Why do cities love reclamation projects?


By: Nathan Molina

Artwork by Lloyd Evangelista

Despite long-established and concrete evidence on the socio-environmental costs significantly outweighing its economic benefits, why do cities keep building reclamation projects?

In July 2021, the City of Dumaguete in Negros Oriental approved the proposed “Smart City” development project. The 23 billion peso project aims to stimulate economic growth in the region, and ultimately, raise Dumaguete’s economic status. The city mayor, a strong proponent of the project, said in an interview that “Smart City” will be “sustainable and a solution to the poverty of the people of Dumaguete and Negros Oriental.” Additionally, city officials and developers of the project view it as a chance to have their own “BGC”. Aside from the massive (re)development of virtually the entire stretch of the city’s shoreline, it also plans to build a wastewater treatment facility, a wave protection project, a Venice canal-esque esplanade, a yacht club, and other amenities that purportedly will provide solutions to the city’s poverty. Although proponents stress the supposed economic benefits that “Smart City” will bring to Dumaguete, environmental and activist groups strongly oppose its construction. The project will involve the reclamation of up to 174 hectares of coastline, which is equivalent to 10 Lunetas or 4000 basketball courts. STEWaRDS, an environmental conservation organization based in Dumaguete, explains that the project will cause irreversible damages to highly productive coastal ecosystems. Furthermore, the project poses serious threats to the local fisherfolk and to their communities who are greatly dependent on fishing as their primary livelihood.

A rendering of the “Smart City” reclamation project in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental. (Source: https://dumaguetecity.gov.ph/2021/07/19/proposed-smart-city-project-will-promote-sustainable-economic-growth-it-will-not-obstruct-the-view-from-the-rizal-boulevard-pier-area-and-silliman-beach/)

Reclamation projects for whom?

Despite long-established and concrete evidence on the socio-environmental costs significantly outweighing its economic benefits, reclamation projects are still being incessantly proposed to city governments. In the Greater Manila Area alone, at least 20 reclamation projects are in the pipeline. Similar to “Smart City”, the majority of these projects promise the supposed economic progress that they will bring to their communities. For instance, the “New Manila Bay” reclamation project is proposed as the future location of the Philippines’ next prime central business district (CBD), whose ultimate goal is “to create social mobility for Filipinos”. However, to give way to the construction of “New Manila Bay”, the adjacent slum community of Baseco Compound will be displaced. Another planned project, Bacoor Reclamation and Development Project (BRDP), promises billions of pesos in revenue and thousands of jobs. But this will be at the cost of jeopardizing coastal communities and their local livelihood of mussel farming. There is no question that these reclamation projects will generate economic benefits. But to the benefit of whom? Whom are these projects being built for? Despite the heavy socio-environmental costs, why do cities keep building reclamation projects?(

A map that shows all proposed reclamation projects slated to be built along the coastline of the Manila Bay. (Source: https://kmcmaggroup.com/research-insights/2019/6-soon-to-rise-manila-bay-reclamation-sites-in-2019/)

“In order to keep up with globalization, cities transform urban space for a specific group of people in mind, setting aside other groups of people that do not fit.”

It is a challenge for rapidly growing cities, especially in the Global South to keep up with the globalized world — a global network of cities where each city is a node of accumulated economic power. In this capitalist network, the more economic resources a city accumulates, the more economic power and command it has in the global order. Cities such as New York City, London, Tokyo, and Singapore are often seen as the most influential cities due to the huge amounts of economic power they hold. As a result, cities pattern their economic development plans after them. Cities in the Global South are at a disadvantage because they do not possess the same amount of economic resources that those in the Global North do. As a result, they compete against each other for economic investments. Those that come from foreign and multinational corporations are particularly sought after because of their supposed higher economic values. To attract and invite these investments, cities create and transform urban spaces for them — people who hold great amounts of socioeconomic power. High-rise buildings are built to provide office and living spaces for them. Shopping districts that house luxury brands to satisfy their cosmopolitan taste. Entertainment spaces that would ensure their satisfaction. In the process of redeveloping the urban space so that it perfectly caters to them, people who are not like them are being deprived of their urban space. In order to keep up with globalization, cities transform urban space for a specific group of people in mind, setting aside other groups of people that do not fit.

Reclamation projects — a neoliberal tool

Because of the high economic profit expected to be gained from reclamation projects, cities view them as a convenient way to accumulate economic power. Furthermore, inviting foreign enterprises to conduct their operations in this space created for them provides a huge advantage for cities in the competition to elevate their economic status. For example, in the case of Dumaguete’s “Smart City”, city officials believe that the economic returns from the project will upgrade the city’s classification from a “third-class” to a “highly-urbanized” city. Essentially, these proposed reclamation projects are examples of development aggression — an aggressive transformation of space in order to extract its maximum economic profit, oftentimes disregarding the existing communities occupying that space. Despite proponents’ claim that the economic gains from these projects will be for everyone’s benefit, the eventual displacement of Baseco communities and the imminent destruction of Dumaguete fisherfolk’s livelihood prove otherwise. As a result of development aggression, marginalized groups are pushed to the peripheries where they are not paid attention to by the people who claim that reclamation projects will be for everyone’s benefit. In other words, these massive infrastructure projects do not facilitate social mobility and are not answers to poverty; they only widen social inequity.

Communities in Baseco Compund are threatened to be displaced to give way to reclamation proejcts along Manila Bay. Source: https://apjjf.org/2014/12/50/Rey-Ventura/4235.html

Development aggression is a direct result of neoliberal policies set in place. Neoliberalism strongly encourages the commodification — the process of transforming an item into a good for exchange — of space. As exhibited by reclamation projects, the commodification of space oftentimes involves the process referred to as “accumulation by dispossession”. The process described as “the foremost achievement of neoliberalism” is meant to redirect economic resources to the elite and take away those resources previously owned by marginalized groups. Unfortunately, reclamation projects are only one of the several manifestations of development aggression. The Duterte administration’s “Build, Build, Build” initiative is replete with these neoliberal projects. “Mega Dam” projects, like the Kaliwa Dam in Quezon and Rizal and the Jalaur Dam in Iloilo, are meant to supply the water and energy needs of urban communities. However, aside from the irreversible ecological impacts, Indigenous communities will also be displaced. Coastal communities of Taliptip, Bulacan are also being displaced to pave way for the construction of The New Manila International Airport, soon-to-be “the country’s primary airport” that aims to decongest air traffic in Manila. As long as these projects are built with economic interests highly prioritized, economic development expected to result from them will never be inclusive and will not facilitate social mobility.

Read: When the Right to the City Under Threat

Environment conservation and rights groups are protesting the construction of the “Smart City” project in Dumaguete. (Source: https://www.rappler.com/nation/scientists-groups-oppose-dumaguete-smart-city-reclamation-project)

“Having a ‘BGC’ is not always what cities need. What cities need are infrastructure projects that are truly sustainable, inclusive, and will leave a long-lasting positive impact on communities.”

When cities adopt the neoliberal sense of progress and development, they become business machines whose primary goal is to produce maximum economic profit. In the name of neoliberalism, cities will decidedly disrupt the social fabric of the very communities that form it. Groups who are opposed to the “Smart City” project in Dumaguete stress the importance of preserving the “slow-paced” lifestyle of its people. They believe that a project like “Smart City” has no place in Dumaguete. Having a “BGC” is not always what cities need. What cities need are infrastructure projects that are truly sustainable, inclusive, and will leave a long-lasting positive impact on communities. Cities need an efficient mass public transportation system that effectively facilitates mobility. Cities need affordable housing that is reasonably located. Cities need open green spaces and other public amenities that allow its people to connect with their communities. Cities need to be developed so that everyone can equally practice their right to the city.

#ProtectDumagueteCoast #NoTo174Dumaguete #SaveManilaBay #SaveTaliptip #NoToKaliwaDam #NoToJalaurDam


When the Right to the City Under Threat

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