Monday, February 20, 2012

They paved paradise, put up a parking lot

Author's note (April 10,2012): SM Baguio began uprooting the trees on the eve of April 9; Luneta Hill was covered and the workers were masked. Advocates started to arrive in Luneta Hill 12am of April 10, begging the men to stop cutting the trees. But alas an alnus fell; dawn broke and Baguio has lost some of its few remaining pines. Baguio RTC Branch 6 has issued a Temporary Environmental Protection Order, stopping the uprooting, at least for now. SM still stands by their initial statement and the LGU still insists they can't do anything about it.

Armi of Up Dharma down plays the first few notes of the band hit ‘Tadhana’ and there was a collective sound of glee that resonated not in a music bar, but in an open space in Baguio City, where students, musicians, artists and residents were in one with the cool breeze, and their beloved trees.

The evening concert came after the tree-planting activity and prayer rally of ‘Project Save 182,’ a collaborative group headed by environmental activist Dr. Michael Bengwayan to call for the trashing of SM Baguio’s redevelopment plan that involves the earth-balling of 182 trees.

On the morning of February 5, more than 182 new trees were planted at the Pines of the World park, in a symbolic act participated by some 200 advocates from Baguio, others from Manila.

Approved by city, DENR

The redevelopment plan was given the green light by the DENR and the local government of Baguio.

According to DENR-CAR Regional Executive Director Clarence Baguilat, when SM applied to ball the trees to pave way for the mall’s expansion, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje approved it on certain conditions. That SM ‘transplant’ the trees and plant 50 saplings for every one tree uprooted.

“It’s like being allowed to kill a person, provided that I make 50 new babies,” said Conviron Altatis, one of the activists who helped mobilize the movement, using Facebook primarily.

Altatis did a spoof monologue of Henry Sy, SM CEO, and Henry Sy’s grandson. His amusing performance earned him applause, but most when he delivered his very last line.

In a fake chinese accent, he said, “I asked my Lolo Henry, ‘Lolo, if we become grandparents, what is the story you would like us to tell them? That there used to be pine trees in Baguio, or that there used to be an SM in Baguio?’”


They call it the ‘SM Occupy,’ a movement that originated in the US to protest corporate greed. The definition fits to the group’s cause, as weeks before, the same people marched to the upper Session road near the mall to stage a rally filled with music, and performances, crying, as seen in one of the signs, “cut your greed, not our trees.”

SM Management said they are going to build the multi-leveled parking lot using green architecture and technology. It’ll help decongest traffic, they said, and that they were vying to be given a LEED recognition for an ecologically-friendly structure which will use no airconditioning and only natural light, the first of its kind in the country.

“That’s absurd,” said Bedejim Abdullah, member of the Cordillera Conservation Trust, an environmentalist also rallying to save the trees around SM. You want to be friendly to the environment, don’t cut the trees, he said, as well as everyone in the protest did.

“I hope I can stop the cutting of trees,” Baguio City Mayor Mauricio Domogan told me when I went to the City hall the next day. The land SM Baguio now stands in is a private property owned by the Corporation, bought from the national government in a bidding in 1992 for almost P70M. “We cannot do anything because we are bound by law to let them do what they want with their property,” Domogan said.

DENR-CAR’s Baguilat said, “if the government doesn’t want trees to be cut, then don’t sell these lands.” Asked whether anyone of them in the local unit could put a stop to it, he said, “the city government. Political will lang ‘yan.'


"No trees will be cut," says SM in an online statement posted in their website as well as in reports. VP for Operations in the Northern Region Engr. Bien Mateo gave an interview to GMA News TV's Bawal ang Pasaway with Mareng Winnie where he emphasized that they were not gonna cut trees, they were just gonna earth ball them - and that every single one affected will be replaced with more.

“Their favorite word is ‘ball’” said Altatis. What SM plans to do with the trees is earth-ball them, meaning to uproot and replant them somewhere else.

Bengwayan said earth-balling will be tantamount to killing. He recalls the 1994 Camp John Hay incident where 475 trees were earth-balled. Out of the 475 trees in John Hay, only 43 live today. In all, only
17% of them survived due to a “transplant shock” the roots experienced.

“But 17% is better than none,” said Baguilat.

Bengwayan also pointed out some numbers: 182 trees can absorb 27,300 liters of water everyday, which will help lessen the risk of flooding. 1 pine tree can also take in 40-45 ibs of carbon; 182 pine trees can contribute to the reduction of 9,790 ibs of carbon yearly from the air we breathe.

A tree a day

Baguilat said the Luneta Hill, where the trees stand at risk of SM’s expansion, is a very little patch of greenery as compared tothe remaining ‘significant’ patches of forest that remain in Baguio that must be protected, like the Camp John Hay and the Forbes Park.

Bengwayan told me the groups fear it may be a precedent to the cutting of more trees. “If they can cut 182 now, what’s stopping them to cut more?”

Among the crowd present that day was veteran artist Ben-Hur Villanueva. He said the point of the movement is to assure the children today that they will grow up in the same Baguio their elders lived in - a city rich with pine trees. “The adults, may politiko na ‘yan, but the children - they need to be aware of the importance to have trees.”

“We need to have a provision where the trees these children plant will be legally theirs,” Villanueva shared his thoughts with me. He said it was to give the child the right and claim to a tree, should its life be challenged later on. It was to assure, he said, that as the child grows up, the tree grows up with him.


In a chit-chat by the sideline, the event secretariat revealed they feel the cutting of trees is gonna happen “anytime soon.”

The Luneta Hill, once open to spectators, is now surrounded with armed guards in every corner. Mayor Domogan and the DENR show no sign of budging. In my conversation with Baguilat, he told me that it was a direct order from Secretary Ramon Paje and that their mandate is to follow.

Mayor Domogan insistently explained that unless the National Government says or does something, the government of Baguio has no choice but to honor land owners’ rights.

DENR-CAR also looks to Secretary Paje for any possible change of heart.

Kabataan Representative Mong Palatino has called on the Congress to probe the mall oligarch’s expansion. Palatino filed House Resolution 2069 seeking a joint inquiry into legality and propriety of the permit granted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) allowing the earth-balling of trees.

Plea to SM

Baguilat added that the fate of the trees lie mostly in SM’s hands, saying the environmental groups should direct their attentionto SM and convince them to spare the trees.

But the environmental groups look to take their case to the President himself. They gathered signatures from the numerous rallies they will send to President Noynoy Aquino at the Palace.

Bengwayan and other groups cry to the government: honor Executive Order #23. EO 23, in its gist, prohibits any body including the DENR to issue tree-cutting permits in natural and residual forests.

In a text message, DENR-CAR Information Officer Abner Villanueva insisted the order does not cover Luneta Hill as it is a private property for commercial use, and that the trees were not naturally growing but actually just planted - by SM themselves.

Green Building

SM's Mateo also told Pasaway that "Trees are very important. We also find importance in them. But we want to also explain that caring for the environment is not only limited to trees. We care for the trees, but caring for the environment also includes water reservation, energy efficiency, reduction of carbon footprint, and this is what we're promoting in this expansion; making it a green building."

SM also explained that in 2005, they experienced problems of soil erosion and that after examinations, a careful enhancement of the area showed to be the best solution. They also said that the expansion will include the construction of a water reservoir which can contain 6.9 million liters of water at any given time - an amount that can be absorbed by 4,000 pine trees - to prevent run-off.

But the main thing, they say: It will help decongest the city, lowering carbon dioxide emission. Economically, the expansion will also create jobs and pay taxes that can provide significant funding for the community.

For his part, Domogan defended the development for its eventual benefits for the city, and added a sidenote to the interview: "Minsan lang, pinapasok ang politika, kung nag-express ka ng opinyon na hindi tugma sa kanila, sasabihin, nabili 'yan. he was bribed! And that's not fair."


“Shoe....shoe...mart...mart...mart,” hummed Up Dharma Down to the tune of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’s’ intro; the people laughed, clapped, hysteric. As dawn breaks, around the pine trees, she sang, “they paved paradise, put up a parking lot,” and everybody grew quiet, reflective.

The people camped overnight at the park, praying a brand new day under the lush of pines could offer some hope. Just meters away up in the hill, it was another morning of mighty business for SM Baguio.

(Inlet photos courtesy of author; main photo credits to Beatriz Flores)