ESSAY | #OccupyPabahay and the politics of placelessness: Dispatches from Manila, Philippines

45290537_706785706364858_6178791586122432512_nMy invited piece for Issue 20 of The Funambulist, a France-based magazine on the politics of bodies and space and the spatialities of political struggles, is out now. I talk about #OccupyPabahay (OccupyHousing) as the discursive and material instantiation of urban revanchism, but simultaneously an important rupture in Philippine urban and housing politics. In particular, I consider the dangers and radical possibilities of narratives of banishment: how, on one hand, they have rescaled slum unbelonging in terms of a placelessness that does not only demolish the urban poor’s right to the city, but also undermines their fundamental right to housing; and how, on the other hand, they reorient understandings of the city and its problems in terms of dispossession and banishment.

This is the first feature on the Philippines, and I’m grateful for the invitation to write for one of my favorite magazines about housing justice as urban justice—a crucial but severely neglected issue in both local punditry and academic scholarship. I thank Michael Beltran of Kadamay National for granting permission to use the photo that appears below.

I’ve posted the text below and made the PDF version of the essay available at this link: OccupyPabahay and the politics of placelessness: Dispatches from Manila, Philippines


The Funambulist, article screenshot

The past year has seen the emergence of homelessness and housing justice issues in popular discourse in the Philippines, particularly in Manila and its peri-urban fringe. Kadamay (Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap), a militant urban poor group, has played the pivotal role in bringing this conversation to the forefront with the #OccupyPabahay (#OccupyHousing) direct actions, which commenced on March 8, 2017 in Pandi, Bulacan, a suburb north of Metro Manila. Thousands of urban poor families facing eviction and homelessness barricaded the entrance of seven off-city public housing projects and occupied some 5,000 idle and substandard housing units meant for state security forces and ‘danger zone’ evictees. This shock — though not wholly unprecedented considering the long decades of extreme discontent — surfaced the deplorable state of social housing for both government employees and informal settler relocatees, and likewise revealed the crisis of homelessness and the poverty of urban justice in the Philippines.

Until these occupations, housing justice has received scant attention in the media and the general public. It is only now that it is being talked about, albeit in grossly unsympathetic and hostile terms. #OccupyPabahay incurred the rancor not only of displaced beneficiaries of relocation housing, who are evicted informal settlers themselves, but also of the relatively well-off working and middle classes as well as the elite. In thinking about the severe backlash it generated, it is useful to understand that the occupation occurred in a country with a 5.6 million housing backlog, where shelter needs are outsourced to the private sector and where social housing stock is nonexistent beyond informal settler relocation and government employee housing. Despite originating from decades of institutional neglect, these events likewise did not escape the wrath of state officials, notably President Rodrigo Duterte who pejoratively referred to the takeover as “anarchy” and promised to inflict violence against participants in future actions. As the occupation spread to neighboring state housing projects, the widespread condemnation of both the act and its agents revitalized the stigma of the urban poor’s moral depravation and unbelonging, and reinvigorated views of the urban underclass as the uncouth, the migrant, and the rural other who is outside and out of place.

While narratives of banishment against the urban underclass are certainly not peculiar to Manila, they are remarkable in this instance because their exclusionary politics surfaced an unbelonging that does not only erode the urban poor’s right to the city but also undermines their fundamental right to housing. This is neither simply a question of the legality of the occupation nor a concern about the resulting displacement of intended beneficiaries, but rather a resentful conflation of rights with “deservingness,” and a revanchist notion of urban citizenship. Here, the right to shelter — particularly the right to social housing — is cast as foremost, if not exclusively, the right of “legitimate” citizens. The “squatter,” a pejorative Filipinos use to express contempt and indicate undesirability, is denied this right not so much by revoking it but rather by disqualifying them in the first instance — by arguing that they do not possess such right, to begin with. Kadamay’s critics in both the state and the public demolish their right to shelter and assail the morality of their claims by invoking the fulfilment of certain obligations (most prominently, the payment of taxes) and foregrounding the contributions of formal, taxable labor as barometers of citizenship, and thereafter framing such exclusionary notions of citizenship as a measure of deservingness: “Who are they to deserve social housing when legitimate and productive citizens themselves are not entitled to the same? Why should the ‘theft’ of homes merit the awarding of homes?”

Arguments against a just and urgent response to the crisis of homelessness and empty homes have rescaled slum unbelonging in terms of a placelessness that further displaces the urban poor. Indictments against the occupation reinforce what we already know: that the poor do not belong in the city where land is scarce for social housing but immediately available and quite abundant for private developments. But perhaps more important, these judgments also tell us that when the disgruntled among them flock to the peri-urban fringe, where the state has built entire villages with slum-like conditions to segregate the “necessary” casualties of Manila’s world-class dreams and disaster resilience schemes, they find that they, too, do not belong there. They do not belong anywhere.

This placelessness has less to do with “the take” than the belief, clarified in discourses of and responses to #OccupyPabahay, that the urban poor are being denied the fundamental right to housing — or the right to any space for that matter. In depriving them of all kinds of spaces and places (of slums and shanties, or of dignified homes and idle housing), and in blocking all manner of insurgent practices that stake a claim to a space and a place (i.e., encroachment and occupation), their antagonists forbid their existence. They erase them even from the margins, and so dispossess them of life. Nowhere has this discourse been more pronounced in the fraught decades-long history of urbanizing and cleaning up Manila. This banishment is its culmination, as it no longer suffices for the poor to be swept and set aside: the rejection of their right to shelter is in fact a clamor for their disappearance.

There are other aspects to this hostility against the occupation. The leftist roots of Kadamay and the public disdain for militant activism likewise constitute this enmity. But even if it were led by a non-leftist group, the revanchism that undergirds the brutal responses to the occupation still would have surfaced. The contempt for the urban poor, accompanied by the stigma of squatters as simultaneously the site and the source of urban violence coalesce with the accumulated sense of working- and middle-class disenfranchisement, rooted in the state’s historical neglect of the provision of housing, among other dignities of life. Further, this loathing also draws upon inherited antagonisms against the urban underclass — against the squatter who had long been cast as a nuisance to the urbanization of Metro Manila and its surrounding cities.

The backlash against #OccupyPabahay signifies an important rupture in Philippine urban and housing politics. Notably, it reorients understandings of the city and its problems in terms of dispossession and banishment — phenomena which, despite being deeply embedded in processes of urban development and problems of mobility, are conspicuously absent in journalism, punditry, public scholarship, and conversations about Manila. The immense publicity the occupation generated presents a counterpoint to the stories in the metro sections of major Philippine broadsheets, where writing the city has long been confined to traffic, mobility, and crime — and in the last two years, to the spate of killings under Duterte’s murderous anti-drug campaign. Notwithstanding the importance of these beats, particularly the moral urgency of the latter, the vital stories of building, reconfiguring, and transforming Manila have long been absent. They are found instead in the property sections, where the life of our city is filed under real estate and property development, which is reported like advertisements and chronicled as successes.

In important ways, this banality does offer insights into the state of housing not only in Manila but in the Philippines in general. Housing is thriving as investment. It is abundant as elite and middle-class residence, but deeply unaffordable to the working class, and virtually absent for the homeless and the urban poor. But of course, this sort of reportage and the accompanying shallow journalistic engagements with urban transformations substantially miss the point. #OccupyPabahay surfaces the invisibility of the casualties of urban development, raising questions and igniting debates about housing beyond its allies. This is not to say that the media has substantially or substantively engaged the story behind the struggle; however, the reactions that emerge from the coverage help push the agenda of social housing as urban justice further into the center, alongside the argument of housing inequality as urban inequality.

A year and a half into the occupation, the fate of the homeless remains just as precarious: not only have housing units not been awarded, but eviction orders have also been served. Though intended recipients of occupied housing projects for state security forces were enjoined by the President to give up their units in exchange for more dignified ones, it is uncertain whether and when these empty, unfinished, and substandard homes will be formally transferred to their occupants. Until then, the new residents of these ghost towns and suburban slums will have to guard their homes, defend their barricades, and, as they have always done, bring life to spaces where there was none.

Interview | The political ecology of Laguna Lake as Metro Manila’s flood risk sponge: An interview with Dr Kristian Saguin (Geography, UP Diliman)

I wrote about Dr Kristian Saguin’s (Geography, University of the Philippines-Diliman) Virginia A. Miralao Excellence in Research Award and Urban Studies Foundation International Fellowship, over at the Philippine Geographical Society blog. It includes an interview (excerpted below) about his prize-winning article, “Producing an Urban Hazardscape beyond the City”, published in Environment and Planning A. We talked about the production of Laguna Lake as Metro Manila’s flood risk sponge, the disastrous socioecological consequences of the state’s flood management plans, and the need for an infrastructural turn in Philippine disasters research. An open-access version of his paper is available at this link.


KHRISTINE ALVAREZ: This was such an enjoyable read. I personally think it’s one of the most important critical interventions to Philippine disasters research, as it asks a fresh set of neglected questions. Your paper centers attention on a logical, thus popular, yet often unexamined solution to floods and disasters, which is building a better and a more expansive flood control infrastructure system. You talk about its politics beyond the usual framing of the political by examining the intersecting lives of Laguna Lake as an ecosystem, a fisheries resource, a place of residence, and of course, as a flood control infrastructure. You then consider how narratives of the lake as a frontier that is distinct from and simultaneously in service of the city, constituted it as a space where flood risk can be offloaded (by using it as stormwater storage to mitigate flooding in Metro Manila) and how this in turn generated new inequalities. To me, this shows the fascinating lives of waterways and infrastructures, and I’m curious about how you came to study Laguna Lake and how the risk aspect of your work came about.

KRISTIAN SAGUIN: Laguna Lake presented a rich empirical terrain for me as a geographer who was initially interested in examining agrarian change and conflicts in the context of fisheries. However, in doing ethnographic and historical work to understand aquaculture in the lake, I increasingly realized the need to expand my theoretical approach and extend my topical focus beyond fisheries. Urbanization played a significant role in shaping the lake’s socioecological history, and I found it necessary to trace the material flows – and the practices and politics that surround these flows – from the lake to the city. This brought me to other kinds of flows that I saw co-produced city and lake natures, which included drinking water, wastes and stormwater. Risk permeated these urban metabolic flows initiated mainly by the state’s desire of taming nature for progress. In particular, the building of modern flood control infrastructure in Manila intersected with aquaculture as a similarly modern project. I felt that to understand the urbanization of Laguna Lake, I needed to look at risk production and its modern history.

I’ve been following the social science literature on Philippine disasters post-Ondoy, and I’m continuously struck by the very marginal academic curiosity about the politics of techno-managerial solutions to disasters because they are in fact very political. As you discuss in your paper, diverting stormwater flows from Metro Manila to Laguna Lake flooded fish pens and damaged the structures of aquaculture operators, destroying livelihoods and homes. Likewise, constructing the Laguna Lakeshore Expressway Dike (LLED) to alleviate flooding in the city led to the eviction of lake dwellers. What are your thoughts on the neglect of the politics of solutions, particularly of infrastructure, in disasters scholarship in and on the Philippines?

I think the structural roots and the state’s role need to be re-emphasized in the disaster literature in the Philippines. The rich body of work focusing on improving resilience and adaptive capacities of communities needs to be complemented by critical research that probes the production of risk and vulnerability. Production is a key term because it points to a dynamic and processual understanding of risk and vulnerability. It reminds us of the political nature of disasters, whose roots can be traced back to particular moments, sites and relations.

One of the most striking things you mention is how Laguna Lake was conceived as a space “where risk can take place”. You talk about three flood events in your paper – 2009, 2012, and 2013. I wonder if the state’s view of the lake as a risk sponge changed after the 2009 Ondoy disaster, and to what extent these new perceptions reconfigured flood interventions.

The biggest irony in the government’s response to addressing flooding in Laguna Lake – which was in many ways rooted in the design of large-scale infrastructure built in the 1970s and 1980s  – was to revive older plans of constructing more infrastructure around the lake. The LLED emerged as a concrete project after the 2013 monsoon floods, which neatly aligned with the previous administration’s public-private partnership agenda. Fisherfolk who opposed the project were particularly concerned that by building a dike infrastructure on the western shore of the lake, flood risk will be transferred or magnified both for residents in other parts of the lake and for those shoreline communities located next to the dike. The expansion of Mega Manila toward the western bay of the lake has set this section apart from the rest of the lake in terms of its need to be protected and the opportunities that it provides for further urban growth. The discursive distinction between Manila as the urban agglomeration and Laguna Lake as the non-city sink therefore has become increasingly blurred.

How did imaginaries of the city as a space to be protected from flooding vis-a-vis the non-city as a space that fulfils this obligation emerge?

These imaginaries are most explicit in flood control master plans and infrastructure project plans, which I traced as far back as the 1940s. It would be interesting to see also how these imaginaries emerged alongside changing scientific and governance approaches to flood management.

Your paper clearly demonstrates the injurious consequences to residents of producing the lake as a flood risk sink. I’m interested in learning if lake dwellers or the state spoke of any benefits to residents of utilizing the lake as a stormwater basin, and if the state wielded this as justification for infrastructural projects particularly the LLED. 

Based on conversations, residents do not see any benefit from higher water lake levels for a longer period of time unless they damage fishpens and release fish into the lake (as in the case of strong typhoons). On the other hand, state plans have acknowledged that these projects will cause greater flooding in the lake but have downplayed their effects or have framed them as a necessary sacrifice for the greater number of people.

Community resistance to the Napindan Hydraulic Control Structure in the early 1980s is so interesting, especially the motorcade of boats from the lake to Malacanang. It seems like the bold resistance dampened in recent years despite the more disastrous effects of lake policies and projects on the lives of residents. Is that a fair observation, and can you tell us more about the state of organizing in the lake at the time of your last visit? 

For some lake residents, the floods have brought attention back to the flood control infrastructures which have inconspicuously become part of the urban landscape. These infrastructures are often blamed for some of the ecological problems of the lake, including flooding and decreased fisheries productivity. Therefore, lake residents see these infrastructures as important sites of transformation. This became pronounced again in the wake of proposals for the construction of the LLED in 2014-2016. The project has since been shelved in its proposed form because of financial feasibility concerns but it resulted in various forms of community resistance that I think has not been seen in the lake since the 1980s.

I appreciate how you used the city and the non-city as binary categories, rather than the more familiar dichotomies of urban/rural, city/hinterland, etc. This framing is neither too opposed nor too contradictory, yet it conveys clear distinctions. I think this is a brilliant way of drawing a distinction between two materially different spaces while maintaining that they flow into each other. To me, this speaks to your argument that non-city spaces like Laguna Lake are urban because they are imbricated in processes of urbanization in the urban core. Rhetorically, I think it militates against the rather rigid imaginaries of Metro Manila and Laguna Lake as mutually exclusive spaces. How did you arrive at this framing?

Debates about the urban have re-emerged in urban studies in recent years. Reading and hearing urban scholars [notably Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid] speak about “planetary urbanization”, “operational landscapes” and the urban beyond cities (as well as their corresponding critiques) strongly resonated with me as someone who has been thinking about the links between the lake and the city for many years.

If non-city spaces are urban because they are implicated in processes of city-making, where might we draw the line concerning what is urban? Can you talk about what it means to keep the city and the non-city in “productive tension”?

This is one of the contentious points that arises when we rethink the spaces of the urban beyond the city. Some urban scholars [particularly Brenner and Schmid] make the strong theoretical claim of a planetary urban condition – a world that has become or is becoming totally urban. What I think is needed instead is grounded research that empirically demonstrates how non-cities become enrolled in urbanization both in material and discursive terms. We start with the city or the non-city and then see through which processes construct these as urban or non-urban. We can find the urban in non-cities in the same way that the non-urban can exist within cities.

Can you talk more about how shifting the focus of studies of urbanization beyond the city urbanizes urban political ecology (UPE)?

Despite its name, urban political ecology draws much of its theoretical and epistemological language from critical urban studies rather than political ecology. UPE has employed a critical urban studies approach to contested natures in cities, a topic which political ecology has largely avoided. This division of labor I think has prevented scholars from considering the variegated spaces and landscapes brought together by processes like urbanization. However, recent UPE papers are beginning to bridge these divisions.

As an urban political ecologist, how would you explain UPE to those who are unfamiliar with the term? 

Urban political ecology takes as starting point the ideas that urbanization produces particular configurations of nature and that the political permeates this urbanization of nature. UPE rehearses the argument that urban environmental issues are fundamentally political at a time when technocratic and apolitical solutions dominate policy-making and urban governance. UPE’s focus on the political may take the form of emphasizing conflicts over access to nature in cities (as in the case of urban water, food and green spaces), the uneven distribution of risk and harms (as in floods and wastes), or contested knowledge production about urban natures (as in ideas about how to see urban environmental concerns), among others.

What are you currently working on?

I am near the end of a two-year research project on urban agriculture in Metro Manila. One of the interesting findings of the project is different ways that the “urban” (and urban subjectivities) is articulated through urban agriculture projects.

You were recently awarded an international fellowship by the Urban Studies Foundation. Can you tell us about what you’re going to work on?

The Urban Studies Foundation International Fellowship provides me an opportunity to work on two sets of activities that explore the politics of urban nature in Manila. During the fellowship period, I will be based in Durham University under the mentorship of Professor Colin McFarlane, who has produced outstanding research on similar themes as mine, such as the politics of informality and infrastructure, among others. First, I will finish a book manuscript based on my dissertation that brings together eight years of research on the urbanization of Laguna Lake and Metro Manila. Second, I will write articles based on my ongoing research on the dimensions of urban agriculture in Metro Manila.