In Payatas, the poor are hopeful

This series focuses not on the candidates but on the voters. The insights from this report can be mined by candidates, as well as analysts, as they question preconceived notions about a “dumb” and unthinking masa vote. Indeed, what this series shows is that it is not the poor who are to blame for the current state of politics and election discourse. Instead, it is our electoral system and the candidates who take part in the polls who have not lived up to the expectations of the poor.

The second part of the report focuses on Payatas, site of Manila’s biggest garbage dump, and describes what seem to be the hopefulness of people there. Although the middle class tends to be depressed about the country and the prospects for the elections, the poor believe they can rely only on their own resourcefulness to carve out a better life.

LUPANG PANGAKO, PAYATAS, QUEZON CITY — Orlando Wong lives in the shadow of the huge dumpsite here, and there are times that he and his family can’t eat because of the stink of the place. But Wong, 42, is surprisingly optimistic about his future and that of the country. “The Philippines,” he says, “is going to walk the path of growth and development.”

Like many of the 80,000 residents here in Payatas, the country’s biggest dumpsite community, Wong believes in elections, which he says do bring about change. According to popular thinking, Wong and many of his neighbors would probably vote for someone who is charismatic and popular-like former President Joseph Estrada, perhaps.

Supporters of Estrada’s bosom buddy, action-movie-star-turned-presidential-candidate Fernando Poe Jr. certainly hope — and think — so. After all, Estrada remains popular here even after three years in detention and numerous exposés on the extent of his corruption. The reasoning then is that since this is Erap country, it is probably going to be pro-FPJ.

But FPJ is not Erap, as some fans of the ousted president have been saying. And as the findings of a new study by the Institute of Philippine Culture (IPC) of the Ateneo de Manila indicate, the so-called “dumb masa vote” may be more myth than reality.

The IPC conducted 16 focus-group discussions in selected urban and rural poor communities across the country in March and April. Three of these discussions were in Barangay Commonwealth in Quezon City, which is near Payatas. According to the two youth focus groups that took part in the Commonwealth discussions, Estrada is an example of a bad leader, whom they defined as, among other things, selfish, corrupt, irresponsible, untrustworthy, lazy, and abusive.

Table 4. Sources of influence on voting decision

Urban Rural Youth Non-Youth Male Female
Media 24.5 16.5 8 9.5 15 8 7
Family 17 8 9 7 10 1 7
Church 17 10 7 7 10 3 7
Political party 12 3 9 1 11 6 5
Own influence/None 12 12 0 0 12 12 0
Survey 7 5 2 2 5 4 1
School 2.5 2.5 0 2.5 0 0 0
Organization/Employer 2 2 0 0 2 2 0
Artista (Movie star) 1 1 0 1 0 0 0

* Non-youth is disaggregated into male and female
** The weighted scores were arrived at by assigning points to the rankings made by each focus group discussion. In a list of five factors, the item with the first rank was given a score of 5; the item with the second rank was given a score of 4; etc. The scores were then aggregated for al of the 16 groups.
Source: Institute of Philippine Culture

Estrada remains popular among Payatas residents largely because of the strategic infusions of government funding by his administration and the simple gestures the then president had made. As one teenager here says, a bit wistfully even, “Erap used to come here often, and not just during elections.”

But it is uncertain if he would garner as many votes as before in Payatas if he were to run again for president today. Although Payatas operates on a fairly different set of dynamics compared to neighboring Commonwealth, chances are that residents here would hardly find fault with what the three focus groups, including one made up of adults participating in the IPC study, said: a good leader is God-fearing, principled, responsible, honest in work, trustworthy, and nationalistic.

The findings yielded by the Commonwealth focus groups hew very closely to the general results of the IPC study. According to the Commonwealth groups, they look at a candidate’s track record and experience and whether or not he or she has a platform. Many of the participants also look for leaders with educational attainments that are commensurate to the positions they are seeking. They said that their selection of a leader was dependent as well on the candidate’s integrity.

While the Commonwealth participants said popularity and charisma could give a candidate an edge, they said they would still base their vote on the candidate’s qualifications. They said survey results or the “winnability” of a candidate had no bearing on the choices they would make on election day. They were also one in saying that it is the right and obligation of every Filipino to vote.

The Filipino poor have had a tradition of turning out in droves during elections. Payatas residents are apparently no different, with even scavenger Irma Dina, who is 46 but looks decades older, saying that she will be voting on May 10. Dirty and burnt by the sun, she admits though that up to now she is unsure of her candidates.

Dina is hardly an exception. Many Payatas residents say they will be casting their ballots just a couple of weeks from now, but they remain uncertain whose names they will be writing down.

Their indecision may be a consequence of politicians skipping the dumpsite. According to one teenager, as late as March, none of the presidential candidates — not even FPJ — had turned up to sell themselves to voters here. Among those running for senator, only film actor and Pampanga Governor Lito Lapid had passed the closest to Payatas, although he was on his way to a sortie somewhere else.

Voters, of course, want to see candidates up close — the better to scrutinize them and study their body language. Some of the Commonwealth focus-group participants even said that they appreciate candidates who consult with them — “bumababa sa lugar” — more than those who don’t. Barring such visits, poor voters have tried to make do with whatever information they get from the media, which in the IPC study emerged as the participants’ top source for data on candidates.

But there seems to be a new impetus for many Payatas residents to go out and vote. For probably the first time in history, Payatas will be seeing a united evangelical Christian vote emerging, catalyzed by the decision of Brother Eddie Villanueva, spiritual director and international president of the Jesus is Lord church ministry, to run for president.

Some members of The Breath of Life Tabernacle Church, one among dozens of relatively small Bible-based groups in Payatas (there is even a ragtag church on the dump itself), were among those who cheered Villanueva as he gave his political speech in Rizal Park last February.

Basilio Ocinar, 53 years old and part of that congregation, wasn’t able to make it to the rally. But he is no less passionate about what he believes in. “It’s our right to vote. As citizens of our country, we have to vote,” he says, and immediately segues into a more ardent call. “What this country needs is a true Christian to finally put an end to corruption, for a man who has the fear of God in him will do no sin.”

Interestingly, the IPC found that the church ranked third among the poor as an institution that influenced their choice of a candidate, following media and family.

Table 5. Determinants of Vote

1995 STUDY 2003 STUDY
1. Sikat at Popular (Popularity)

  • Pagiging sikat at popular (Popularity)
  • Pagiging artista (Being an actor/actress)
  • Pag-endorso ng artista (Endorsement by an actor/actress)
  • Maraming poster at streamer (A lot of posters and streamers)
  • Mahusay magtalumpati (Good public speaker)
1. Public Servant Image

  • Madaling lapitan (Approachable)
  • Malinis na pagkatao (Decent)
  • Matulungin sa nangangailangan (Helps the needy)
  • Nagtataguyod ng programa ng goberyno para sa kaunlaran (Supports government development programs)
  • Nagtataguyod ng alternatibong program para sa kaunlaran (Support alternative development programs)
2. Endorsement of traditional network and organization

  • Pag-endorso ng simbahan (Church endorsement)
  • Pag-endorso ng political leader sa komunidad (Endorsement by political leader in the community)
  • Pag-endorso ng organisasyon (Endorsement by organization)
  • Pag-endorso ng pamilya o kamag-anak (Endorsement by family or relatives)
2. Political Machinery

  • Pagiging kabilang sa oposisyon (Member of the opposition)
  • Partidong kinabibilangan ng kandidato (Candidate’s political party)
  • Maraming poster at streamer (A lot of posters and streamers)
  • Mahusay magtalumpati (Good public speaker)
  • Nagbabahay-bahay sa panahon ng kampanya (House-to-house campaign)
3. Characteristics that can be of benefit to the voter

  • Madaling lapitan (Approachable)
  • Malinis na pagkatao (Decent)
  • Matulungin sa nangangailangan (Helps the needy)
  • Maraming poster at streamer (A lot of posters and streamers)
  • Mahusay magtalumpati (Good public speaker)
3. Popularity

  • Pagiging artista (Being an actor/actress)
  • Pagiging sikat at popular (Popularity)
  • Pag-endorso ng artista (Endorsement by an actor/actress)
4. Party program

  • Nagtataguyod ng programa ng goberyno (Supports government programs)
  • Nagtataguyod ng alternatibong program para sa kaunlaran (Support alternative development programs)
4. Endorsement of traditional network and organization

  • Pag-endorso ng pamilya o kamag-anak (Endorsement by family or relatives)
  • Pag-endorso ng simbahan (Church endorsement)
  • Pag-endorso ng samahan/organisasyon (Endorsement by organization)
  • Pag-endorso ng lider (Endorsement by leader)

Source: Psychographics Study on Voting Behavior of the Filipino Electorate, Institute of Political and Electoral Reform (IPER)

Payatas, however, may no longer exemplify the desperation people associate with impoverished communities. Even at a glance, Lupang Pangako, the community closest to the dump, is today suspiciously unlike the picture of material and spiritual deprivation it has long been painted to be. The roads are wide and paved and while alleyways are not, these are at least swept clean by residents themselves at the crack of dawn.

Many of the houses may be a bit rundown and made up of a hodgepodge of materials, but they are lovingly kept neat and clean-even the homes nearest the dump. One can also tell that people began tending gardens and planting trees almost as soon as they moved in-there are a few mangoes just putting out their first fruits for the summer and coconut trees rise straight and tall. There is order here and a good-natured ambience difficult to find in any part of Metro Manila, bar none. Even the scavengers have IDs and register themselves with the dumpsite authorities.

Economic activity has picked up. Near the jeep terminal is a small wet market, a grocery, and a store selling mineral water. There’s a newspaper stand that carries the major broadsheets. Even scavenging, though still backbreaking work, brings in more money now.

“They’re buying everything these days,” explains 19-year-old Andrew of the ubiquitous junkshops dotting the dumps boundaries. “Someone as young as I am can easily earn P300 scavenging the whole day and even as much as P400.”

That shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Despite the doom and gloom dished out by the country’s newspapers, the economy isn’t performing all that badly. For sure, there is still the continuing poor performance of the peso against the dollar and a dip in government spending due to fiscal difficulties. But gross domestic product (GDP) was up by 4.5 percent in 2003. Gross national product or GNP, plus income from abroad, hit 5.5 percent growth, higher than the upper end of government’s band target of 4.5 to 5.4 percent.

Plus, this is a community that never gave up in working to better itself. And in doing so, it seems to have fallen into better times.

But Wong himself points out, “Our community has become a magnet for all kinds of social services, more so after the disaster struck.”

Wong is referring to the tragedy that came to Payatas on the morning of July 10, 2000. After 15 days of rain, a chunk of the Payatas dumpsite slid off and buried more than 200 mostly sleeping residents of Lupang Pangako under tons of muck. Dozens of bodies remain unrecovered to this day.

The incident sent the nation reeling in shock, devastated the career of then Quezon City Mayor Ismael Mathay Jr. and left the metropolis stinking to high heavens as the dumpsite was temporarily shut down. It was reopened in November of the same year only after the Metro Manila Development Authority failed to find an alternative place for the capital’s trash.

But some good did come out of that horrible day. An outpouring of sympathy from the guilt-ridden public and private sectors eventually saw social services and utilities making their way into many corners of the communities around the dump. Electricity became available to almost every household three years ago. Families like those of the Wongs and Jake and Lisa Cauding now have access to potable, running water as of last year. Even scavenger Dina says her humble home has electricity and water.

In the case of the Caudings, it’s not at all an issue that the water comes from their neighbor’s tap. And even though the pipes cough up water only every other day and only from two a.m. to 10 a.m. at that, they’re not ones to complain. In fact, they’re even glad.

“We used to buy water up there at P5 per container,” says Jake Cauding, referring to the main road some 100 meters away. “Now we pay only P2 to our neighbor for every jug we fill up.”

This has had a profound impact on people who have never had it as easy before, and the resulting shift in attitude toward government is quite palpable. Although residents still have their laments when talk swings to the way the country is being run, these are spoken matter of factly rather than with rancor, or worse, helplessness. To think that in May 2001, Payatas sent an angry contingent of Estrada supporters to join the tens of thousands of the city’s poor who charged Malacañang and threatened the then four-month-old Arroyo administration.

A shaken President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in her first state-of-the-nation address a couple of months later, took three children from Payatas and made aggressive promises to uplift their lives, offering them as a showcase for the country’s poor. Subsequent news reports say the children have continued to receive financial assistance and this in turn has silenced some of the Arroyo government’s critics in Payatas.

In 2003, the president herself promised that she would negotiate with private landowners to buy out the dumpsite property and parcel it out among the families affected by the July 2000 disaster. The offer was received with mixed emotions, with some families saying perhaps money would be better.

Nothing has come out of that promise so far. But at least in Commonwealth, Arroyo seems to have been perceived as doing some good, since the adult focus group there named her as one of their examples of a good leader, along with the late President Ramon Magsaysay (visited poor and gave them livelihood projects), Senator Noli de Castro (against corruption in his radio and TV programs), Quezon City Vice Mayor Herbert Bautista (long experience in public service, has never broken the law), Senator Juan Flavier (morally upright), and Senator Gregorio Honasan.

Then again, it also said she was a bad leader because of her alleged involvement in “illegal dealings such as the PIATCO scandal, the (Commission on Elections) computerization (fiasco), Subic smuggling, and the Jose Pidal case.”

They lumped her together with people ranging from former President Fidel Ramos (“we do not know where the money went” in Fort Bonifacio) to the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos (stayed too long, corrupt) to convicted rapists Romeo Jalosjos, a former congressman, and Antonio Sanchez, ex-mayor of Calauan, Laguna.

One of the youth focus groups also said Arroyo “did not honor her words” and was therefore a bad leader, as were Estrada (broke the law), former senator Miriam Defensor Santiago (neither here nor there), and presidential candidate Raul Roco (perceived as corrupt).

This youth focus group’s examples of a good leader included Marcos (“during his stint the peso was equivalent to the dollar”), former tourism secretary Richard Gordon (for his WOW Philippines project), and Aquilino Pimentel (showed his moral uprightness during the impeachment trial of Estrada).

It would be interesting to see who Payatas residents would consider as “good” and “bad” leaders. Many of them, though, would probably agree with Wong’s view that there is simply “too much politics and too little action” going on in government right now.

The same cannot be said about Payatas residents themselves. People here may not be aware of it because they are doing it in such small increments, but they have been busy improving their lives, with or without government help. That is why they can be optimistic despite the daily sight of a growing heap of raw, steaming trash: they know change is possible.