Fighting for dignity in Tambakan

Pia Ranada

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Fighting for dignity in Tambakan
In a land that did not exist, informal settlers of Malabon fight to be recognized

MALABON, Philippines – To reach Tambakan in Barangay Catmon, Malabon, one needs to wade through grey flood waters with an oily sheen that persist for the most part of the year. 

As one goes further and further, the water gets shallower and you are in Tambakan, a jumble of wood and metal shanties with tiny rutted alleyways cutting through wherever possible, like flood waters searching for every crevice. 

Here and there are signs that all of Tambakan had never been, that Tambakan stands on what used to be water: green-grey sludge coagulating between houses; canals full of water; sand bags lying everywhere, the secret basic unit of the ground beneath your feet. 

Tambakan was once a large fish pond connecting to the sea but decades of informal settlers have heaped layers of garbage, soil, detritus and sandbags – an informal reclamation.

They hoisted their homes on the new land like flag poles, ready to live their lives out on land they had literally carved out for themselves.

“This used to be all water. The houses were connected only by bamboo bridges. The people here developed it,” said Roseta Cañones, a 41-year-old mother who moved to Tambakan in 2012 but who has lived in Barangay Catmon since 1993. 

In the dog-eat-dog life of Metro Manila’s urban poor, a garbage heap is as good a home as any. Locals make a living selling vegetables and dried fish. Some took on construction jobs.

Families thrived and grew, more and more children ran through its water-logged alleys. Politicians, seeing eligible voters in the new settlement, paved the muddy lanes with concrete, built a school and a community center.

The heap sprouted an informal economy sustaining all who participated in it, a community with its own rhythms and routines. 

But today, Tambakan is different. 

Since August, a hollow-block wall has been built around 200 homes. Armed security guards man the perimeter. 

Most of the families have voluntarily vacated their houses after being offered P10,000 (US$223). These families now live with neighbors lucky enough not to be inside the new wall, or put up temporary shelters in between other houses, what Cañones calls singit-singitan (going in between).

But not everyone was given P10,000. Those who are not members of  Solid Bisig, a community organization recognized by Malabon City Hall, got only P3,000 ($69) in exchange for their homes.

A few families refuse to budge, most of them members of another community organization that is not on friendly terms with the city government. Despite armed personnel and the steadily growing wall that will soon lock them in, these families keep at their daily chores.

I can’t do anything anymore. The wall is closed. The next thing they will do is put barbed wire.

– James Ambucay, Tambakan resident


It’s not as easy as it sounds. Because of the wall, mothers and their children have to walk much farther to school than they used to. 

To cut travel time, residents are forced to pass through the nearby dumpsite, stepping on the city’s garbage. Cañones says the walk is treacherous, not so much because of the methane gas leaking out or the bacteria crawling through the trash, but because the area is a popular hang-out for juvenile delinquents. 

The company putting up the wall constructed a pathway for their personnel’s own use and have given the walled-in residents permission to use it – until the wall is completed.

But Cañones and the other residents are wary of taking the path because residents living along that path are hostile to them, irked by having to give them right of way through their own property.

There is also constant intimidation, such as the time the tractor of the company clearing the area pushed heaps of garbage from the dumpsite to the front door of one of the stubborn residents.

Resident James Ambucay said one of the guards he befriended warned him that they had instructions to shoot anyone entering the walled-in perimeter without permission.

Now, he can’t even go back to his house to get food.

“I can’t do anything anymore. The wall is closed. The next thing they will do is put barbed wire,” he said. 

Residents have taken to jumping across the wall in the dead of night just to get to their homes.

The powers that be 

On a quickly built wooden shed on the edge of the dumpsite sits a white-haired man surrounded by security guards and construction workers.

The man’s name is Alex Hagad and he says he is in charge of clearing operations of both the sea of trash and the informal settlers that refuse to move out.

He refuses to have the conversation recorded and walks to another shed to show all the government permits he obtained.

Across the sea of garbage, the residents who brought me there stare suspiciously at him. The air is as tense as it is foul.

Hagad says he was hired by a certain William Santos Lim to build a perimeter fence around Tambakan and clear the part of the area being used as a dumpsite. 

Tambakan was not land but water. How can bodies of water be owned?


He doesn’t know what the land will be used for but he presents photocopies of various government documents: a Fencing Permit, Transfer Certificate of Title and a Declaration of Real Property. 

Residents are voluntarily leaving their homes anyway after being offered money, he says in his defense. 

“There is no demolition happening. We have done everything for them. It’s only a stubborn few who still don’t want to leave,” he says. 

Asked about providing relocation sites for the families, he said the company did not have enough funds. It’s the government’s job to relocate, not the private sector, he says.

He also met with members of Solid Bisig and it was during these meetings that the compensation of P10,000 was agreed upon.

Gun-toting guards in uniform stand beside us. Hagad says he runs a security company but was not able to answer why a security company was engaged in building walls, clearing garbage and negotiating with locals. 


The Transfer Certificate of Title presented by Hagad shows that the land was originally registered in the years 1920, 1928 and 1951.

But Pablo Rosales, a Barangay Catmon resident, questions the authenticity of the document because in those years, Tambakan was not land but water. How can bodies of water be owned?

According to locals, Tambakan was still water in the 1980s. Overpopulation in Manila led new families or those from the provinces to build their homes farther from the city and closer to the sea, even building on top of the water itself. 

And even if it was already land at the time, can Hagad, Lim or the city hall produce an Original Land Title aside from the Transfer Certificate of Title? asked Rosales. 

We are still citizens. We are still people who live here. I wish they listen to our hopes. I wish they can treat us like people.

– Roseta Cañones, Tambakan resident

He points out other discrepancies such as the construction of the wall even before a fencing permit was issued by the city government. Locals said the fencing began in August while the Fencing Permit issued by Malabon’s building official was issued only in September 11.  

It was only after a dialogue called by Catmon’s barangay captain that city hall issued the permit. If the dialogue was not called and the residents not given a chance to express their concerns, would the permit have been issued? wonders Rosales.

Rosales, Cañones, Ambucay and other residents who refuse to move out were never invited to a meeting which Hagad says took place in March. Likely, the meeting involved only Solid Bisig members.

LIFE IN TAMBAKAN. Tambakan residents on the side of the new wall (background) they can no longer access without the permission of a security company

Catmon barangay captain Mario Cruz says William Santos Lim should first secure a relocation site for the residents before making any moves to take them out of their current homes.

Hagad knows this and has told Cruz he will take it up with Lim. Hagad is also yet to submit a Proof of Consent from residents who agreed to move out. 

But Cruz says no matter what discrepancies are happening over Tambakan, his hands are tied. 

“We don’t have power over private [companies]. Before we knew it, someone already bought the land.”

A local government law allows city hall to automatically issue permits within 10 days if the barangay hall does not. Supposedly a deterrent to red tape, the law strips power from barangay officials. 

“I wish they would at least ask us why we didn’t issue the permit in the first place. That’s why there are so many junk shops along our road. That shouldn’t be allowed,” says Cruz, who has worked in the barangay hall for 7 years and is on his last term as captain. 

In the art of landgrabbing, a common occurrence in the Philippines, putting a wall around informal settlers living on unclaimed land and then filing a case for the ejection of the “trespassers” is an established modus operandi.

There have been 4 dialogues so far involving the non-compliant residents, Hagad and the barangay captain but William Santos Lim has not shown up in any of them.

To the residents, he might as well be a ghost bringing bad luck to their community. 

All they want, says Ambucay, is a good talk with him.

“We’re not claiming the land as ours. If all the documents are proven genuine, we are willing to move to a relocation site,” says Ambucay. 

In a world where the lives of the small are turned upside-down by the whims of the great, Cañones just wants her human dignity to be recognized.

“Even if it’s true we are not covered by the law because we are informal settlers, we are still citizens. We are still people who live here. I wish they listen to our hopes. I wish they can treat us like people.” –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.