Wednesday, May 25, 2005

In Cagayan de Oro: Of Squatting and Squatters

This symbolic defiance of law and order, expressed as squatting, is not unique to developing countries like the Philippines. Some years back but already into the administration of the last mayor of San Francisco, the Civic Center area of SF did become an "encampment" similar to what one witnesses in our own city, replete with tons of used tires, derelict vehicles and carts, and what have you. It took almost two years to completely remove any traces of such a travesty.

And if one is familiar with the beauty and grandeur of SF's Civic Center with its ornate and Gothic structures, one would find it that much more difficult to imagine what it must have been like during the "occupation" by homeless people of all sorts of persuasion and background. And that much more difficult to imagine the ugliness that visited that revered place. But it did happen.

We have to realize whether we want to or not, that the very physical and social blessings that made Cagayan de Oro a very ideal and idyllic place to live in have become its bane. Relatively quiet in terms of peace and order; nice geographic location relative to Mindanao and the rest of the country; easy accessibility; warm, friendly, and almost subservient people; good schools, etc, etc. These are the very things that have made it a "haven and refuge" for most dispossessed and displaced people in that area of Mindanao and beyond. And people cannot be faulted for that.

The perennial problems of squatting and mindless disregard of petty laws are almost endemic to that place. It would be unkind and unfair to lay the full brunt of the blame on the present administrators. One needs only to recall the Macabalan area during our grade school and high school days. A good part of the pier area was squatters’ haven. Most everybody living in the immediate areas of the pier, including along the highway were squatters. Most of those areas were considered foreshore areas and thus owned publicly. I guess nobody raised much of a howl then, maybe because it was not in anybody's neighborhood, meaning anybody who found that objectionable or unsightly. And this, of course, was not the only area squatted on. But now, this pernicious practice has grown unabated and is now in everybody's neighborhood, including Divisoria Park. What to do! What to do!

The deadly combination of widespread poverty and ignorance is so disruptive and contagious that pretty soon, the whole society stagnates and festers. I believe Cagayan may only be feeling the initial pains and throes of this social contagion.

One optimism I personally harbor is in the area of grassroots economic empowerment. I continually harp about credit unions, especially those attuned to the common people. And just recently, the Bangko Sentral has allowed rural banks to be converted into "micro-finance" banks. So there are areas indeed, where meaningful changes can originate from. Why not more programs for economic investments, rather than on campaigns or missions to provide palliative relief for the sick and infirm? Why not go for the long run, rather than short term?

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