The Manila Seedling Bank, a seven hectare area of small market gardens and big and small shops selling plants, was a rare green space among the traffic jams, shopping malls and slums on the intersection of Quezon and Edsa Avenues in Quezon City, Metro Manila.
It was also home to a community of hundreds of smallholding horticulturalists and their families. That was until January 20.
On that day, riot police and paramilitary SWAT teams invaded the property with demolition teams. These were not just made up of building workers, but also included under-equipped, underpaid and, by appearances, underage casual workers recruited from other urban poor communities.
The acquisition of the property from the National Housing Authority (NHA) by the Quezon City government was twice ruled illegal in court.
The city government appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. Then, with total disregard for due process, went ahead with the eviction of the tenant smallholders ― trashing their homes and businesses.
The income the tenants could make from their small allotments, each with a hut that served as both shop and home, was enough to sustain their families but insufficient to provide savings. Prime sites around the property were occupied by large chain-owned shops that bought some of the tenants’ produce to sell with a 250% mark-up.
However, the seedling growers enjoyed some quality life benefits not typical for Metro Manila’s poor majority. Their homes were tiny but were spaced throughout verdant gardens, rather than crammed into small areas between freeways and foul-smelling, flood-prone waterways.
The residents also thought they had a rare security over their homes and livelihoods. The occupancy rights of their homes and businesses were guaranteed by law. The law also guaranteed the maintenance of the Seedling Bank as a green space.
However, politics in the Philippines is notoriously corrupt. The property’s prime location attracted the attention of real estate giant Ayala Land Incorporated, which signed a joint venture agreement with the Quezon City government to build a shopping mall and upscale apartments.
The city government expropriated the property on the pretext of unpaid local taxes, despite the fact the NHA was legally exempt from paying them.
In response to the city government’s disregard of law and due process, the tenants took their campaign to save their livelihoods and homes to the streets. In early December, 13 residents were arrested and held for a week without charge after resisting attempts by demolition crews to enter the property.
On December 12, they were joined by well-known activist priest Father Robert Reyes, members of the BMP trade union federation and the socialist Party of the Labouring Masses (PLM), in a march along freeways and past shopping malls to Quezon City Hall.
On December 28, a second protest held a picket outside a nearby Ayala-owned mall that closed it for the morning.
On January 3, the growers and their supporters again took to the freeways, marching to the Human Rights Commission. A representative of the HRC assured protesters they would take up their cause. However, they have not taken any action to prevent the city government’s unilateral action.
Police with automatic rifles, truncheons and riot shields enforced the city government’s illegal action on January 20.
Their invasion began at 6am. By 7.30am, they had the property sealed off and demolition teams in strategic points.
After media crews were herded out, the young workers set about removing stock, which was later dumped, and trashing built structures with crowbars and hammers.
The workers had no helmets or shoes and were clearly untrained. Corrugated steel roofing was dropped onto live electric wires, while water shot out of trashed pipes and mains.
Desperate people with no livelihood were employed for 200 pesos (A$5) to destroy other people’s livelihoods.
Some workers complained to the growers that their pay was not enough for the heavy lifting involved ― and offered to spare their allotment for the same price. Others took to the task with glee, jeering at the tenants and posing for photographs.
Lawyers for the growers are submitting photographic evidence, some provided by Green Left Weekly, to the courts and HRC to show that the city government and police were breaking workplace safety laws and probably laws against child labour.
The evicted growers are continuing to protest, although the Seedling Bank is now levelled and fenced off with corrugated iron. On January 21, Reyes led a group of 30 growers, and BMP and PLM activists to City Hall. The mayor, comedy actor Herbert “Bistek” Bautista, refused to meet the delegation.
The delegation responded by holding a sit-down protest in the 12-lane traffic outside City Hall. Growers chanted “Mayor Bistek, land grabber!”, “Ayala, land grabber!” and “We will fight for our livelihoods”. Father Reyes held a large placard saying “Green not Greed”.
However, with the protesters' chants almost drowned by traffic noise, and undisguised corruption and paramilitary force allowing one of the last green spaces to be destroyed for a shopping mall, for the time being, in Quezon City, greed has the upper hand.