been denied.

Dexter helped lead his tribe’s long struggle for the recognition of their ancestral domain claim on Boracay Island under the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1991 (IPRA). He participated in negotiations, organized mass actions, and worked with both government agencies, such as the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC), and non-government organizations, including the Assisi Foundation, co-chaired by the President’s sister, Ms. Victoria Elisa Aquino-Dee, for the protection of his fellow Atis’ rights, the advancement of their ancestral domain claims, and the improvement of their community.

The validity of the ancestral domain claim of the Atis’ for Boracay is backed by an undeniable historical truth—that they were the first people who occupied the island of Boracay since pre-colonial times. Well before the island became famous as one of the most popular beach destinations in the world, it was first known, perhaps more simply, as home to the Atis. With the various commercial developments and construction projects that mushroomed all over the island since the 1970s, however, the original Ati inhabitants were slowly but inevitably displaced by the proliferation of more and more resorts, hotels, and shopping centers. Their ancestral land was reduced into a measly portion of the white sands and lush forests they once roamed freely.

In January 2011, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) awarded a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) to BATO for the land that 40 families (almost 200 members) continue to occupy, and consider the last remnants of their ancestral land. The title covered 2.1 hectares in Barangay Manoc-manoc. Despite this certification, however, the claim was quickly disputed by several private commercial interests who also claim ownership of the same plot of land. The lot, being located in the high-value island resort where land is at a premium, has, not surprisingly, long drawn the interest of private developers who wish to generate profits from it. Numerous reports were received by concerned government agencies, as well as the NGOs assisting the Atis, concerning the widespread use of threats and intimidation to force the Atis out.

Unfazed by these threats, Dexter was among those who remained steadfast for his tribe and continued to fight courageously for the recognition and full respect of their fundamental rights as indigenous peoples (IPs) and original inhabitants of Boracay. Despite constant threats and warnings, he remained firm and unrelenting.

Tragically, however, the threats eventually escalated into open violence. On February 22 of last year, at the age of 26, Dexter was gunned down in cold blood while returning home from a meeting. The police investigation eventually revealed that the gunman was a certain Daniel Celestino, a security guard employed Global Asset Protection from Cebu City. Global Asset Protection was hired to provide security services for the Crown Regency Resort in Boracay, one of the adverse claimants to the Atis’ ancestral land.

According to Fr. Arnold Crisostomo, Boracay parish priest, Dexter’s death was likely an escalation and continuation from a violent incident that occurred earlier, on November 4, 2012, where the Ati tribe in Barangay Manoc-manoc was harassed by armed men allegedly upon the order of a developer with adverse claims to their land.

Harassment continues, hidden from tourists

It’s been slightly over a year now since Dexter’s tragic death. And while, a lot has happened within and around the country, nothing much has changed for the Atis of Boracay. Since his death, the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for Dexter’s murder has dragged on; his gunman is still at-large while the tribe, with little protection from the authorities, continues to be intimidated and harassed. The future of the Boracay Ati tribe remains bleak and uncertain. They remain under threats of losing what little remains of their ancestral land. They continue to be exposed to the risk of being exploited by personal greed and partisan interests.

But this ugly face of Boracay, marred by greed and scarred by murder, remains largely hidden from public view. Tourists who visit the island normally remain blissfully ignorant and completely oblivious to this other, hidden face of Boracay—the long struggles and suffering of the Ati tribe on an island they once called their home. Accounts and descriptions of Boracay hardly make reference to the Ati’s history and current situation on the island. Boracay now is much more known for its white sand beaches and resorts, and is almost never recalled as the Atis’ home, first and foremost.

The reality of Dexter and the rest of the Boracay tribe is not an easy task.

In the face of these injustices and violations of IP rights, I urge the concerned law enforcement agencies to effect the speedy arrest, prosecution, and conviction of Dexter’s murderers. I also urge that significant protection and security may be extended to our Ati brothers and sisters who continue to face potential harassments from those who continue to lay claim to their ancestral land.

Wednesday, March 5, will mark the one year anniversary of the date that Dexter was finally laid to rest. As the Ati community continue to commemorate and seek for justice for him and to fight for a full recognition of their ancestral land, I believe and I strongly urge that we strive our utmost to deliver to them the rights, recognition, and justice they truly deserve.

It is time to deliver justice to Dexter. His family and friends deserve it. The Ati community of Boracay deserves it. The Indigenous Peoples who continue to fight for equality and respect in our society deserve it.

And, we owe that to them, as their representatives.

Philippine Human Rights struggles and challenges in the 21st century

A privilege speech delivered by Rep. Barry on 16 December 2013
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Mr. Speaker, I rise today to discuss an issue that speaks to us all—the issue of human rights, dignity, and freedom.

Last week, December 10, marked the celebration of the International Human Rights Day, a worldwide commemoration and reaffirmation of the United Nations’ commitment to uphold and protect the principles and rights that are inalienable to all people from all nations and from all walks of life. It also fell on the 65th by the UN General Assembly of the seminal document on human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

More than just a celebration, that day provided us the opportunity to look back, evaluate,and reaffirm our commitment to recognize and make real these principles that uphold the inherent dignity and worth of every person, in every community, in every nation on the planet.

As I earlier mentioned, it has been 65 years since the members of the United Nations came together and proclaimed that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” (Article I, UDHR) a historical and compelling statement made in the aftermath of the horror and inhumanity of the Second World War. Out of that harrowing experience, the nations of the world came together to once and for all declare that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms… without distinction of any kind such as race, color, sex, language, religion,political or other opinion, nationality or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Since then, the UDHR has been considered as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” all over the world.

The Philippines was one of 48 countries that signed the 1948 Declaration, and since then we have been one of the world’s leading countries in the formal and legal recognition and articulation of human rights principles. In 1951, within three years from the adoption of the UDHR, the Philippine Supreme Court was one of the first courts in the world to recognize and apply the rights under the Declaration to resolve an actual case (Meijoff v. Director of Prisons). At present, the Philippines is currently a signatory of virtually all major human rights covenants with a few notable exceptions like the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Our country’s experience with human rights, however, has not, unfortunately, been one long tale of articulation and achievement. We went through the dark period of Martial Law, where all our lofty declarations fell to naught in the face of massive levels of State-led and State-sponsored human rights violations. And even with the restoration of formal democratic institutions in 1986, and the adoption of our current Constitution in 1987 – a document widely hailed as a “human rights constitution” for its groundbreaking institutionalization of human rights principles in fundamental law – our government’s human rights record has been far from spotless.

In the 26 years since People Power allowed us to adopt our “human rights constitution,” human rights violations have continued to take place, despite the sincere and valiant efforts of government institutions and one of the world’s most active and dynamic non-government human rights communities to eliminate abuses and create safeguards to individual rights and freedoms. Widespread poverty, environmental degradation, impunity, and corruption are glaring testaments to our communal failure.

Today we have to recapture our commitment to enforce human rights, by redefining our agenda, approach and strategy in dealing with the human rights issues of our times. One that does not merely pay lip service to our international pledges but one that is grounded and mindful of the existing socio-economic conditions and political realities, and guided by international norms and standards.

During the waning years of the previous Administration, a comprehensive approach to human rights as encapsulated into a single plan was crafted but unfortunately not adopted before the end of the Presidential term. This was a time when the Philippines was reeling from criticism on both the domestic and international front for its human rights record – with pervasive extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, crackdowns on basic civil rights such as the freedom of speech, of the press, and assembly, and widespread hunger, poverty, and homelessness.

The human rights situation was bleak and discouraging at the time. The dismal state of the human rights situation then cannot be illustrated more vividly than by reference to the ill-fated 23rd day of November in 2009 that shocked the country and the world. That day, 57 people, most of whom were journalists, were massacred, butchered in broad daylight and buried in a mass grave. It was a horrifying mass killing carried out to stifle electoral democracy; one, which we now know as the Maguindanao Massacre. Four years since then, justice remains elusive for the families of the victims. Half of the 197 persons accused of the crime remain at large, while the prosecution of the rest drags on through year after year of interminable delays.

If we are to take this as a test of our government’s response to an urgent human rights concern, then the results are far from encouraging. The advent of President Aquino’s Administration in 2010 was a hopeful time for the Philippine human rights community. His platform was, in fact, described by some quarters as people-centered and rights-based, a welcome approach in the wake of the dismal record of the previous government. A few months after he assumed office, in a speech delivered during the 62nd anniversary of the UDHR, the President promised that his administration will make “certain that these commitments to treaties will not remain paper promises and that his
government is indeed serious about human rights.”

Admittedly, there were tremendous expectations from the Aquino Administration as far as the issue of human rights was concerned. These ranged from the immediate – such as successfully pursuing prosecutions against the most notorious human rights violators, clamping down on extra-judicial killings, and addressing a growing atmosphere of impunity, to the more institutional – such as integrating the human rights framework into all aspects of government policy-making, passing key human rights legislation, and acceding to international treaties such as the Rome Statute.

One very basic expectation was the long delayed adoption of the aforementioned National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP), which was intended as the concretization of the effort to mainstream human rights in policies and programs of the government. This document stipulated the promotion and protection of individual rights, as guided by the UDHR and the eight principal international treaties on human rights that the Philippines is already party to. Various government agencies and public sector groups were identified to help realize the intention of the plan.

Three years after the President’s inspiring 62nd Human Rights Day Speech, however, the NHRAP still languishes in limbo, with no indications as to when it will be formally adopted. Sadly, this is just one of many disappointments with respect to human rights. The human
rights situation remains a major concern in the Philippines.

As reported by Amnesty International published in May of this year:

Human rights defenders and journalists were at risk of unlawful killings, and thousands of cases of grave human rights violations remained unresolved. Victims of human rights violations, including during martial law from 1972 to 1981, continued to be denied justice, truth and reparations.

In April, the Philippines acceded to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, but has yet to establish the required mechanism to monitor treatment of detainees.

And according to a 2013 report of Human Rights Watch:

The Aquino administration has failed to keep its commitment to hold those responsible for extrajudicial killings to account. Since 2001, hundreds of leftist activists, journalists, environmentalists, and clergy have been killed by alleged members of the security forces. Local human rights organizations reported approximately 114 cases of extrajudicial killings since Aquino came to office, and 13 at this writing. Despite strong evidence that military personnel have been involved, investigations have stalled. No one was convicted for political killings in 2012.

And while, admittedly, there have been gains made in some areas, it is apparent that much remains to be done. And in particular, a more focused, organized, and determined effort must be undertaken to include human rights as one of government’s priorities.

Fortunately, there is still time. But this Administration, and we, its partners in Congress, must act now.

In our long and storied journey as a nation since 1948, we have undergone a wide range of experiences in human rights advocacy, policy, and practice – some stirring triumphs, others shameful setbacks. These experiences need to be harnessed, studied and evaluated because they offer us the opportunity and wisdom to improve our institutions and policies to prevent a repeat in history. Unless questions are settled, missteps are acknowledged, and culprits and perpetrators are punished, any headway in the achieving true of equality, freedom and justice will be minimal. If unresolved, our past will forever hang like a dark cloud above us, ready to ruin our vision of a future of rights, freedom and dignity.

The apparent ‘disconnect’ between the commitment and performance of the government in the arena of human rights is attributed to varying factors. Weak implementation, bad management or flimsy follow-through ensures a policy’s failure. On the other hand, the lack of appropriate and responsive policy to buttress a commitment is a failure from the start. Failure to implement is one thing. But, failure to have a clear plan to begin with is failure by default.

At this juncture, we need to remind ourselves of our commitment to uphold and promote human rights. We cannot just write the laws and then hope for the best. The entire Philippine electorate expects more than that. It is our mandate, as part of the government, to ensure that protection of human rights comes full circle. We need to engage the other branches of government to ensure each one the protection of his/her freedom and dignity.

People, especially those from the marginalized and vulnerable sectors whose basic rights are denied or abused, deserve so much better from the law. The people we serve deserve no less.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and good afternoon.

Towards an HIV/AIDS-free society

Privilege speech Rep. Barry delivered yesterday, 2 December 2013, at the House of Representatives.

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak before this House, to both commemorate and call to action.

Yesterday, December 1, marked the 25th year of the observance of World AIDS Day.

I know many of our colleagues may wonder, why talk about HIV/AIDS now, when so many other concerns, some perhaps more urgent or compelling, face our nation and this Congress? In the face of issues concerning PDAF – or the absence thereof, post-Yolanda reconstruction, climate change policy, and the continuing campaign against poverty, it is tempting to brush aside the issue of HIV/AIDS and to consider it as “not a priority.”

But it is precisely this attitude of relative indifference that has brought us to the alarming juncture where we are today, where 25 years after the global community has declared an all-out campaign to combat HIV/AIDS and 15 years after we enacted our own AIDS prevention law, the increase in reported cases of HIV/AIDS has hit terrifying figures – 4,072 new cases since January of this year, 491 cases in October alone, out of the 15,774 total cases reported since 1984. That means 25.8% of all HIV/AIDS cases in the last three decades were reported in the first ten months of this year.

I therefore rise this afternoon not only to join the rest of the world in commemorating World AIDS Day but also to talk about some of the urgent issues related to HIV/AIDS that I believe we must take up.

This time presents us with the opportunity to examine our substantial progress in the battle against the HIV and AIDS pandemic and to reaffirm our commitment to achieving an HIV/AIDS-free society. We also remember those we have lost, encourage those who continue to suffer, and lend support to their family and friends who, in many cases unfortunately, continue to bear the unfair and misguided discrimination of society.

The year 1998 marked the beginning of our country’s declaration of war against the disease with the passage of RA 8504, also known as, The Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998, a national comprehensive plan of preventing the spread of the disease within the populace. It outlined the necessary tools and strategy needed by the government to prevent the occurrence of new infections, control its transmissions, make available the necessary care and treatment to the victims and protect the rights of the HIV/AIDS victims and key populations at higher risk to the infection. A coordinated national response against the disease was also established through the creation of the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC).

In the 15 years since the enactment of the AIDS law, government worked to elevate the nation’s awareness of the disease, supported studies that aimed to reduce its transmission, and built ties with various NGOs, community groups, and international agencies to help curb the increasing trend of infections. The 1998 AIDS Law intended to curb and stabilize the spread of HIV and AIDS in the country was, in fact, hailed as “best practice” by the international community.

In addition, as signatory to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (UNMDG), we made a commitment to halt the spread of HIV infection and to begin reducing its incidence in the country by 2015.

In the global arena, UNAIDS reports show that 95% out of 186 countries are on track with their MDG on HIV/AIDS. This marked a pivotal juncture in the worldwide effort of curbing and halting the spread of the disease. There has been a downward global trend in new cases of HIV/AIDS victims at the turn of the millennium, as 77 countries had either stabilized or reduced HIV infections within their territories—an indicator that the world may soon make the zero-infections, zero-deaths and zero-discrimination UN political declaration on HIV/AIDS an achievable reality.

These positive developments in the global arena, unfortunately, are not reflective of the current state of affairs in our country. Despite the 1998 law, and the efforts undertaken in pursuit of its goals, a triumph against HIV/AIDS is not yet within sight, as number of new HIV infections continue to expand rapidly. When the AIDS bill was enacted in 1998, HIV/AIDS victims were numbered at 189. This figure was more than doubled by 2008 as recorded cases reached a total of 528. By 2012, HIV/AIDS reached a staggering total of 3,338 cases.

Prior to 2008, HIV prevalence in the Philippines was considered “low and slow”, with only one new HIV infection being reported per day. Five years after, the tide has completely turned. HIV prevalence has now become “fast and furious”. In August of this year, reported new HIV cases increased to 16 per day, or 1 new case per 1.5 hour. This means that by the time this assemblage is adjourned at 7PM, there will be 13 new reported cases of HIV infection, with 2 new cases being reported as we conduct this session.

The radical upward surge on the HIV/AIDS situation in the country, thus, requires that we bring this issue to the forefront of the Congressional agenda.

Accomplishing the goal of an AIDS-free society requires us to reconfigure our knowledge and understanding of the subject, scrutinize the emerging trends and developing dynamics within the population afflicted with HIV/AIDS and craft an up-to-date effective prevention and control response which takes into account the experiences of the last 15 years.

As I mentioned earlier, within this year alone, a total of 4,072 HIV/AIDS cases were already recorded. This is 40% higher compared to last year’s figure of the same period and a thousandfold increase since the enactment of the AIDS law. Health experts have explained that the massive jump of infections is due to low use of condoms, multiple sexual partnerships among key populations at higher risk to infections, and unregulated sharing of needles among people with injecting drugs (PWID). Unprotected sex, in particular, doubles a person’s likelihood of contracting HIV and unregulated needle-sharing has become a major cause of transmission for the disease.

A closer look on the epidemic situation in the country reveals shifting trends and changing dynamics in the demographics of people affected by the disease. Out of the recorded four thousand plus HIV/AIDS cases this year, a hugely disproportionate distribution was apparent, in terms of geographic, gender and age. A huge concentration of the victims now are the young generation, belonging to the 20-29 year age bracket, predominantly male (95% of the total cases) and they are found mostly in NCR, Region 7 and 4A (Manila, Davao and Angeles, Pampanga). HIV prevalence within these regions are pegged at 5% or higher—surpassing the HIV prevalence within the general population. They are now flagged as priority areas that are in dire need of focused intervention on prevention, treatment, care and protection. Manila, for one, is of particular concern as it accounts for more than 50% of the total number of new HIV cases recorded this year.

Although sexual contact remains the dominant mode of virus-transmission, its main drivers have now changed faces. Prior to the turn of the millennium, females were considered the main drivers of the disease: specifically, those engaged in sex trade. Recent studies made by the Department of Health and various other international agencies reveal, however, that males having sex with other males (MSMs) now predominate. They comprise 80% of the total number of HIV cases in the country.

According to government epidemiologists, if nothing is done to address and reverse the existing conditions, HIV cases are projected at an all-time high of 45,000 by 2015. This bleak prediction should urge us to step up our game and meet the demands of the developing dynamics and changing conditions that continue to encourage the spread of the disease.

The fact that the disease afflicts less than one percent (<1%) of the general population should not deter us. We should not let the number fool us into treating this issue with a great degree of political comfort and complacency. Instead, this should challenge us to take firm actions to prevent the disease from becoming a full blown pandemic, as has happened in many countries. Prevention is better than cure, but for diseases such as HIV and AIDS that has irreversible infections and with no discovered cure, prevention is the cure.

The government has made progresses in areas such as: providing wider access to anti-retroviral treatment (ART), a treatment used to slow down the progress of HIV in the body to victims and the highly at-risk population; investments were placed on research aimed at reducing the spread of the disease; and, leveling up of the peoples’ knowledge of the disease were undertaken. The manner of discourse, however, is largely saddled by our country’s traditional values and culture. These considerations continue to prevent an open debate and discussion of the issue in the public arena, thus, limiting peoples’ understanding of the issue.

The continuing stigma and discrimination against HIV/AIDS victims and their family has also greatly hampered the achievement of a future that is AIDS-free. The shame, guilt, fear of alienation, discrimination and other perverse repercussions that come along with being identified with the disease pushes victims to hide their conditions, not seek treatment or disclose their status to their partners—thereby, increasing the likelihood of the spread of the disease.

I remember reading a news report back in 2010 about Rolly (not his real name), a person living with HIV, who worked as a dancer in a bar. In the article, he recounted the painful ordeal he encountered due to his condition. He related how, at his workplace, people living with HIV/AIDS like him were locked inside a room and those who served them food would kick it under the door. They were treated like outcasts. For people like them, discrimination and stigma is a harsh reality they have to live on every day. Another report published in 2008 told of the horrific experience by a family in Olongapo, who, after it was discovered that one of their family members was HIV positive, woke up to find a their house on fire. It was later found out that their neighbors, afraid of possibly catching the virus carried by their family member, colluded to torch their tiny hut.

Faced with an impending death, a hostile and discriminating society, it seems the story of ‘Rolly’ aptly describes the experience of living with AIDS—that the discrimination from the society against HIV/AIDS victims can be much more painful and fatal more than the virus itself.

We have made significant progress in other areas of our development goals. This time, let us channel this nation’s creativity in the serious fight against HIV/AIDS making good of our commitment in eliminating HIV/AIDS in our society. Let us ensure that no infections occur due to lack of information, or worse, misinformation, no death due to lack of treatment and no discrimination due to lack of understanding and compassion.

The nation must be equipped with the necessary information that will guide them to stay healthy and avoid the infection. Enough funding should be made available to aid the health sector provide the necessary quality and accessible prevention, treatment, care and support services to people living with HIV/AIDS and to those who are highly at-risk of contracting the virus.

It is time to open the debate and discussion of the issue in the public arena. There is a need to break the myths and misconceptions that surround the disease, which, consequently, breed stigma and discrimination from the society.

That is why, earlier today, I, with two other members of this distinguished House, the Honorable Teddy Brawner Baguilat of the Lone District of Ifugao, and the Honorable Lani Mercado-Revilla of the 2nd District of Cavite, did our small part in attempting to lift the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS by undergoing voluntary HIV testing at the free clinic currently set up at the House of Representatives medical building. The clinic will be open for three days, and I urge all of you, my esteemed colleagues, to take the test, if only to show to our constituents and fellow Filipinos that there is nothing to fear, or to be ashamed of, insofar as these crucial preventive practices relating to HIV/AIDS are concerned.

The issue of HIV and AIDS is one that is not, and will never be, an exclusive topic that is reserved for the victims, their families and their friends. It is our issue too, as a nation and as a country striving for inclusive economic growth and development. It is our moral obligation and common mission to ensure that, in our journey toward progress, no one is left behind — not the poor, not the sick, not the old, not the weak. We should not let anyone fall between the gaps and inadequacies that characterize several of our laws and institutions. And to be willing and ready to lend a hand those who do.

I hope, my dear colleagues, that we will take up this challenge.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and good afternoon.

A paradigm shift in resettlement policy

 

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Rep. Barry on the floor of the House. (Photo credits: InterAksyon)

Posting the first ever privilege speech Rep. Barry delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives, just this last Wednesday, 7 August 2013.

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Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak on an issue that concerns millions of our fellow Filipinos: the issue of informal settlers, their human rights, and the Constitutional and statutorily-imposed mandate on the Philippine State to ensure that these rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled.

Ever since the ratification of the 1987 Constitution on February 2, 1986, more than a quarter of a century ago, the State has been charged with the express obligation of ensuring the rights of informal settlers – our fellow Filipinos who in a less enlightened and compassionate time were derogatorily referred to as “squatters” – and working for the betterment of their lives. Under Article XIII, Sections 9 and 10 of the Constitution, it is provided that –

“The State shall, by law, and for the common good, undertake, in cooperation with the private sector, a continuing program of urban land reform and housing which will make available at affordable cost decent housing and basic services to underprivileged and homeless citizens in urban centers and resettlement areas. It shall also promote adequate employment opportunities to such citizens. In the implementation of such program the State shall respect the rights of small property owners.

Urban or rural poor dwellers shall not be evicted nor their dwellings demolished, except in accordance with law and in a just and humane manner.”

These provisions highlight two mandates in the Philippine constitutional order. The first is the commitment of the State to undertake a continuing program of urban land reform and housing with the end view of securing affordable housing and basic services to the underprivileged. The second is the State obligation to respect and protect the right of the poor against forcible eviction.

These provisions of the Philippine Constitution were given statutory “teeth” with the enactment of Republic Act No. 7279, known as the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992 (UDHA), which took effect on March 28, 1992. UDHA had two major components – the first dealt with the details of the constitutionally mandated program to provide affordable housing to the underprivileged, while the second provided protection against forcible evictions.

UDHA was intended to provide a complete solution to the problem of informal settlement by ensuring that homeless Filipinos would be provided homes by the government working hand-in-hand with the private sector. Those who had set up their dwellings in “danger zones” or areas intended for public use would be provided with safer, equally accessible, and more importantly, permanent homes at affordable cost.

Unfortunately, two decades after UDHA, reality has not lived up to the intention. As of 2011, the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) estimates that the total national housing backlog is at 3,756,072. This means that over 3.7 million Filipino families do not have safe and secure dwellings. Assuming an average family size of 5, this indicates that more than 18 million Filipinos live under these precarious conditions.

And by all indications, this backlog is growing as population increases, migration to urban centers intensifies, and the government continues to miss its annual housing targets. HUDCC estimates that the housing backlog rises by more than 195,000 every year. On the other hand, the government has only managed to provide resettlement to 235,214 families in the 14 year period from 1998 to 2011, or an average of 16,801 families per year.

And how many of these families that have been resettled actually went on to live permanently in their new neighborhoods as opposed to defaulting on their housing payments and going back to a condition of informal settlement? The alarming answer is, we do not know, since apparently government agencies have not tracked this statistic. There are numerous reports, however, from NGOs working with urban poor communities of families being forced to abandon their “new communities” – mainly because of lack of employment opportunities in the far flung relocation sites where they have been shipped off to – to go back to living in informal settlements in the cities from which they previously came.

Clearly, one of crucial issues in the government housing program, particularly in relation to the relocation of informal settlers, is sustainability.

Mr. Speaker, I have spent the better part of my professional life working as a lawyer and an advocate for the urban poor sector, and I have seen firsthand how indescribably awful the conditions in some government relocation sites are. Shoddily built, half-finished structures, without electrical power, without potable water, in remote, hard to reach areas – this unfortunately describes many of the relocation sites I have been to. It comes as no surprise to me personally, therefore, to hear about how many of our fellow Filipinos who have found themselves consigned to this dismal fate, have decided to simply go back to their previous state of informal settlement.

Recently, however, a glimmer of hope has emerged on the bleak landscape of government resettlement policy that may eventually lead the way to a more sustainable approach to the issue.

In 2011, the Aquino Administration released 10 Billion Pesos to the National Housing Authority (NHA) as the first tranche of a 50 Billion Peso fund intended to “to ensure safe and flood-resilient permanent housing solutions for Informal Settler Families (ISFs) living in Danger Areas of the National Capital Region” through a five-year resettlement program aimed at providing safe and permanent housing to the 104,219 ISFs in NCR by 2016. An additional 10 Billion Pesos was released to NHA in 2012, and 7.5 Billion Pesos was released for the same purpose earlier this year to the Socialized Housing Finance Corporation (SHFC), which brings the total fund released to 27.5 Billion Pesos since 2011.

But while, the huge allocation for this program is encouraging, the more innovative part comes from the framework adopted by the agencies involved in implementing it. Started during the term of the late DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, the framework, which is now expressed in a Joint Memorandum Circular (JMC) signed and adopted by the various government agencies working with the program, mandates that resettlement sites should be on-site, or, in situations where this is not possible, in-city. Furthermore, the resettlement should be conducted in accordance with a “people’s plan,” a proposal developed by the community being relocated itself, with the assistance of concerned government agencies.

The official adoption of an “on-site, in-city” policy governing resettlement, and the primary role given to the “people’s plan” in implementation, are extremely significant and groundbreaking steps that will likely prove to be crucial innovations in ensuring the sustainability of future resettlement projects. The on-site, in-city paradigm ensures continued access of ISFs to their employment and a market for their microenterprises, while the institutionalization of the people’s plan process ensures a level of participation and, more importantly, ownership of the program that will make ISFs active partners in the initiative instead of simply being passive subjects to the same. Both contribute greatly to enhancing sustainability, and ultimately, viability of the resettlement program.

In fact, Mr. Speaker, if I may venture to suggest, these two policies – on-site, in-city relocation and the reference to a people’s plan – instead of just being expressed in an executive issuance, should be considered for institutionalization through inclusion in a new statute.

But much as I would like to end on this hopeful note, I feel compelled to express my concern with the future implementation of these two crucial, one might even say revolutionary, new policies adopted in the JMC, in the light of a news article that came out two days ago in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It would be most unfortunate, in my view, that just as a new hope for future sustainability of the government housing program springs forth, that same hope would be nipped in the bud before being given a chance to fully bloom.

The article, entitled “Relocation of estero families on,” written by Niña Calleja, Marlon Ramos, and Nathaniel Melican, talks about the impending relocation of 606 ISFs in San Juan, and 871 more in Quezon City as part of the implementation of the program I mentioned before. This is part of the phase of the program which aims to relocate 19,440 ISFs within the next 12 months.

My concern stems from the fact that while the article, which quotes several department and agency heads involved in the program, talks about the numbers, the funding, and other details, it makes no mention of the JMC, which governs the relocation process under the program, or the two key policies I highlighted: on-site, in-city relocation, and the people’s plan. In fact, the article expressly mentioned that the first batch of ISFs would be moved to San Jose del Monte, Bulacan – a fine place, to be sure, but clearly not on-site or in-city.

Of course, it is difficult, not to mention ill-advised, to make snap judgments on policy implementation on the basis of a single news article – which, to be fair, mentioned that the move was “voluntary” – but still, it is somewhat disturbing that this early in the program’s implementation, with the ink barely dry on the JMC, that there is already an apparent lack of emphasis on two of its most important, and most significant, policy innovations. Time will tell whether this was mere inadvertence or something more serious.

In the meantime, Mr. Speaker, it only underscores the need to continue to monitor implementation of this program, and to take the necessary steps to further strengthen, and possibly, enshrine these principles into our government’s framework for the socialized housing program.

We will continue to watch, and to work. The millions of our fellow Filipinos who still continue to dream of having their own homes, in living sustainable communities, deserve no less.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker and good afternoon.