Estero Illegal Settlers, commonly known as Squatters

By Fernan J. Angeles

FOR the longest time, the perception is that the Office of the Ombudsman has been used as a platform for harassment against public officials who have refused to cave in to pressure or can’t seem to please everyone to the very least, like this case of assertion of private interest over easements and waterways.

For one, informal settlers have literally encroached the stretch of the Pasig River, which in effect causes waterways to shrink – literally, at that. There were also reports of vanishing esteros in the cities encompassing the National Region and its adjoining provinces.


Missing Esteros

According to urban planning experts, the case of the “missing esteros” in Metro Manila cities significantly contributes to flooding in the region. In Manila’s Binondo district alone, the esteros which form part of the map have been literally covered by new buildings. So are the esteros in Sampaloc, Tondo and Paco area to name a few.

Interestingly the vanishing esteros may have been triggered by the fact that real estate properties in the capital city have plummeted to as high as P300,000 per square meter.

There are many other esteros in Metro Manila cities where natural waterways were decimated to the size of drainage canals. In some instances, cases were filed against the poachers and protectors. However, cases filed in the proper forum either end up junked or archived.


Decimated Waterways

Ten years ago, the government called off flood-control projects designed to restore holding capacity of the Laguna de Bay and instead found it more logical to clear the entire stretch of the Pasig River of illegal structures.

The directive – to clear the entire stretch of illegal structures – however did not cover pollution emitting businesses which literally ate up a portion of the Pasig River adjacent to their facilities. The order was to move out 125,000 families living along waterways in Metro Manila and 60,000 to 70,000 families living around Laguna Lake.

The government has since implemented a program to eliminate structures in the area in an apparent effort to reduce, if not rid flooding in Metro Manila.

A decade after and despite reluctance of politicians at the helm of cities in Metro Manila, some parts of the Pasig River stretch seemed to have been cleared as squatter colonies were replaced with jogging lanes as easement.

But flooding remained as silt and garbage rendered the water way too shallow. Hence, renewed calls for the government to consider regular dredging as a mechanism to keep the carrying capacity of waterways from decreasing.


Mayors’ Cooperation 

Even with the best infrastructure project plans, retrieving easements appears a tall order amid refusal of the local government units to cooperate. More often than not, politicians at the helm of LGUs are not bent on taking chances on something that would piss off their voting constituents.

And to make matters worse, thousands of cubic meters of garbage are directly dumped into the river.

As it is, there is an urgent need for a program that would put an end to an old practice that literally transforms river systems and the lake into a trash dump or a huge septic tank.

Under this situation, local ordinances compelling real estate developers to come up with their own water catchment basins instead of discharging water into the city drainage systems is a must. But that does not guarantee results as implementation remains a question.

Based on the government’s 2012 estimate, the program which would cover dredging of waterways, building and heightening of flood walls, excavation, and rehabilitation of floodways would require P352 billion.


Other Way Around

Ironically, that’s not the case in the lakeshore town of Angono (Rizal), 32 minute-drive away from eastern Metro Manila.

In what appears to be one of those cases designed to pin down local officials who made a firm conviction that easements could not possibly be a private property, the Office of the Ombudsman reaffirmed its first resolution junking three charges filed against former Angono, Rizal Mayor Gerardo Calderon who stood against poachers.

In its nine-page resolution, the Office of the Ombudsman cited Presidential Decree 1067 which provides 20-meter easement of each side of rivers and creeks, and 40-meter easement for bays and lakes, “could not possibly be owned by a private corporation or an individual.”

PD 1067, which was issued December 31, 1976 by the late former strongman Ferdinand Marcos Sr. (father of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos), instituted the Water Code of the Philippines, providing for the utilization, exploitation, development, conservation, and protection of water resources to be subject to the control and regulation of the government through the National Water Resources Board (formerly referred to as National Water Resources Council).


Foiled Attempt

The case stemmed from the construction of what is now referred to as the Angono Lakeside Park, a local government-initiated project which attracts foreign and local tourists with a nature adventure by the side of the majestic Laguna de Bay.

Records showed that the complainant, one Cecilia Del Castillo accused Calderon (then Angono mayor), of encroaching on her property to construct the Lakeside Eco-Park at the easement of the Laguna de Bay sometime in 2017.

However, a closer look by the Office of the Ombudsman into the area being claimed by Del Castillo proved otherwise – the area she claimed as part and parcel of her property is actually covered by the law protecting easements.

On Del Castillo’s allegation that it was then Angono Mayor Calderon who authorized squatter families to occupy her property, the Ombudsman – which did its own investigation – found out that it was the complainant’s caretaker who “sold and leased” the land to the informal settlers, at cost.

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