‘I shall return’: The comeback of development aggression in Leyte

By: Aldren Lacandazo & Barry Anthony Parrenas
The McArthur Memorial Park in Barangay Candahug, Palo, Leyte officially serves as a memorial for the iconic fulfillment of General Douglas McArthur’s ‘I shall return’ promise. High officials of the Philippine government and dignitaries all over the world flock to the site to commemorate the now known “Leyte Landing”. However, for ordinary village folks like Ladislao ‘Lading’ Montilla, 54, it serves as a reminder of the unending torment they have been suffering in their fight for a decent living.
On October, 1944 the largest naval battle in history happened at the Leyte Gulf upon the arrival of General McArthur in the Pacific. (Photo from Brittanica.com)
On October 1944 the largest naval battle in history happened at the Leyte Gulf upon the arrival of General McArthur in the Pacific. (Photo from Brittanica.com)

Unfamiliar to many, the McArthur Park was only established in 1977 during the Marcos administration and was built at the expense of coastal communities peacefully living in Candahug. The project resulted in the unjust demolition of 400 households. President Marcos mobilized the now defunct Philippine Constabulary to force the affected families into submission, leaving them no choice but to move away or they suffer the full wrath of Marcos’ brutal dictatorial rule. He was fulfilling the Regional Government Center Plan – the brainchild of his brother-in-law, then Leyte Governor Benjamin ‘Kokoy’ Romualdez. The grandiose plan intended to build new and ‘state-of-the-art’ government offices that would also house the new Provincial Capitol. Wielding dictatorial powers, the project pushed through, successfully building most of the structures envisioned in the plan.

Tide embankment: reminiscent of Martial Law

Lading has lived in Candahug all throughout his life. He recalls living in the site where McArthur’s monument stands and how the demolition team reinforced by fully armed units of the Philippine Constabulary destroyed their home, the community school and church, and all other structures of the village. That event left a tremendous mark on his memory as a growing boy.

Their family moved a little farther from McArthur Park. And when he had his own family, he bought the house they used to rent and put up a small junkshop business. From that point, he has somehow managed to be the family man he wants of himself and send his children to school who are now both in college.

Almost 3 years after Super typhoon Yolanda hit Leyte, Lading is still yet to fully rebuild his house, however intentionally. He fears that reconstructing his house will just end up in waste following several visits from officers of the Department of Public Works and Highways prompting him to demolish his own house and leave his property. In fact, no less than the Assistant Regional Director himself of the DPWH has already gone to his house pressuring him to finally sign the papers needed to legally evict him from his property. “Even the Chief of police in the town of Palo already told me to give up and just receive the money offered by the DPWH,” said Lading.

A copy of the project's blueprint obtained by Lading.
A copy of the project’s blueprint obtained by Lading.

The predicament Lading is facing is related to the adamant push of the DPWH to kick off the construction of a P7.9 billion worth ‘Road Heightening and Tide Embankment Project’ along the coasts of Tacloban City to the town of Tanauan, including Palo. The project spanning 27.3 kilometers designed by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency aims to become a deterrent to possible storm surges. It can be remembered that at the onslaught of typhoon Yolanda, an 8-meter high storm surge hit the said towns and city resulting to thousands of instant deaths. Prior to the project, then rehabilitation czar Panfilo Lacson also implemented a ‘No-Build Zone’ policy that prohibits those living within 40 meters from the shore from building any structure. The policy was later on modified to ‘No Dwelling Zone’ to specifically prohibit residential structures and favor corporate infrastructure.

The immense pressure Lading is battling with even came in the form of the barangay and municipal authorities allegedly denying him of his annual application of business permit for his junkshop. “The barangay officials said that they were told by the municipal leadership to deny my business permit application, just so I will be forced to leave,” added Lading.

He said the recent harassment done against him was also reminiscent of the Philippine Constabulary’s attacks back during the days of Marcos. “Why would they bring policemen to my house? I don’t have the physique to wrestle against them,” Lading, who is also a person with a disability, said.

Lading is still hopeful that if the community in Baras and in all communities affected by the project, their voices will be heard, and actions will be done.
Lading is still hopeful that the government hears the plea of his community in Candahug before any action is done.

“Why are they hell-bent in letting me sign? Coming to my house thrice? There must be something big behind the wall,” he implied.

Twice a victim

The pattern of forced evictions in the name of development is seen in other areas of Palo. In another coastal village south of the municipality, villagers were once evicted to give way for the construction of a riprap armoring the walls of an adjacent river. James Villacorte, 22 is one of the residents of Barangay Cogon who were evicted sometime in 2005 to give way for the construction of the riprap and riverside road in their sitio.

He recalls that they were given a meager amount of P500 as compensation for the demolition of their houses. “The government? They will not allow itself to be at the losing end,” claimed James.

James’ mother, Roxanne, 40 years old, lamented that just a few years after they moved several meters from the riverside, they are once again being pushed away by the government for another development project. “In 2005 they said that we need to move for our own safety, now they say that we need to move again for this embankment project, again for our safety. But if it is the real reason behind, why do they want us thrown away far from our livelihood?” asked Roxanne. The resettlement area of the town of Palo is situated in its hilly portion, Sitio San Jose, Barangay Castilla some 5 kilometers away from Barangay Cogon. “That is basically uprooting us not only from our houses but from where we get our food,” added Roxanne.

James and Roxanne looked on as the men of DPWH painted alphanumeric codes on the outside wall of their shack signifying which houses are to be affected by the impending demolition. With very little explanation, the DPWH team took photos of the affected houses telling the owners that it is for the cost assessment, later on for due compensation of the houses to be destroyed.

“This cycle of displacement is tiring. Actually, if there’s a genuine choice, I wouldn’t want to go back here, especially after my experience of Yolanda. But our primary concern is our livelihood, it makes me cry to always go back to zero in our lives,” said Roxanne.

Risky project

Roxanne proposed that instead of the tide embankment, a permanent evacuation structure must be built. She explained that with her actual experience of typhoon Yolanda’s deluge, she has deep reservations to the embankment’s capacity to avert storm surges.

Lading, on the other hand, thinks that the project is in itself a futile effort. Pointing to a streetlight outside his house, he estimated the storm surge brought by Yolanda was more than seven meters high and that the project is not a guarantee for his safety.

“They better build an evacuation center,” he said.

He never attended any consultative meeting regarding the tide embankment but the government authorities who came to his house informed him that the technical working group will be led by experts from JICA.

On the other hand, a team of scientists and environmental advocates raised the red flag over the construction of the embankment. In a statement, the Center for Environmental Concerns said that they are now looking into the case to verify doubts regarding the effectivity of the project and will launch an Environmental Investigative Mission. “The Tide Embankment is likely to disrupt sediment and water fluxes along the coastal areas, and across the structure itself. Inland drainage, wave dynamics and coastal sediment budgets will be affected by such disruptions,” said Ric Saturay, resident geologist of AGHAM an institutional partner of CEC for the said inquiry.

“While an Environmental Compliance Certificate has already been issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Environmental Impact Assessment conducted does not present a systematic model for coastal risk assessment which situates the proposed structural solution within the broader context of the problem being addressed and the biophysical and socioeconomic systems to be affected” the statement added.

Palo, Leyte, indeed, was and is never a memorial site for liberation. And the return period of Yolanda, 50 to 100 years since 2013, is not the most urgent ‘I shall return’ to prepare for—it is but the hazard of development aggression that has existed even before Yolanda and has been pursued more easily after the storm.

(Barry Anthony Parrenas is an environmental advocate and is currently the campaign coordinator of the Center for Environmental Concerns in Eastern Visayas. He is a graduate of the University of the Philippines and a survivor of Typhoon Haiyan.)

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Eastern Vista

Eastern Vista is an alternative media organization in Eastern Visayas. Stories of people in the struggle for justice and aid after super typhoon Yolanda inspired its creation in 2014. Eastern Vista is also a co-producer of Lingganay han Kamatuoran, a Waray-based radio magazine program airing since 2003. From Eastern Philippines, Eastern Vista shares the news and views from a people rising.