Why the "No-Dwelling Zone" policy is an outright demolition of coastal communities and not a rehabilitation program

Some coastal villages in Yolanda-stricken areas in Roxas City, Panay in Western Visayas Region are facing demolition due to the national government's "no-dwelling zone" policy. Under this policy, reconstruction of houses destroyed by Yolanda is prohibited in the "zones" while it allows businesses and tourism-related infrastructures. The government said the no-dwelling zone policy is aimed at reducing disaster risks in coastal areas. Affected residents are up in arms against the said policy because it is focused more on demolishing communities to give way to big businesses.

When I arrived in Roxas City, Capiz through the airport, I could not help but be amused at the first sight that greeted me: a huge billboard saying, "Welcome to the Seafood Capital of the Philippines". Along with the message are the grinning faces of its mayor, the President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III and DILG (Department of Interior and Local Government) Secretary Mar Roxas (who hails from this city), as if announcing to one and all that it's business as usual in Roxas City.


Seven months ago, Roxas City was one of the most devastated places in Visayas region in the wake of super typhoon Yolanda. Most of the coastal communities were ravaged by the storm surges destroying their houses and fishing boats, their main source of livelihood. Roxas City is located at the northeastern tip of Panay Island of the Western Visayas Region.


Close to the airport is a place called Baybay. Baybay is the local word for seashore. Riding in a tricycle (a public transport), I passed by the area and saw people busy selling fresh seafoods in newly rebuilt restaurants. I saw huge tarpaulins in front of some beach resorts gladly announcing that they're back to business. At one point, the tricycle driver asked me to look at a big highly gated house on my left informing me that it is Mar Roxas' house. While I was thinking of the reason why he asked me to look at the house, the driver suddenly quipped, "It's the only structure that remained undamaged in Baybay during Yolanda." Mar Roxas is the presidential bet of the ruling political party in the coming 2016 national elections. Last elections, he narrowly lost to Jojemar Binay in the vice presidential race. Roxas belongs to one of the richest families in the country. The city got its name from Roxas' grandfather, Manuel Roxas, the first president of the Philippines after it gained independence from the United States of America in 1946.


A different sight, however, had greeted me when I reached my destination: barangay (village) Culasi. Culasi was one of the coastal areas in Roxas City badly damaged by Yolanda. In fact, it was one of the few villages visited by the President when he made his round in visiting Yolanda-stricken places. Instead of houses being rebuilt, I saw traces of houses being demolished and certain part of the coast enclosed with fence. This is the No-Dwelling zone. Government soldiers were camped nearby to make sure that no one from those whose houses were demolished can go back and build their houses there again. The coast, according to the residents, is rich in magnetite and they heard reports that a big local mining company is interested in mining the area.


The sight was too poignant to be amusing. I was suddenly reminded of the grinning faces I saw at the billboard in the airport. The complaint of typhoon survivors that the Aquino government no-dwelling zone policy is focused more on demolishing communities to give way to big businesses is not without a basis after all.


One month after Yolanda, President Aquino instructed the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to enforce "no-build zones" along coastal communities ravaged by Yolanda in Eastern Visayas. Under the policy, the no-build zones will be set up 40 meters from the high-water mark to the coastline. Reconstruction of houses destroyed or damaged by Yolanda is prohibited in the zones. The government said it is aimed at reducing disaster risks in coastal areas due to storm surges.


In February, former senator Panfilo Lacson, who acts as presidential assistant for rehabilitation and recovery, modified the no-build zones to no-dwelling zones to allow businesses and tourism-related infrastructures in the zones.


I spoke with Annaliza, a community leader under Gabriela women organization, and asked her about her thoughts on the on-going demolition in their community. "We will not just grin and bear it," she said. "We will fight."


Annaliza said more than 50 houses were already demolished with the help of the military. These are out of the 200 houses located within the no-dwelling zone. The houses were damaged but not destroyed during Yolanda and have remained standing there. She said that the mayor promised P15 thousand to each affected family but the money will be given in installment. The mayor never mentioned about any relocation plan.


"While beach resort and restaurant owners are given all the assistance they need to rebuild and restart their businesses, we, the poor, have never received anything from the government. Worse, the government is trying to evict us from our land using the military to harass and sow fear among us," Annaliza said.


In barangay Culajao, another coastal village in Roxas City, residents are also facing demolition because the city government has a grandiose plan of extending its mangrove ecopark to the area where the village is situated. Under the pretext of no-dwelling zone, they were told that the area is not safe for them anymore in the events of typhoons and storm surges and that a relocation site is already being prepared for them.


But the Culasi and Culajao residents have found allies from several municipal mayors of typhoon-hit areas in Panay Island and international humanitarian agencies who have questioned the viability and legality of the no-dwelling zone policy of the national government. It was estimated that nearly 70,000 families will be dislocated if the government pushed through with the implementation of the said policy.


In a declaration, the mayors said that the current 40 meter no-dwelling zone policy might constitute forced eviction, which is considered a gross violation of human rights. They said they could not implement the no-dwelling zone due to its impact on their constituents and lack of resources.


Representatives of international non-government organizations (NGOs) which are helping the survivors in reconstruction and rehabilitation have supported the mayors' declaration and even called on the national government to conduct a comprehensive hazard and vulnerability and livelihood mapping instead of arbitrarily implementing compulsory relocation. They have also asked the government for a genuine and thorough consultation with affected communities especially on relocation plan.


Annaliza said that consultation is not part of the government's vocabulary, though. The last time the mayor visited the village was when he declared that the place is a no-dwelling zone and that they are prohibited from building their houses in the said zone. She said the mayor did not even ask them if they agree or not with the no-dwelling zone or discuss with them any relocation plan.


In response, the residents have started to organize and mobilize themselves for actions against the policy. Community leaders, like Annaliza, are now busy conducting education campaign among the residents and urging them to join protests against the no-dwelling zone policy. For its part, Gabriela recently held a training among several community and people's organization leaders on how to effectively conduct mass and propaganda campaigns to sustain their mobilizations.


Last May, six months after Yolanda, the residents of Culasi and Culajao joined other Yolanda survivors in a big protest-rally in Roxas City. More than 10,000 people attended what was considered as the biggest protest in the city's history. They marched through the streets and held a vigil in front of the city hall to dramatize their condemnation of the no-dwelling zone policy and the continued neglect of the national government of their plight.


When I passed by the house of Mar Roxas on my way back, I realized that the house is situated less than 40 meters away from the shoreline. But who will dare demolish it? Not the military, for sure.






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