On a reclaimed island at the mouth of the Pasig River, 300 mangrove trees grow on a substrate of garbage and sand. Elsewhere along the shoreline, plastic waste carried downriver from Manila forms a bouncy mat on the water, thick and sturdy enough to build a shack on. But here, in the shaded shallows beneath the mangroves’ prop roots, the water is clear enough to see crabs and small fish. Every day, delta waters spill over a crude sandbag fence protecting the site. And every day, Nila Mendez wades into the grove with a long bamboo pole to clear out the plastic bags and bottles that get tangled in the roots. Her work embodies a community’s struggle for respect and equal partnership in shaping the environmental agenda for their home.
On a reclaimed island at the mouth of the Pasig River, 300 mangrove trees grow on a substrate of garbage and sand.
The island district of Baseco is shaped like a triangle, roughly one kilometer on each side. In the 1950s, this area was open water — a ship repair yard protected by two stone breakwaters. Baseco was short for the Bataan Shipyard and Engineering Corporation, which was acquired in the mid-1960s by relatives of First Lady Imelda Marcos. Over the decades, garbage, construction debris, and sediment accumulated to form surfaces that could be built on. The first settlers, in the 1970s and ’80s, were fishers and port workers. Fewer than 20 families lived here, but they gained formal recognition as a barangay, or village. When the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos was deposed in 1986, the shipyard was seized, along with other infrastructure projects that had been the spoils of a corrupt government. As the site fell into limbo, hundreds of families moved in, building their homes on stilts over shallow waters and unstable ground. Migration intensified in 2002 when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo promised the land to “current occupants” in a bid for political support, and in 2004 her government used landfill to reclaim the entire area bounded by the breakwaters.
Today, Baseco is the densest barangay in the City of Manila. The last census put the population at about 60,000, although community leaders say it is closer to 100,000. 1 Connected to the mainland by a single access road, the district is adjacent to the Port of Manila’s South Harbor and just across the river from the international container terminal. It’s a ten-minute commute by motorized tricycle to the Intramuros, Manila’s central tourist zone, and a few minutes farther to the commercial district of Divisoria, where all kinds of cheap goods are manufactured and sold. In other words, Baseco is incredibly well located for people working low-wage jobs in service and manufacturing or making a livelihood as vendors and hawkers. In our seven visits to the island since 2011, we’ve met people who have lived here their whole lives; others who were evicted from informal settlements elsewhere in Manila; and still others who had arrived recently from distant provinces, staying with relatives while looking for a job. Many expressed concerns about personal safety and a lack of basic infrastructure and services, but they all appreciated the opportunities to make a livelihood.
Volunteers and visitors planted the seeds with hand shovels. No one knew if the trees would survive.
Funding for public works comes mainly in the form of disaster relief. The tallest building on the island is a four-story evacuation center, located on one of the few plots of stable ground. It gets used regularly in the habagat season between June and September, when a southwest monsoon brings torrential rains, wind, and storm surges. In the aftermath of Typhoon Ondoy, NGOs working with the local organization Kabalikat sa Pagpapuanlad ng Baseco (Allies for Improving Baseco) decided to use leftover relief funds to plant mangroves along the vulnerable coastline. In 2011, the Kabalikat fenced off a small pilot site on the island’s southwestern corner, and members began clearing out the garbage and wrecked structures. The first mangrove propagules arrived the next year, but construction materials had depleted the project’s funding, so visitors and volunteers were invited to “purchase” a propagule for a $1 donation and plant it themselves with a hand shovel — digging, prying, and pulling through the sand and garbage. No one knew if the trees would survive.
Mangrove planting has a long history in the Philippines, including large-scale, national efforts dating back to the 1920s. As many as half of the towns and villages in the archipelago are economically dependent on mangrove forests for food, fuel, timber, crafting materials, and medicine. 2 Wood from the iconic genus bakhaw (Rhizophora spp.), with its arched prop roots, makes excellent charcoal, and the bark provides tannin for leather-making. Mangrove wetlands are critical nurseries for commercially important species, allowing juvenile fish and shrimp to hide from predators and feed on plant detritus and bacteria until they are ready to venture into the ocean. And large mangrove belts provide coastal protection. Their root systems stabilize shorelines by trapping sediments and preventing erosion, while mature trees reduce the impact of storm surges and high winds, minimizing damage and saving lives during tropical cyclones.
A century ago, Manila Bay had an estimated 54,000 hectares of mangrove wetlands; today, only 680 survive.
These benefits are diminished in Manila Bay, where urbanization and shoreline reclamation projects have destroyed riparian habitats. People who lived in Baseco in the 1990s remember a stand of mangroves that spontaneously established in the shallow water between their homes and the sea. They recall harvesting wood for charcoal and catching fish, mollusks, and crustaceans among the roots. But that grove was eliminated in the 2004 land reclamation project. A century ago, Manila Bay had an estimated 54,000 hectares of mangrove wetlands; today, only 680 hectares survive. 3 The small plot maintained by the Kabalikat measures about one-eighth of a hectare.
Keeping these trees alive in heavily polluted waters, on a compacted landfill substrate, is not easy. Some mangrove species have evolved aerial roots that help them breathe in mudflats, but that adaptive feature now threatens to smother the trees, since the exposed roots are efficient traps for plastic debris. Like many developing countries, the Philippines has problems managing waste. Among the world’s rivers, the Pasig is the eighth largest contributor of plastic to the oceans, and Baseco’s residents live the reality of that statistic. 4 In the dry season, the estuary that surrounds their home becomes a temporary sink. Since the river’s sluggish waters are not strong enough to flush waste out to the ocean, it accumulates along the shore. 5 Then the monsoon season brings sudden and catastrophic damage. In the first year of the Kabalikat mangrove project, most of the seedlings were lost to typhoons that battered the exposed shoreline and swept in garbage. Bamboo fences and sandbags now protect the site, but these structures are fragile and must be frequently replaced. Kabalikat members gather after severe storms to make repairs and replant lost trees.
Keeping the mangroves alive in heavily polluted waters, on a compacted landfill substrate, is not easy.
Growth is stunted in these stressful conditions. Mangrove experts who visited the site with us in 2015 said that trunk diameter and stem height were far below expectations. But when we came back the next year, after a period of calm weather and the Kabalikat’s intensive care, three species (Rhizophora mucronata, Rhizophora apiculata, and Excoecaria agallocha) had established themselves, reaching chest height with a bushy flourish. And when we visited again in 2018, the trees had grown to a height of four meters. Crustaceans could be seen in the waters, and we were told children had caught small birds in the trees. Some months later, a Kabalikat member passed along a photo. Hanging among the dense foliage were long strands that resembled bean pods — mangrove propagules. Seven years after the grove was established, the trees had started to reproduce. Organizers talked about starting a business to sell propagules to other planting programs in the region.
Nila Mendez, the official caretaker of the Kabalikat mangroves, lives in a small compound next to the site. In 2010, she lost her home on the island to a catastrophic fire that left 4,000 others homeless. Some residents got support to rebuild and relocate, but Mendez did not qualify for new housing. So she joined the Kabalikat, which provided a place to stay near the mangroves in exchange for her care and labor. In the hot, dry months between February and May, she waters the seedlings and young trees from a well she dug in the sand nearby. She cleans the grove daily, maintains the bamboo fence, and watches out for anyone who might damage or vandalize the trees. Describing these duties through a translator, Mendez grimaced and placed a hand over her heart. “She feels very hurt when she sees kids break off the mangrove’s branches,” explained the translator, Uriel. “She feels that the mangroves are like her children.”
Our visit in July 2019 coincided with a typhoon. During a brief respite when the rain slowed to a drizzle, we waded through the flooded streets to meet Mendez under a zinc awning outside her home. We asked how high the waters had reached inside, and she raised a hand to her waist. She waved off our concern. It happens often. Later, two young girls emerged with framed newspaper clippings. One frame held a photo of Mendez bent over buckets of propagules, and the other held the accompanying article, “Nila and her mangroves,” published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2013. 6 The article tells the story of how Mendez came to join the Kabalikat: “She was asking God that near the end of her life He give her a small nipa hut on stilts alongside the mangroves, but out of the reach of floodwaters. There, she said, she would rise at dawn and watch her mangroves blowing in the wind and growing strong.”
The official aim of the mangrove project is to reduce disaster risk; another goal is to subvert portrayals of the urban poor as ignorant polluters.
It is a vision of security in a landscape that offers little. The environmental risks of living in Baseco — severe storms and flooding, poor sanitation, fires driven by strong winds and flammable materials, earthquakes — are accompanied by a persistent threat of eviction. Community members established the Kabalikat in 2001 to improve their safety and assert a right to live in their chosen neighborhood. The mission has “four pillars,” said founding president Jeorgie Tenolete, ticking them off on his fingers. “Security of tenure, livelihood, organization, and respect.” Today, the 700 member families advocate for the community’s interests and demand to participate in political decisions that affect their home. They operate livelihood and mutual assistance programs, and they work with NGOs and public agencies to distribute aid. The official aim of the mangrove project is to reduce disaster risk, but a secondary goal is to subvert portrayals of the urban poor as ignorant polluters who must be removed from waterways for the protection of their own health and the environment.
In Manila, pollution and flooding are often blamed on the poor who crowd river banks and estuaries in settlements that lack basic sanitation and waste infrastructure. The Pasig River, declared biologically dead in the 1990s and described as the city’s “toilet bowl,” was recently the focus of a twenty-year national rehabilitation effort that sought to physically remove informal settlers so that waterways could be restored to health. Thousands of families were relocated to permanent affordable housing, and structures encroaching on the river, canals, and estuaries were dismantled. The project won accolades for its attention to equity and community engagement, even as it resulted in the displacement of poor communities. 7 Mindful of this history and wary of being evicted themselves, Kabalikat members understand the political utility of showing that they can contribute meaningfully to environmental programs.
They argue that public blame often finds the wrong target. For example, the removal of informal settlers along the Pasig was often justified with the statistic that domestic waste accounts for 60 percent of river pollution. But a less frequently cited report shows that even in well-developed parts of central Manila, only 8 percent of households are directly linked to sewer lines. 8 It’s true that urban waterways often serve as waste disposal channels for people who live near and over them; but nearly everyone else in Manila relies on privatized and under-maintained septic systems that overflow into drainage canals if not regularly de-sludged. People in Baseco resent that systemic failures to protect waterways are unfairly blamed on disadvantaged communities downstream. 9
Villagers know that the rhetoric of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’ can be a precursor to eviction.
They also know that the rhetoric of environmental “vulnerability” and “resilience” can be a precursor to displacement. 10 Resettling families away from polluted waterways may be “safer,” but often the new housing is located in fringe areas that lack economic opportunities, so people end up moving back to their old neighborhood in order to make a livelihood. Some Baseco residents worry that politicians are building a specious case to evict them so that waterfront real estate can be developed into business and entertainment districts. They note that neither earthquake risk nor potential habitat destruction have stopped plans to reclaim nearby waters to create a “City of Pearl,” backed by Chinese investors as part of the Belt and Road initiative. In fantasy renderings of that project, Baseco is sketched uneasily; it’s hard to imagine the shanty town existing side by side with luxury towers. Kabalikat members hope the success of the mangrove project will shift the public narrative and win respect for their community, so that they are taken seriously as a partner in negotiations over future development.
Sometimes it seems that every vertical surface in Baseco has been claimed by a banner, sign, or plaque. Visitors to the island quickly learn to associate the professional sports court with one former mayor, and the urban garden by the main road with another. Clientelist political strategies require that everyone knows the patron responsible for the provision of goods, infrastructure, and services. The Kabalikat, too, takes great care to signal ownership of its projects, so they can’t be co-opted for someone else’s political gain.
In fact, there have been at least four separate attempts to bring mangroves back to the island — but credit matters, so there is competition rather than cooperation between the initiatives. On Earth Day in 2012, local government officials and representatives of the Archdiocese of Manila planted 47 seedlings to launch the BASECO Mangrove Ecosystem and Marine Park. That project fizzled when the saplings died and a rival mayor was elected. In 2014, the Pasig River Rehabilitation Committee announced the BASECO Mangrove Nursery and Livelihood Center, which was conceived as a tourist attraction, complete with boardwalks. But five years later, President Rodrigo Duterte declared the river “already clean” and abolished the committee, so there was no one to build out the project. Meanwhile, in 2016, the charitable foundation of Senator Cynthia Villar, who has positioned herself as a defender of coastal and wetland habitats around Manila Bay, cordoned off long stretches of Baseco shoreline and hired workers to plant mangroves. Tenolete dryly noted that to make way for an access road, they removed talisay trees the Kabalikat had planted.
Successful mangrove rehabilitation projects are often low-budget efforts maintained by residents. High-profile initiatives barely outlast the opening ceremony.
When we visited in 2019, the rival mangrove plots looked scraggly, and Mendez told us they didn’t get enough water when the weather was hot and dry. She said she was offered a salary to work for one of the other projects, but she turned it down. She could not possibly care for the entire coastline, and any ambiguity over the credit would not help the Kabalikat’s cause. Members are proud that their grove has outlasted and outperformed the others, despite less funding. This tracks with research showing that successful mangrove rehabilitation projects with high rates of sapling survival are often low-budget efforts maintained by residents living on site. High-profile, high-budget initiatives tend not to make it long past the opening ceremony. 11 The drudgery of monitoring and maintenance yields too little political benefit for the effort. One imagines how much more could be achieved if there were more cooperation between the people with political and financial resources and the people who are dedicated to care and stewardship. But until structural inequities and the basic demands of the urban poor are taken seriously, it’s hard to see that happening.
We would like to tell a heroic story about Nila Mendez and the Kabalikat bringing back vital coastal habitat and protecting their island home. Reality is grimmer. The incremental strategies available to a volunteer-based community organization are not nearly scaled to the magnitude of environmental risks that Baseco faces. Sea levels are rising fast and storm surges growing more severe. Researchers who study the protective effects of mangrove belts measure wave attenuation in centimeters per hundred meters of forest belt width. Depending on wave heights, vegetation structure, and nearshore bathymetry, the recommended minimum width for protective mangrove belts ranges from fifty to hundreds of meters. 12 The Kabalikat grove is only seven meters wide, so it can’t do much to protect the island from storm surges.
The local ecological benefits are not universally appreciated, either. On one visit to the site, a disheveled young man stumbled out of the mangroves with a broad, defiant smile. Our guides glared and shook their heads disapprovingly, and as we entered the trees they told us to watch our step. “Time bombs,” they explained. We didn’t understand until we found ourselves gingerly stepping over lumps of excrement on the narrow path. There is little privacy in Baseco and no sanitary infrastructure — many homes do not even have a pit latrine — and it’s easy to see why some people would use the mangroves as a toilet.
In addition to problems with flooding and sanitation, Baseco faces geologic risks from its history as a crudely converted shipyard. The island is so unstable that in most places structures over two stories are not allowed. Earthquake faults cross Manila Bay, and the reclaimed land is especially vulnerable to liquefaction. 13 There are real limits to what community resilience projects can accomplish in the face of structural problems that are literally tectonic.
Foreign investment pours into glittering ‘mega-resilience’ projects, rather than infrastructure improvements for unwanted communities.
The most challenging questions relate not to technical assessments of risk but rather to the politics of disaster risk management. In Manila it’s no longer socially acceptable to criminalize informal settlers and evict them for trespassing. Relocation is justified through euphemistic concerns like “danger” and “vulnerability.” Such tactics skirt around the socioeconomic realities that make retreat untenable for the urban poor. The concentration of rural land ownership in a small wealthy class pushes landless farmers to urban centers in search of better prospects. Those cities are economically dependent on cheap labor, but they are unable or unwilling to provide workers with adequate shelter. 14 Images of shanties over polluted waterways cast blame on the people who live among the garbage, without changing the systems that produce such outcomes for people and landscapes. Foreign investment pours into glittering “mega-resilience” projects, rather than basic infrastructure improvements for unwanted communities. 15
And through it all, Nila Mendez cares for the mangroves. Outside her flooded home, she welcomed us to sit in chairs that had been brought to the street, recently wiped and dried. She confided that her back pains made it hard to sit herself, and we privately wondered if they made it hard to carry out her daily chores. Who will take care of the mangroves when she is not able? She told us she hadn’t seen her son in a few years. He lives in a different province, and traveling would mean leaving the trees untended. She worries. Keeping the grove alive in a hostile environment takes a personal toll. Those three hundred mangrove saplings were lucky to be cared for by a woman who found spiritual fulfillment in the work.
Not every Kabalikat member shares Mendez’s commitment. Life for low-income settlers is stressful enough without additional demands on their time and energy. And in a place with as many problems as Baseco, it can feel unimportant, even frivolous, to invest resources in small urban plantings that cannot be scaled up, given the intense competition for space. Assessed on their functional performance, some projects seem hardly worth the effort: green band-aids that cover intractable problems of injustice. But still the Kabalikat’s leaders press on with environmental initiatives. They’ve started an urban farm that improves access to affordable fresh produce and a street tree planting program that promotes shade and fruit. There is also a compulsory home gardening program that requires members to maintain edible and ornamental plants in their yards. It’s controversial; some members are skeptical of the benefits and participate only so they can have access to other services. But leaders insist that the community has to make a visible commitment to greening. The conspicuously potted plants tell visitors who walk the streets of Baseco that they are passing a Kabalikat member’s home.
For community groups that want to show ongoing progress, urban greening programs are an attractive alternative to large construction projects. Seedlings are inexpensive, and projects can proceed on their own timeline, as funds come in. As plantings mature and expand, sprays of bright green vegetation make an attractive and cheery addition to the landscape of concrete block, zinc, plastic tarp, and bamboo. And the world notices. The list of external donors and partner agencies supporting the Kabalikat grows ever longer. On our last visit we noted a contribution from Hermès, the French maker of luxury goods. Importantly, the Kabalikat’s environmental initiatives are paired with more durable investments in housing and infrastructure. On that same visit, guides led us on a tour of their newly built row houses, where a sign touted the endorsement of a former president.
Critiques of gentrification and bourgeois environmentalism in other parts of the world have taught us to be suspicious of the depoliticized language of “greening” and “cleaning” when spoken by elites. But returning year after year, and seeing how the mangroves have grown under Mendez’s care, we remember how powerful those words can be when they retain their original meaning, close to home. On a recent visit to the island, we walked with Mayeth Betasolo, a Kabalikat leader, along a recently cleaned-up beach near the organization’s headquarters. We waved to a group of women playing bingo under a Terminalia catappa tree that grows taller and provides more shade every year.
“We are dreaming that after ten years, Baseco will be green and clean,” Betasolo said, her enthusiasm unmistakable. “We are dreaming!”