The Slum

Tondo: The space in between

Historian Carlos Celdran explains how the Tondo slum came into existence as the rebel district of Manila.

“The Philippines has always been about settlement; whether that settlement be informal or formal,” says historian and tour-guide Carlos Celdran, as he takes us through the history of Manila’s Tondo slum, where Al Jazeera’s six-part documentary series The Slum is set. 

Celdran explains that the district of Tondo has historically been home to Manila’s dispossessed, even during the time of Spanish colonisation in the 16th century. Tondo developed north of the Pasig river, parallel to the wealthy and powerful stronghold of the Intramuros region, which lies to the south.  

Since 500 years ago Tondo has always been the place where ‘trouble-makers’ are located ... So Tondo was always located exactly one cannon shot away from Intramuros.

by Carlos Celdran

The powerful Catholic church owned all the land during colonial times, and the concept of land ownership by private citizens was a foreign one.

“If you weren’t on church land or rich enough to actually have your own hacienda or your own private property, you were immediately considered to be a squatter,” Celdran explains.

Fast-forward to World War II, and Manila was first occupied by the Japanese and then devastated as the American army moved in to retake control. With the Japanese hunkered down in the Intramuros, and the American military attacking from the north, much of the city was destroyed. 

Celdran explains how large plots of land were left open for squatters to occupy, many of them moving into the cities from the countryside in the hope of finding economic relief. 

Celdran points to the role of economic policies made in 1987, after Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were removed from the Malacanang palace. Newly elected President Corazon Aquino’s rewrote the constitution making provisions for the economy which required corporations to have a minimum of 60 percent Filipino ownership.

“[The Philippines] had the most unfriendly and hostile environment when it comes to foreign direct investment,” explains Celdran. “Because you don’t have direct foreign investment you don’t have enough jobs. So the Filipino skilled population ends up going abroad.”

Meanwhile, a combination of urbanisation, the Lina law – which protects squatters over land owners – and economic policy has resulted in Tondo, one of the most densely populated areas of the world, with an estimated 69,000 people per square kilometre.