Christopher John “CJ” Chanco, University of the Philippines-Diliman, Philippines

On the morning of 23 September 2010, residents of Sitio San Roque clashed with police as their makeshift barricades succumbed to demolition teams sent by the Philippine National Housing Authority (NHA) and the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), leaving more than a hundred homes demolished and more than a dozen injured in Quezon City’s North Triangle. The seven hour stand-off, not the last in a series of conflicts that have shaken the fabric of metropolitan Manila, was, in the words of NHA officer Francisco Alican (Suarez, & Abella, 2010) , an “interagency effort” to protect property intended for “commercial ventures”.

Two years later, successive major flood events prompted the government agencies to declare canals or esteros flowing to Manila Bay as danger zones not suitable for human habitation. Some 104,000 families live in informal settlements along esteros in Manila, of which 60,130 live along major waterways. Under the Flood Management Master Plan for Metro Manila and Surrounding Areas (Department of Public Works and Highways, 2013), around 20,000 families are to be moved to in-city or off-city  relocation sites in the urban periphery. This is deemed necessary for the protection of residents endangered by annual flooding and for the cleansing of squatter settlements blamed for clogging the waterways.

Both the urban clean-up operations and re-housing projects have involved private contractors and investors as key players. This has prompted critics to draw links between the flood management plans and major PPP infrastructure projects, including the reclamation and redevelopment of Manila Bay and Laguna Lake into commercial districts.

More than eight hundred kilometres away in Tacloban City, similar trends can be seen. Tens of thousands of people displaced by Haiyan have been prevented from rebuilding their homes 40 to 200 metres off the coast, ostensibly for their own protection, under a No Build Zone, No-Dwell Zone policy. The policy extends to communities along Laguna Lake and Manila Bay, and according to Pamalakaya, a national federation of small fisherfolk, which could potentially displace up to 10.8 million more people.

Despite these rules shanties have , been rebuilt on no-build zones in the absence of suitable resettlement sites, and recovery has been slow for tens of thousands in Tacloban city alone. Under the slogan, “Build Back Better”, the private sector has been elevated to a leading role in rehabilitation efforts, with nine of the country’s largest business conglomerates, including mining firm Nickel Asia, invited to build schools, hospitals, and other major infrastructure, with the government assigned to “fallback option”  by the former head of rehabilitation efforts Panfilo Lacson.

Common to these events are partnerships between the national government and the private sector that have shaped processes which David Harvey has called accumulation by dispossession (ABD). At nearly every stage, private investors or contractors depend on state support to accumulate and protect capital. Philippine urban sociologist Chester Arcilla highlights the symbiotic nature of this relationship: Capital lends the state its liquidity while the state vests in capital its monopoly of the use of force, its powers for coercion and consent.  In turn, the state’s instruments of violence and legality legitimise property regimes that define with impunity spatialities of exception and exclusion in urban neoliberalisation.

This is facilitated by the fact that slums are portrayed as blockages to the flow of capital investment, with their inhabitants rendered in terms of the excluded other. The struggles of the urban poor against evictions and for decent housing tend to have even less legitimacy in the eyes of the state and the middle class, given prevailing ‘common sense’ that links criminality to the lack of legal documentation and private property rights. The recriminalisation of poverty and normalisation of precarious labour leaves these sites especially vulnerable to emerging and sophisticated regimes of dispossession.   Social polarisation has fed into what can be argued is an emerging neoliberal caste system, pitting the middle class against a precariat surplus population, which has in turn helped fuel the violence of the capitalist state.

Over the past five years alone, evictions have turned increasingly violent, with thousands displaced by PPP and government infrastructure projects, resulting in numerous reported injuries, killings, and illegal arrests of slum-dwellers . But not all is bare violence, and while dispossession via coercion occurs through violent demolitions and forced evictions, it also takes place through the manufacturing of consent. In relocation sites, for instance, a variety of legal and discursive mechanisms surrounding the relocation process endeavour to encourage informal settlers to enter into the fold of formalised citizenship.

Government agencies have allocated billions of pesos for eviction drives (General Appropriations Act FY, 2013), while promising space at a designated resettlement area or cash handouts for affected families, who are given about a month’s notice to leave their homes. Cash transfers act as a mechanism for neoliberal or civic governmentality, with those who refuse stigmatised as ‘professional squatters’ or associated with left-wing groups. A token fee  is often given as direct substitute for permanent housing for evictees, while those who insist on staying put face the threat of demolition.

Moreover, public housing initiatives tend to be ad hoc affairs, planned out after people have already been displaced or are about to be displaced. Selection of housing beneficiaries is shaped by relations between government officials and evicted communities that take on clientilistic forms. These echo state-evictee relations under the Martial Law era, where the ability to secure housing units depended on one’s relations with local patrons or power-holders.

What is new is the extent to which corporate actors have entered into the scene. PPPs are found even in the context of public housing projects, which are either managed by private contractors in deals between construction and utility companies and the NHA, or are provided for by the state to clear land for private investment. The Quezon City Central Business District (QCCBD) is a case in point. Slum-dwellers displaced by Vertis North have been moved to relocation sites provided for by the NHA, which is in strategic alliance with Ayala, Inc. Evictions have taken place in stages, limiting dissent through a mix of coercion and consent, and with evictees scattered across disparate resettlement projects in Bulacan, Rizal, Cavite, among other far-flung locales

Government policy toward informal settlers have resulted in cycles of eviction and resettlement, while neglecting the structural poverty and landlessness that are the root causes of urban slum growth. The end result is that between 30-40% of those resettled return to their places of origin.

On either end of the cycle of urban dispossession, therefore, capital resurrects even the refuse of its operations into additional sites for capital accumulation. Such  compounded dispossession can only be described as double, even triple, violence.  While capital has managed to exploit subaltern marginality to its own ends, utilising new technologies of power  to meet its physical infrastructural needs via state patronage, informal labour is relegated to sub-standard housing, even homelessness, alongside the stripping of public services and social infrastructure.

Authors Note

This article is an extract from a longer unpublished work, Squatters of Capital: Regimes of Dispossession and the production of subaltern sites in urban land conflicts in the Philippines.


[1]Suarez, L. and Abella, J. (2010). Barricades block QC North Triangle demolition; 14 hurt in clashes. GMA News TV. [Online]. 23 September 2010. [Accessed 17 November 2014]. Available from http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/201776/news/nation/barricades-block-qc-north-triangle-demolition-14-hurt-in-clashes

[2]Department of Public Works and Highways (2013)

[3]General Appropriations Act FY (2013) Department of Budget and Management [online] Available at: http://www.dbm.gov.ph/?page_id=5280 [Accessed 5 Dec. 2014]. See also: “P10B allocated for transfer of informal settlers” <http://www.sunstar.com.ph/breaking-news/2013/06/24/p10b-allocated-transfer-informal-settlers-289016>

Author Biography

Christopher John “CJ” Chanco is a graduate student in the Department of Geography at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, with research interests in political ecology and the geographies of dispossession and resistance. He was formerly a policy researcher on global development and civil society at Ibon International.

Contact email: chrischanco@gmail.com


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Dialogues of sustainable urbanisation: Social science research and transitions to urban contexts Copyright © 2015 by Christopher John “CJ” Chanco, University of the Philippines-Diliman, Philippines is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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