This guest blog, written by Assistant Professor Arnisson Andre C Ortega, features a community-engagement project in a peri-urban region north of Manila in the Philippines. The project uses counter-mapping to foreground the voices of marginalised farming and indigenous communities who face the scourge of government-initiated urban development projects. The views in this article are those of the author and not attributable to SHLC. The project was funded by the Scottish Funding Council as part University of Glasgow’s GCRF Small Grants Fund.

Urbanisation in the 21st century is occurring in urban fringes as vast tracts of land along city edges are converted and transformed into major urban developments.

Cities in the Global South are witnessing particularly dramatic transformations are putting the spotlight on critical issues of land dispossession, environmental degradation, and inequality underpin these changes. Marginalised communities are caught in these transformations, bearing the brunt of urban accumulation as they face threats of eviction.

Building a “smart” and “sustainable” city

In many Global South contexts, governments plan and develop new urban projects in an attempt to attract new investments into the country. In the Philippines, “new city” projects are big business involving an alliance of state and private sector actors, from real estate developers and landed elites to local businesses and multinational corporations. Like in other parts of the world, many of these “new city” projects in the Philippines gain popularity as they are seen to progress the nation’s competitive edge in the global market and provide much-needed jobs for the population.  But, the usual outcomes are far from ideal, as they typically involve corruption, insufficient decent-paying jobs, and land dispossession.

New Clark City is a prime example.  Located 120 kilometers north of the Metropolitan Manila, the project is promoted as the country’s first “smart, sustainable, and disaster-resilient city” and the viable solution to the urban congestion of Manila. Managed by the government agency, Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA), the project plans to build “green” and “smart” designs and infrastructure that will champion sustainability, while attracting much-needed investors and generating jobs for thousands of residents. It will include several districts, from technology parks and central business districts to mixed-income housing and university campuses.

But like other “new city” projects in the Global South, New Clark City is poised to dispossess thousands of residents. The project covers a massive 9,450 hectares of land that straddles several towns and villages (Figure 1). Farming communities and indigenous groups have been opposing New Clark City, as they fear losing their land, livelihood, and culture. In the last few years, ground operations have been underway as farmlands, regardless of whether farmers were compensated or not, have been bulldozed while several villages have been enclosed. In the highland fringes, indigenous Aeta communities face the danger of displacement. To suppress resistance, militarisation of the area has intensified, as residents face harassment and intimidation from security forces.

Figure 1: Coverage of New Clark City
Figure 1: Coverage of New Clark City
What is counter-mapping?

In an effort to foreground the struggles of farmers and indigenous peoples caught in urban transformation, the project, “Counter-mapping for Peri-Urban Social Justice,” was established bringing together scholars from the University of the Philippines and the University of Glasgow in partnership with community organisers and residents.

The project argues that urban sustainability has to attend to social justice concerns, especially marginalised communities caught in urban transformations, which researchers did by conducting a participatory study that uses a mixed-media counter-mapping methodology. Counter-mapping is a cartographic practice that unsettles dominant power relations and foregrounds the lived experiences and narratives of marginalised populations.

This project conducts counter-mapping through a community-engaged and mixed-methods approach, making use of various data collection techniques (see figure 2 below), like mental mapping, auto-photography, walking interviews, focus group discussions and drone video captures, to produce multiple map formats.

Against the glossy “official” maps of New Clark City, the project developed maps contesting these “official” narratives and spotlighting the struggles of affected communities.

Figure 2: Community mapping with residents. Credit: Arnisson Andre C Ortega
Figure 2: Community mapping with residents. Credit: Arnisson Andre C Ortega
Don’t bulldoze us: Counter-mapping reveals productive land and thriving communities

The official narrative promoting New Clark City claims that the land where the project will be built is “idle” and that there will be no indigenous community to be negatively affected by the project. But findings from the study reveal multiple communities are set to be effectively evicted to make way for the project. Residents identified important sites in their communities, from sacred grounds to valuable streams (Figure 3). What emerges from the counter-map is a rich landscape comprised of productive lands and thriving communities that have lived in the area for centuries.

Drone footages (see video below) show the drastic change in landscape in the area, whereby former rice fields and agricultural lands were bulldozed, and mountains were carved out for the construction of roads and other structures.

Figure 3: An indigenous resident points to the golf course where their spiritual mountain called Mount Kanuman was once situated
Figure 3: An indigenous resident points to the golf course where their spiritual mountain called Mount Kanuman was once situated

Residents recounted how there were little to no warnings of bulldozing activities. In one of the villages where the initial phase of the project was going to be constructed, houses and rice fields were flattened while security personnel regularly patrolled the area to ensure demolition and construction of structures. Some villagers were compelled to accept financial compensation, while others were not even paid a single cent. Despite the promises of new jobs, residents lament on their loss of livelihood and land. Plans for relocation were not discussed.

The indigenous peoples are worried that the construction of New Clark City will destroy their culture and land, especially that many of them do not see themselves working in this “new city.” Several sacred grounds and other important sites to indigenous residents have been destroyed and many are still under threat of demolition.

New Clark City prides itself as the Philippines’ green and disaster-resilient city. However, the project is being built on certain flood-prone zones (Figure 4). The construction of new structures, from highways to buildings, has already recontoured certain lands and as such, may potentially exacerbate flooding in some areas.

Figure 4: Map showing the flood-zone areas.
Figure 4: Map showing the flood-zone areas.
Promoting social justice to achieve urban sustainability

Amidst overwhelming calls for urban sustainability and resilience, urban projects like New Clark City capitalise on big business to convert land and concomitantly dispossess marginalised populations.  It’s particularly interesting to note that the construction of ‘green’ and ‘smart’ city projects, in the case of New Clark City, entails the destruction of actually green landscapes and the indigenous residents that inhabit them.

What needs to be underscored is urban social justice, as a critical component of sustainability, which champions the plight of marginalised populations who are caught in urban transformations. For two years, the study has produced numerous map outputs that foreground the campaigns of farming and indigenous communities in the area, from maps printed onto life-size tarpaulins or included in informational flyers for residents, to online maps in memes disseminated through social media. The project has also now expanded to become the Counter-mapping PH Network, which brought together more scholars, activists, artists, and community organisers in an effort to work and engage with various marginalized communities grappling with development aggression.

For more information about the Counter-mapping PH Network, visit the project’s website or follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.