Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s term started out in 2016 with a plethora of demands from the public, from addressing the ailing economy to dealing with the largely chaotic urban design that has exacerbated the much-criticised Metro Manila traffic.
In response, his administration touted “Build Build Build”, or BBB, as one of his flagship programmes. The BBB seeks to radically reshape the urban landscape with enormous infrastructure projects aimed at launching the Philippines into greater social development and decongesting cities.
This was also outlined in the leader’s 10-point socio-economic agenda made public at the start of his term. The agenda specifically declared the government’s intent to “accelerate annual infrastructure spending with public-private partnerships” and “pursue the relaxation of the Constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership.”
Big plans for transport infrastructure
Described by many as a populist leader, Duterte raced to the top of the 2016 polls on a platform that strongly suggested he would eradicate persistent economic problems. The BBB was also pegged by Duterte’s campaign as one of the solutions to quell the grievances of the public.
Many of the main projects under the BBB scheme have to do with providing more infrastructure and public facilities. Among the planned projects announced by the Department of Finance are six airports, four energy facilities, nine railways, three bus rapid transit lines, 32 major roads and bridges, and four seaports—all this, promised to Filipinos before Duterte steps down in 2022.
On the face of it, infrastructure development and urban planning is much-needed. According to a study done by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the country stands to lose up to ₱5.4 billion (US$104 million) daily by 2035 if traffic congestion in Metro Manila isn’t addressed.
While it’s necessary to spend on infrastructure, the current BBB projects in place have drawn flak for their potentially severe impact on lower-income families as well as the entirety of the Philippine economy
But while it’s necessary to spend on infrastructure, the current BBB projects in place have drawn flak for their potentially severe impact on lower-income families as well as the entirety of the Philippine economy. In order to generate revenue to finance projects under BBB, tax hikes have been implemented on many basic commodities such as oil and sugar. The result has not sat well with many Filipinos as record inflation rates were recorded in October of last year.
Negotiations with investors from China have become tainted and onerous, according to the assertions of former lawmaker and foreign policy expert Neri Colmenares. He’d caused a stir for describing a new dam project as a debt trap because of the loans from China to the Philippine government.
At the same time, the sheer scale of the projects are set to displace millions of Filipinos with hardly any safety nets in place. BBB’s structural achievements might turn out to be unprecedented in the country, but it’s likely to leave many Filipinos in greater debt, with less income, and, in the worst cases, homeless. The BBB projects could end up being built on the backs, sweat and livelihoods of the country’s poorest citizens.
Money in the bank
Reports from independent national research group Ibon Foundation indicate that China and Chinese corporations are among the biggest winners of the BBB deals. Chinese investors account for nearly half of the US$28.5 billion BBB’s flagship undertakings. The institution surmised that many of the more controversial projects in progress have been engineered for, or will indirectly benefit, Chinese economic pursuits.
Chinese investors account for nearly half of the US$28.5 billion BBB’s flagship undertakings
One of these projects is the reclamation of Manila Bay, announced in early 2019. According to the plans, over 32,000ha—spanning five provinces along the stretch of the bay—will be reclaimed, mostly by Chinese businesses with close ties to the Philippine presidential palace. Environmental groups, fisherfolk, communities of urban poor, and faith-based groups have sounded the alarm over the reclamation, and launched the Manila Baywatch campaign to highlight their issues with the project.
Ahead of the reclamation announcement, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) had launched its Manila Bay clean-up programme. The Bay has been severely polluted been and unsafe for swimming for years. DENR has pinned the blame on the large presence of informal settlers and low-income families in the vicinity.
The agency’s Undersecretary Benny Antiporda told the press that “informal settlers’ dwellings generally lack sanitary facilities and they discharge feces and other wastes directly to the environment.” The government has thus announced that the imposed resettlement of thousands of families will be carried out alongside wider clean-up operations.
In an interview with New Naratif, Antiporda denies that these clean-up efforts are being done as a prelude to reclamation efforts. But Pamalakaya, a federation of small fisherfolk groups in the area and one of the convenors of Manila Baywatch, says that the DENR’s rehabilitation plan is a smokescreen for commercial reclamation ventures.
“Manila Bay is deteriorating, don’t get us wrong. We are the ones who suffer from the effects of its environmental degradation on a regular fishing basis. But wiping us out from Manila Bay to give way for its further privatisation will do more harm to its ecosystem than good,” the group’s leader, Fernando Hicap, says in a statement.
The group slammed the widespread eviction of local residents to make way for giant business projects. “Ever since reclamation and conversion [became a] government and corporate craze, massive mangrove forests have been uprooted and productive coral reefs were destroyed. Fish catch has dramatically declined to 2–5kg every fishing trip.”
Environmental advocates from the Kalikasan (Environment) People’s Network also tell New Naratif that it makes no sense to put so much blame on the Bay’s poor population. “If you have much less income, then you have much less purchasing power and by extension, less waste to release into the environment. I would estimate that the low income families—living below the poverty line of US$1.18 per day—would only account for at most 5% of the waste. Waste management is definitely something to be tackled, but not through displacement,” says Leon Dulce, the group’s national coordinator.
Among the upcoming projects for the Bay is “New Manila Bay – City of Pearl,” a 407ha “smart city” by the Chinese real estate company UAA Kinming Group Development Corporation. With expected completion in 2026, the “Pearl” is being marketed as a city of tomorrow, featuring driverless cars and facial recognition software on every building. Kinming group’s owner, Kitson Kho, is a longstanding partner of the administration, and has had exclusive one-on-one access to the president over the past three years.
Another project is spearheaded by Wilfredo Keng, who owns Century Peak Holdings, and promises to be a 1,333ha-stretch of commercial and industrial establishments. Once completed the site is expected to be twice the size of San Juan, a city inside Metro Manila.
Keng was awarded the project in 2017 by the President’s office, right after filing a libel case against Rappler News CEO and fierce critic of the administration, Maria Ressa. In 2012, Rappler had released an article claiming to have obtained an intelligence report linking Keng to the illegal drug trade, something which he has denied.
Keeping up with the superpowers
Professor Sarah Raymundo of the University of the Philippines Center for International Studies points to China’s Belt and Road Initiative as one of the driving forces of the country’s expansionism. “In a way, the ambitious BBB is patterned after the aggressive infrastructure spending of the Belt and Road Initiative. Both programmes seem to be attempting to create cities of the future, albeit both of them for Chinese benefit,” she tells New Naratif.
China’s economic ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region, she says, are part of its push to cement its status a global pillar of political and military strength. “Today the largest, most exploited labour force is in China. Its overall stature displays that of an imperialist power on the brink of military action. To do this, it needs an even stronger foothold in the region.”
The BBB scheme is only one aspect of China’s push, she notes, pointing at ongoing territorial disputes over the South China Sea (known in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea).
A scheme like BBB allows Duterte to validate his political tenure while gaining political and financial support for his violent counter-insurgency and anti-drug campaigns
Locally, she says that the Duterte administration continues to feed public perception that greater cooperation with China will fuel development in the Philippines—and, by extension, a successful term in office for the president. A scheme like BBB, Raymundo argues, allows Duterte to validate his political tenure while gaining political and financial support for his violent counter-insurgency and anti-drug campaigns.
After their respective state visits, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump pledged financial aid for the controversial drug war in the Philippines, which has reportedly claimed the lives of over 20,000 civilians. Despite the casualties, Duterte has been adamant in touting this crackdown as another core feature of his presidency.
Duterte’s approach to foreign relations with China was somewhat summed up by his remarks ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Philippines last November: “I simply love Xi Jinping. He understands my problem and he’s willing to help. And I’d like to say, ‘thank you, China.”
On the surface, the BBB scheme could potentially generate plenty of paying work for Filipinos, but large numbers of Chinese workers have also been entering the country for a variety of construction jobs. Duterte himself has remarked that the number of undocumented Chinese workers in the country is equal to the number of undocumented Filipino workers in China. But he followed it up by arguing that it would be better to “let them be”, for fear of retaliation in the form of deporting Filipino workers from China.
It’s a painful reality for local workers; according to an IBON Foundation infographic based on data from the Philippine Statistics Authority, 2017–2018 was by far the worst year for job creation since the end of the Marcos dictatorship. While hundreds of thousands of jobs had been consistently created since 1987, there were only 81,000 jobs added in 2017–2018.
According to the environment department, around 300,000 slum dwellers are set to be displaced by the Manila Bay project.
When asked about plans to resettle those affected, Antiporda maintains there aren’t any definite plans on their desk at the moment as to how they’ll be going about the actual relocation work. He emphasises that the state’s interest in Manila Bay is primarily about a clean-up, rather than any concrete decision about reclamation. But a presentation made by the DENR—as seen by the Kalikasan (Environment) People’s Network—shows that the budget allocation for the first phase of the “clean-up” operation was US$114,165, while the budget for the relocation of Bay residents was a whopping US$684,990.
Meanwhile, research group Urban Poor Resource Center (UPRC) tells New Naratif that the poorest slum-dwelling Filipinos will bear the brunt of these projects. Forced evictions, UPRC says, will cause a massive exodus to rural areas ill-equipped to deal with sudden population changes. Based on estimates from a few well-publicised projects, the group estimates that close to three million Filipinos could be left homeless, or forced to live in shoddy government housing.
Antiporda attempts to allay fears by promising that the inter-agency taskforce set up for the Manila Bay project is in the process of figuring out how to provide adequate relocation. “We cannot push through with any resettlement if sites and local government units are not prepared to handle the additions to their constituencies.” He urges the public to trust that government agencies are doing their job to “protect each and every interest subject of these concerns.”
Tony Borinaga is from the No Eviction Unity coalition, an alliance of neighbourhood associations in Metro Manila calling for a total ban on BBB projects nationwide and a comprehensive review of the policy. He tells New Naratif that BBB will “only benefit corporations and conglomerates while leaving the poor population of many cities to fend for themselves in an already chaotic and untrustworthy resettlement system for the displaced.”
Borinaga says that the situation on the ground tells a different story from what the government has been putting forward. “Government representatives come to communities proclaiming that resettlement housing is scarce and that residents should voluntarily leave their communities before it runs out. Otherwise, we run the risk of having nowhere to go when demolition starts,” he says, using the North Luzon Expressway Segment 8.2 Extension project as an example. The project, which the government estimates will be completed in 2022, is estimated to displace around 50,000 urban poor from Metro Manila.
The need for innovative ideas for economic development is pressing in the Philippines, which has long struggled with development and liveability, particularly in some of its most urban areas. But with critics saying that the BBB programme is more a geopolitical tool to gain favour with a dominant power, it looks like poor Filipinos will once again end up picking up the tab for everyone’s interests.
Michael Beltran is a freelance journalist from the Philippines.