Thursday, November 27, 2008

UN regret about Philippines housing rights situation

** NEWS RELEASE *** NEWS RELEASE *** NEWS RELEASE **

UN regret about Philippines housing rights situation
Committee calls for changes in housing rights policies

27 November 2008. The key United Nations body on economic, social and cultural rights has criticized the human rights performance of the government of the Philippines and recommended significant policy changes.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) on Nov. 24 issued its Concluding Observations, after reviewing the Philippines’ record concerning implementation of international human rights law in the field of economic, social and cultural rights during the past twelve years, since the Committee last reviewed the Philippines.

The Committee regrets that most of its previous recommendations relating to the prevention of illegal forced evictions have not been acted upon by the State party, and remains deeply concerned about the large scale forced eviction of urban families carried out for the purpose of urban renewal and beautification, which has reportedly affected over 1.2 million people in the period between 1995 and 2008.

“We are happy that the Committee’s findings on illegal, forced evictions ratify our own findings. People cannot be thrown out in the streets like rubbish as has happened so often here,” said Ted Añana, deputy coordinator of Urban Poor Associates (UPA).

Although diplomatically worded, the finding on housing rights and evictions represent a stinging rebuke to the record of successive governments in addressing the living conditions of the urban poor, according to the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), an international human rights organisation that has been heavily involved in the UN process, along with a coalition of Philippine groups.

“These findings show how little progress has been made in past twelve years to improve the life of the urban poor”, said Dan Nicholson, Asia and Pacific Programme Coordinator of COHRE. “It’s time for the government to take clear action to remedy the wrongs of the past twelve years.”

“Philippines laws and international standards continue to be violated as forced evictions take place. We call on the government to impose a moratorium on forced evictions until the recommendations made by the UN Committee can be implemented. This means reinstating the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor or another body with real, legally binding powers to enforce laws such as UDHA,” continued Nicholson, in reference to the widely flouted Urban Development and Housing Act (UDHA) of 1992 (Republic Act No. 7279). “Local governments that violate the law should be prosecuted, as UDHA allows.”

“It’s time for a whole new approach to relocation – which involves real consultation with and involvement of communities, to ensure that relocation sites are close to livelihoods, schools and healthcare facilities, and have power and water before relocation takes place,” said Nicholson.

“Meanwhile, the current budgetary allocation for housing, and particularly for important projects such as the Community Mortgage Programme, is inadequate. We call on the government to increase spending on housing from 0.5% of the budget to 2%, including a real increase for the CMP,” continued Nicholson.

“Some governments in Philippines are complying with their obligations, such as the government in Naga City”, said Nicholson, referring to Mayor Jesse Robredo and the Naga City government, who last year won a prestigious COHRE global Housing Rights Protector Award. “Others – and I must single out MMDA one of the worst offenders – must be reined in by the national government and courts of the Philippines”.

COHRE and local partners, including the UPA, will be organizing a series of events to publicize the Concluding Observations in coming months.

“We look forward to working with government, civil society and the UN to implement these recommendations”, concluded Nicholson. “We don’t want to go back to the Committee again in five years to find out that the situation still hasn’t improved. The people of the Philippines deserve better”.

In its concluding observations, the Committee:
• “Notes with concern that an estimated 16.5 million, roughly 30 percent, of the urban population continue to live in informal settlements and slums, sometimes built on riverbanks, railroad tracks and other high-risk areas, with no or limited basic infrastructures and services, without legal security of tenure and under constant threat of eviction.”

• “notes with concern that the percentage of the national budget allocated to the realisation of housing programmes ... is not sufficient to increase the supply of social housing units for members of the most disadvantaged and marginalised groups.”

• “remains deeply concerned about the large-scale forced eviction of urban families carried out for the purpose of urban renewal and beautification” which have affected more than 1.2 million people since 1995

• notes with concern “the inadequate measures to provide sufficient compensation or adequate relocation sites” for evicted families.

The Committee urges the government to:
• “allocate sufficient funds for the realisation of programmes aimed at providing security of tenure and affordable housing”

• “ensure the effective implementation of ... laws and regulations prohibiting illegal forced evictions and demolitions”

• “reinforce the mandate of the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor (PCUP)”

• “undertake open, participatory and meaningful consultations with affected residents and communities prior to implementing development and urban renewal projects”;

• “ensure that persons forcibly evicted from their properties be provided with adequate compensation and/or offered relocation” in accordance with domestic law and international human rights standards; and

• “guarantee that relocation sites are provided with basic services ... and adequate facilities ... at the time the resettlement takes place”.

The full text of the UNCESCR Concluding Observations can be found at:
http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cescr/docs/E.C.12.PHL.CO.4_EN.pdf

For more information, contact:

Dan Nicholson, COHRE Asia and Pacific Programme Coordinator, at dan@cohre.org, +855 17 523274.

END

Monday, November 24, 2008

MMDA clears Baclaran Church of street vendors

11/23/2008 | 01:13 AM




MMDA to clear sidewalks with vendors
11/22/2008 | 12:15 PM


Saturday, November 15, 2008

A watch in the night

Commentary : A watch in the night

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: November 14, 2008

I FOUND MYSELF the "bantay" at my mother-in-law's bedside very early in the morning the day before she died. Everyone else was sleeping or busy somewhere. The only sound in the hospital room was the breathy "choo" "choo" "choo" of the ventilator every few seconds. Medicines dripped from six bottles suspended over the bed. It was icy cold in the room, but she was in deep coma and no longer cared. At times I went close to look at her face: her head hung at an awkward angle on the pillow; her tongue half protruded from her mouth, pushed aside by the oxygen tube. It wasn't the woman I had lived alongside for 32 years. Outside Chinese General Hospital crowds already made their way into the North Cemetery for the All Souls' Day vigil.

My mother-in-law, Carmen Laroco Gentolia, reached 89 the day before. Her husband was also 89 when he died four years earlier. He had been in a coma that lasted for years, and she wanted none of that: "Don't do that to me," she often said. "No machines. No tubes stuck in me. I'll pull them out, if I can. Let me go. I have asked God to forgive my sins, I'm ready. Let me go." Her children had promised they would.

My wife and I went to live with her family 32 years ago soon after we married. She had never talked to an American and suddenly there I was in the middle of her life. I often caught her studying me, wondering perhaps about God's funny ways. I'd be eating, look up suddenly and she'd be watching me closely, much like an anthropologist watching a tribal ritual.

Over the years, through good times and bad, my mother-in-law and I grew to be at ease with one another. In the end she was the only member of the family to come with me to the barangay court when I brought a case against our neighbor's very noisy dog. My wife and the others in the house were too embarrassed to come, even if the dog was the marathon barker of all time and bothered everyone. "Imagine, taking a dog to court," I heard them whisper. Lola not only came with me, she spoke eloquently on my behalf. We won and the dog was remanded from behind our house to another place where we wouldn't hear him.

She had a full life. Nine children were born and six survived. She was a great, great-grandmother, whose life extended over five generations. She served her parents, her children and husband for 80 years. But it wasn't all toil. She "escaped" from her parents' home in Pangasinan to marry the man she loved. When she found it hard to live in Sorsogon, she went in 1943 by small sailboat along the coast, in danger of storms, robbers and Japanese soldiers on a trip to Manila that took months to finish. She took her eldest daughter who was still a baby with her. She had the good times of every mother--the weddings, graduations and successes of her children.

Nothing happened during my watch, and soon dawn was up in Manila. I had once written a novel titled "A Watch in the Night." The phrase is from Psalm 90 where the Psalmist compares our short life to that of the Immortal God: "A thousand years in your eyes are merely a yesterday. / But humans you return to dust, saying, 'Return, you mortals. / Before a watch passes in the night you have brought them to their end.'"

She died the next day in the early morning. When we got to her bedside, her face was at peace as if she were sleeping, but she looked very content. She seemed to be saying, "I have won." Her chin was out just a little in her triumph. We were left with the cold room, rain in the streets outside, but she was home with her loved ones. We see rain. She now sees, I thought, the Living God.

They wrapped her in the sheet like a mummy and we followed the gurney through the hospital to bring her to the hearse that would carry her to the funeraria. At one point we watched the gurney go over a little pedestrian bridge that joins two buildings at the Chinese General Hospital. It was a symbol of her passage from this world to one where the martyrs and the saints would meet her and bring her to the Lord she served so well.

The Psalmist also writes: "You take hold of my right hand. / With your counsel you guide me / and at the end you receive me in honor." (Ps 73).

Her children made her very comfortable in the last years of her life. Someone was always with her to talk. If she wanted crabs, they hurried to Hi-Top; if it was palabok, they went to Cubao. Her most faithful companion, however, was our dog, Titanic, who has also grown old. They sat side by side all day, watching the TV, she on her chair, Titanic on the couch. Any program would do--horror movies, old Tagalog films, quiz shows, it didn't matter. There were more important things to think about.

We often worry about the growing immorality of the world, and yet 50 percent of all people are mothers just like Lola, who live lives full of love and service, who have always tried "to do the right and to love goodness and to walk humbly with God." (Micah 6:8)

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is upa@pldtdsl.net.

Copyright 2008 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Group seeks UN’s help vs gov’t human rights violations

** NEWS RELEASE *** NEWS RELEASE *** NEWS RELEASE **

13 November 2008. In her speech during the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (UNCESCR) review in Geneva, Switzerland, Chairperson Leila de Lima of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) urged the Philippine government to impose a moratorium on demolitions and forced evictions until consultation and resettlement provisions are implemented.

CHR’s appeal was made during the 41st session of the UNCESCR on November 11-12 which reviewed government compliance with its economic and social obligations including providing adequate and accessible shelter to its constituents especially to the homeless.

De lima also asserted that the country’s housing law, Urban Development Housing Act (UDHA) of 1992 should be amended to extend its protection against summary evictions to people living along railroad tracks, rivers and other areas considered danger zones.

Judge Ariranga Pillay of Mauritius, a member of said UN body, noted the unusually high number of Filipino families forcibly evicted from their homes indicating that these incidents had not abated since the committee first raised this issue to the government back in 1995.

Presidential Human Rights Committee (PHRC) director Severo Catura who was also in the review admitted that there were indeed incidences of violations of housing rights but he assured the UN committee that these were going to be addressed.

Catura also stated that the PHRC already partnered with the CHR in the effort to investigate and monitor housing rights violations particularly forced evictions.

Civil society groups in its alternative report to the committee during the review, estimated that 85,370 families or 505,355 individuals had been evicted since 1996 to 2008 mostly due to urban beautification and infrastructure projects such as the NorthRail and SouthRail projects.

“More than half of these evicted families were displaced during the term of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and also mostly due to the clearing operations of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) led by chairperson Bayani Fernando,” the groups, led by the Urban Poor Associates (UPA), said.

The report on the implementation of the right to adequate housing was prepared by UPA, John J. Caroll Institute on Church and Social Issues, Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal (Saligan) and the Foundation for the Development of the Urban Poor.

Aside from the housing rights group, several non-governmental organizations also made reports on the implementation of social and economic rights such as access to food, employment, water, education, and health services.

Based on the civil society report to the UNCESCR, Filipinos' enjoyment of economic and social rights was gravely compromised by certain government priorities, policies, and practices such as the Philippine Mining Act, automatic appropriations for debt servicing, corruption, and unclear population agenda.

Furthermore, issues of concern raised by the UNCESCR back in 1995 such as lack of judicial powers of the CHR, vulnerable situation of children, non-completion and weaknesses of the agrarian reform program, and privatization of health services are still part of present realities.

The civil society report backed by more than one hundred organizations was facilitated by the Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights), research arm of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates and the UPA.

Major contributors to the NGO report were the Saligan, Center for Migrant Advocacy, Homenet Southeast Asia, Philippine NGO Coalition for Food Sovereignty, Medical Action Group, Freedom from Debt Coalition, and Education Network – Philippines. -30-

Friday, November 07, 2008

Hiding Behind Numbers

Press Statement

November 6, 2008


Hiding Behind Numbers

On the eve of a United Nation's (UN) review of Philippine efforts to improve the quality of life of its people, the country landed fifth (5th) among the world's most hungry nations with 40% or 4 out of 10 of Filipinos admitting they experienced hunger in the past year according to recent survey of Gallup International.

Despite this bad news, government delegates to the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (UNCESCR) hearing on November 11-12 in Geneva, Switzerland are most likely to say it has implemented policies and programs to satisfy social and economic rights such as access to food, employment, housing, education, and health services.

Moreover, the government in its submission to the UNCESCR painted a rosy economic picture citing reduced poverty from 45.5% in 1988 to 30.4% in 2003 and an average 3-5% growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Gross National Product (GNP) and key sectors of the economy from 2001-2004.

The official report, while acknowledging some weaknesses like lack of spending on public education, also claimed general improvements in the nutritional and health status of Filipinos based on indicators such as infant and maternal mortality rates.

However, civil society groups admonished the government not to emulate Joc-joc Bolante, a former agriculture official implicated in a P700 million fertilizer scam, who kept on evading the truth behind legal technicalities. The administration could not always hide behind statistics and jargons, glimpses of the real situation of its people would inevitably come out in the open like the results of the Gallup hunger study.

Based on the civil society report to the UNCESCR, Filipinos' enjoyment of economic and social rights was gravely compromised by certain government priorities, policies, and practices such as the Philippine Mining Act, automatic appropriations for debt servicing, corruption, and unclear population agenda.

Furthermore, issues of concern raised by the UNCESCR back in 1995 such as lack of judicial powers of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), forced evictions, vulnerable situation of children, non-completion and weaknesses of the agrarian reform program, and privatization of health services are still part of present realities.

This is not surprising since the government failed to heed most of the UNCESCR recommendations made thirteen (13) years ago including increased budget for slum upgrading and affordable housing, fast tracking of the agrarian reform program, and designating a body that would prevent forced evictions.

To put back on track its compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), civil society groups call on the government to take the following steps:

a.) enact legislations on reproductive health, social pension for the elderly, anti-prostitution, patients' rights, mandatory food labelling, Food Security Act, domestic reflection of Precautionary Principles, and Magna Carta for Women;

b.) repeal or amend Mining Act, anti-terrorism law, National Building Code;

c.) prioritize basic services and agriculture development in the national budget and not debt servicing, spending for services should be aligned with internationally and locally recommended standards such as WHO prescription of 5% of GDP for health;

d.) reform mandates of the CHR and other redress mechanisms to give them appropriate powers, make them more independent and insulated from politics, and facilitate civil society participation; and

e.) Aggressively lobby foreign creditors for debt moratorium and/or cancellation / repudiation of onerous and illegitimate liabilities.

The civil society report backed by more than one hundred organizations was facilitated by the Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights), research arm of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) and the Urban Poor Associates (UPA).

Major contributors to the NGO report were the Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal (Saligan), Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA), Homenet Southeast Asia, Philippine NGO Coalition for Food Sovereignty (PNLC), Medical Action Group (MAG), Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC), and Education Network – Philippines (E-Net).

Philippine NGO-PO Network for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights


Contact Persons: Nymia Pimentel-Simbulan Dr. PH (433-1714)

Renato Mabunga (436-2633)

Ted Añana (426-4118)

Read on - Philippine NGO Network Report on the Implementation of the International Covenant on
Economic, Social,and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)


Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Thursday, November 06, 2008

PHILIPPINE GOVERNMENT IS A GROSS HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATOR

PHILIPPINE GOVERNMENT IS A GROSS HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATOR, IN PARTICULAR THE RIGHT TO ADEQUATE HOUSING

IN 1995 the UN issued its concerns about the Philippine government’s failure to comply with the international treaty, The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and gave a list of recommendations about housing rights, to the Philippine Government in order remedy the rampant commission of forced evictions, a prima facie violation of the right to adequate housing. A reading of the UN document shows that the Philippine Government from former Presidents Fidel Ramos and Estrada to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo barely complied with the recommendations. Specifically on forced evictions, monitoring by NGOs has shown:

Since 1996 to June 2008 the Philippine Government has failed to stop forced evictions committed by third parties but has itself committed forced evictions considered gross violations of human rights, in particular the right to adequate housing, General Comment No. 7 on Forced Evictions and in violation of its 1997 Constitution and the Urban Development and Housing of 1992 or RA 7279.

Adequate protection and due process were not observed;Advance or prior notice was largely not complied with;Consultations with the affected families and communities were not conducted.

Nearly 50% of those evicted were not provided relocation. The government’s failure to provide relocation to nearly half of the evicted families violates the UN’s document on Forced Evictions which says “Evictions should not result in individuals being rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights.”

Thousands of families were rendered homeless and were made vulnerable to other human rights violations, such as the rights to work, education, health, food and water, and the right to be protected against “arbitrary or unlawful interference” with one’s home. Moreover, the government and the courts did not provide compensation to the evicted families

Nearly a fourth of the evictions carried out were violent. Many were injured and some were arrested. Vulnerable groups, namely the children, women and elderly suffered the most. Children were traumatized and many stopped attending school. Pregnant women gave premature births or lost their babies. The elderly were reduced to living without shelter, under the sun, the rain and the cold, endangering their health.

The Government attempt to correct this situation was a failure. Its Executive Order No. 152 empowering the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor as the clearing house for the compliance of Section 28 of the UDHA was largely ignored by government agencies, such as MMDA and some LGUs. In February the clearing house function was transferred to LGUs, but its IRR has not been issued. Thus no clearing house function at present exists.

The Government tolerated or ignored national government agencies and local government units which used other laws, such as the Civil Code on nuisance, the National Building Code or PD 1096 to evict poor families without the legal protection or dues process contained in domestic and international laws. UN guidelines on Forced Evictions says: “The State itself must refrain from forced evictions and ensure that the law is enforced against its agents or third parties who carry out forced evictions.”

No court decision at the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court has as yet been rendered recognizing the right to adequate housing of poor families and thus providing them legal protection against forced evictions. Lower courts continue to issue decisions based solely on property rights, either of the government or private entities, ignoring or rejecting arguments protecting the housing rights of the affected families.

Congress, on the other hand, has not exercised its oversight function on the compliance of government agencies with the UDHA. It has not initiated efforts to plug loopholes in the UDHA.

The Philippine Government is in breach of the international treaty. It must therefore exert extra efforts to remedy this situation.


RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE UN CESCR


The Philippine Government must:

1. Prosecute all those who commit forced evictions either through the courts, ombudsman, the Commission on Human Rights, or administrative bodies

2. Establish an independent body with the power to ensure compliance with domestic and international laws against forced evictions, including the power to suspend or stop forced evictions.

3. Order all government bodies that there is only one law, the UDHA, specifically its Section 28, in conformity with General Comment No. 7 on Forced Evictions, to be followed when carrying out just and humane demolitions/evictions and that they should not use any other laws and regulations such as the National Building Code or PD 1096, the law on nuisance, including ordinances such as the MMDA Ordinances No. 03-96 and No. 02-28. Moreover, clarify and instruct all government agencies and units that there is no cut-off date in the UDHA.

4. Establish a special court on housing rights at the lower levels as well at the level of the Court of Appeals, make it obligatory for the Philippine Judicial Academy to include a course on housing rights in its curriculum for judges and a similar course in the Mandatory Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) for lawyers, lower or remove court fees in housing rights cases involving the urban poor, and process expeditiously court cases involving forced eviction and similar cases, extend Writ of Amparo and habeas data to economic, social and cultural rights violations, such as illegal demolitions.

5. Hold twice annually oversight hearings, separately or jointly by the two houses of Congress, on the compliance of the UDHA, in particular Section 28, by government agencies and units, amend certain provisions of the UDHA such as stiffer penalties for those who commit forced evictions.

6. Government should be asked to keep statistics on evictions.


For the UN CESCR:

1. Get commitments from the Philippine government that it will invite fact finding missions from UN Rapporteurs, including the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing.

2. Send letters of inquiry or concern to the Philippine government regarding reports and complaints of forced evictions by civil society organizations, as what the former CESCR chairman Philip Alston did on the report of massive forced evictions because of the 1996 APEC.

3. Persuade the officials of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government to undergo seminars on housing rights and forced evictions to be conducted by UN housing rights experts.

4. Send letters of inquiry and concern to ODA donors and foreign investors on their obligations to avoid forced evictions in their projects in the Philippines.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Media Advisory: Press Briefing on the Civil Society Report on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Attention: News Editor, News Desk, Reporters

November 4, 2008

Media Advisory

Press Briefing on the Civil Society Report on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

On November 11-12, 2008, the Philippine government will present before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UNCESCR) in Geneva, Switzerland its report on how it fulfilled the socio-economic entitlements of its constituency among which are the rights to food, health, housing, work, education, social security, and water.

In line with this, the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) and Urban Poor Associates (UPA) cordially invite your news organization to a press briefing to present the major highlights and recommendations of the Philippine civil society alternative report on the same set of rights also submitted to the UNCESCR.

What: Press Briefing on the Civil Society Report on Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights

When: November 6, 2008 (Thursday), 7:00 PM

Where: Red Palace Seafood Restaurant
132 Malakas St., Brgy. Central
Diliman, Quezon City

Contact Persons: 1.) Bernardo D. Larin (433-1714, 0927-4241551)
2.) Jonal Javier (436-2633, 0920-6728892)

Monday, November 03, 2008

A day in the zoo

INQUIRER.net

Commentary : A day in the zoo

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: November 03, 2008

MANILA, Philippines - Here in New York city, polls reveal that some 80 percent of women and a slightly lower percentage of men feel they are severely stressed by the damage done to the country’s economy in the past month. No one has asked for my advice on what to do. But if they did, I’d tell them to spend a day at the Bronx Zoo, preferably on Wednesdays when the admission is free and the park is packed with thousands of children from the city’s schools. I’d advise them to listen to the children, watch how they react to the animals and learn from them. In fact, any zoo will do, or any park, beach, woods or rural area as long as there are children and small animals. No zoo is too humble, the Bronx Zoo or Manila Zoo; any strange animal, big or small, is as good as any other.

I went to the zoo with my wife, daughter and two young special children, brothers whom my daughter teaches, and one of their friends. I was surprised first by where the boys wanted to go: the Mouse House and the Reptile House, not the gorillas, big cats, rhinos or grizzlies. The two places overflowed with little children holding hands, wandering in the semi darkness of these houses, standing wide-eyed in front of white striped African mice or tiny turtles that look like leaves and twigs, Norway rats and strange lizards, including a chuckwalla who stared back with cold black eyes. Huge, powerful men looked after the little children, teachers and parents. Some of them could have been on loan from the New York Giants offensive line. They were not very good at answering the children’s questions, however.

We overheard a little boy say to his companion in front of another exhibit, “Watch those turtles. They’re gonna eat the fish. I have a turtle, I know. Trust me.”

They waited and waited, but the turtles never moved. Two high school boys had overheard the little boy and stayed to watch. They waited and when nothing happened, one of them said, “F— it, let’s go.”

The older we get, the less patience we have with new things, animals, people or ideas.

Another group of children watched an exhibit of shrimps. One of the shrimps chased the others. “Look at that crab go,” a little boy said.

“That ain’t no crab, it’s a frog,” a friend corrected.

Another boy wanted to see the sharks. Unfortunately, they were far away in the Coney Island aquarium.

Whether it was a shrimp, a motionless python, or a mouse the children appeared to look on them as friends, as if all of us and the animals were members of one family. It is very close to the way tribal people, such as the Mangyans and Negritos, look at nature. They look with awe, respect, open-heartedness and friendship.

(On the Staten Island ferry a day later, we saw another example of children’s openness. A small, curly-haired, Hispanic boy of 3 or 4 years old tried to make friends with a family of very orthodox, Hasidic Jews. The Jewish little boys had ritual locks of hair falling by their ears and wore brown and white clothes that looked like uniforms. They looked shy and not used to carefree ways. The little Hispanic boy ran around them and even put his head in the family’s baby carriage to kiss the baby. For him all kids were friends and family. The Jewish children were surprised at first, but soon they, too, were all playing.)

At around 12, we heard children all over calling for lunch so we went for hotdogs. Later, the two smaller boys with us bought foot-long rubber snakes. One of the boys told us he was going to put the snake in water and when it grew to be 14 feet long, as he was sure it would, he’d give it to his mother. There was no suspicion his mother might not want a 14-foot snake in her house.

The biggest excitement was caused by a peacock running loose among the children.

We watched sea lions torpedo through the water in their pool. A small Afro-American boy told us, “My grandma swims like that. My mama, too.”

We walked in the sunshine with the trees turning red and yellow and the air full of the aroma of flowers, popcorn and cut grass, and then we went to the Siberian Tiger exhibit where the tigers roam on a hillside and the people view them through a glass wall. The tigers pacing the hillside sometimes came only inches away from the little children who had their faces pressed to the glass. One tiger grew in size as he came nearer the glass wall until he looked enormous. “Tiger, tiger, burning bright…” Adults backed off, but not the children. They waved. The Burmese have a saying that may relate to the children’s reaction: “A tiger never kills an innocent person.”

We have alienated ourselves from nature, so much so that the weather and animals (except household cats and dogs) have become just problems we have to deal with. This attitude has closed us off from large branches of the family God has given us. We have filled in the vacant space with concern for money and power. We can recover the proper point of view by watching the children—they teach us that there is more to wonder at and cherish in nature and one another than money or power can offer.

We walked out of the zoo at the end of the day, very content. The lines of little children still holding hands walked along beside us. The children looked happy but very sleepy, and I knew the big men watching them would have quite a job getting them all home safely. But no one would regret the day.

Denis Murphy works with Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is upa@pldtdsl.net.

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