Archive for August 8, 2012

What property rights?

Previously, the urban poor were called ‘squatters’ supposedly because they ‘squat’ on land they do not own. ¬†The verb ‘squat’ does not give you a nice picture. ¬†

Thus, the urban poor usurp the property rights of others and do not actually have property rights of their own.  This is especially true if the land in question is owned by a private citizen.

Nowadays, the urban poor are called ‘informal settlers’ for political correctness. ¬†The new term implies that they ‘informally settle’ on land they do not own.

In my opinion, the term ‘informal settler’ is nothing but a euphemism. ¬†It indicates that the informal settlers, formerly known as ¬†squatters are doing something wrong, like violating the property rights of others. ¬†In that sense, it does not represent any improvement over the older ‘squatter’.

One has a straightforward case if the aggrieved party is a private citizen.

The situation is more complicated when the land is owned by the state.

It is a truism that the most basic human right is the right to life.  The right to life is concretized through subsidiary rights such as rights to livelihood, domicile, etc.

Urban poor dwellings on both sides of estero (estuary)

The urban poor are rational individuals. ¬†If state-owned land is idle (and this is true in Quezon City), they will occupy the land and build their dwellings. ¬†Population growth and building booms, among others, have restricted the supply of ‘squattable’ land and pushed them to the frontiers including estuaries, river banks, and hill slopes. ¬†The poor do so to be near jobs and other sources of income such as vending, hawking, and low-value added jobs (construction, service jobs) all over the city.

Charcoal making by urban poor workers

Sampaguita vendor

Should the state assert its property rights and evict the squatters?

Forcible demolition of urban poor dwellings

Or should it fulfill its obligations as duty bearer to its citizens, specially its less fortunate constituents, and ensure that the latter be afforded all the opportunities to ensure their right to life?  The city poor do not need land titles; certificates of occupancy will suffice.

It may be that the state leaders are apparently faced with a basic dilemma here.  However, it is clear that evictions are the trend.

Urban poor awaiting rescue atop their shanties

The urban poor face twin threats to the tenure over the land upon which they have built their dwellings.  When the weather is unruly, they have to deal with calamitous floods and landslides.  During sunny weather, forcible evictions may be their fare.

In the evacuation center




Rescue workers during the latest floods in Metro Manila


First, my felicitations to all rescue personnel (local government employees, police officers, military, firemen, Red Cross staff, etc) and support staff (medical personnel, paramedics, etc) who are laboring to rescue and provide immediate relief to countless flood victims throughout Luzon.


While watching the TV coverage of the rescue work, several media persons repeatedly asked aloud why our poorer brothers choose to live under bridges and other dangerous places such as river banks, estuaries, garbage dumps, and hill slopes.


Urban poor dwellings along an estero (estuary)


Since they live in these hazardous locales, they needed to be rescued and evacuated every now and then.  In short, they are a nuisance.


Flooded urban poor dwellings


The subtext of these questions is that the urban poor are irrational for putting their lives on the line.

Is there some rationality in this irrationality?

To the urban poor, location, location, location (as real estate gurus put it) is key. Urban poor houses may be ugly and substandard but they are in prime locations that enable the urban poor greater access to jobs and other sources of livelihood.  In addition, urban poor houses have access to potable water and electricity.


Urban poor relocation generally fail because they are so far from the jobs available in the heart of the city.  In these relocation sites, they usually have unreliable access to utilities.

Some media persons and local officials also complained loudly: why are the urban poor so hesitant to evacuate, to leave their belongings?

The same rationality applies to explain this apparent madness. Our poorer brethren are of course aware of the threats to their life.  However, they also know that if they lose their meager belongings, it is as if their lives are over. For one, they do not have bank accounts.  They will find it very difficult to rebuild their lives.  They are uncertain about government help.

These reasons explain why even in dangerous situations like rampaging floods, our urban poor brethren still take seemingly irrational risks.