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Philippines Urban Forests in Danger

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Baguio City is famous for its pine tree forests – it goes by the name City of Pines.

But the city could soon lose its reputation. New construction threaten to destroy the trees.

Developers are targeting 200 mature pines for removal, a small forest in the middle of town.  

Madonna Virola travelled to Baguio City for this story.

This is Baguio City’s Central Business District.

Across the road is the enormous Shoe Mart mall, covering fifteen hundred square meters.

The mall wants even more space to expand its car parking – but the pine trees are in the way.

I’m here with Evangeline Ram, an environmental activist and professor at the University of the Philippines.

Standing on a hill, we can see thick pine forest in front of us. But the trees are on Shoe Mart land.

”Those are some of the trees, see, it’s the only remaining forest or a carbon sink in the middle of all these buildings. Remove that, what will it look like? They say in their project they’re going to put up a garden in the rooftop but it’s not like a forest. As simple as that. An enterprise like SM, for me, destroys the community spirit, because when people go there, they spend. Baguio is known for its many parks, you go there for free, you bring your food, there is no entrance fee.”

SM or Shoe Mart mall has been controversial from the very beginning.

It opened in 2003, but its development destroyed hundreds of pine trees.

Now the mall wants a seven-storey parking lot to accomodate 6,000 vehicles .

For every two mature trees, they provide oxygen for four people.

The plan has sparked protests, including by the Philippin-Misereor Partnership, an umbrella of hundreds of local NGOs that works for marginalised communities.

Marietta Paragas is president of the group. She says the Department of Environmenal and Natural Resources, DENR, has already said yes to the plan.

”We are not so clear when they are going to start because there isnow lots of opposition who are trying to stop them. But we are made to understand that there is nothing we can do because according to the news release and some information we get from people in the government, it is as if there is nothing we can do because the DENR secretary has already approved it. However, if the present government is true to its word that the President has a boss, we are supposed to be the boss, and we are telling him that we refuse to have these trees within the SM compound cut.”

Shoe Mart has got an environmental clearance certificate to go ahead. The City Council says there’s not much they can do because the proposed parking lot is in the mall’s SM’s private property.

Asia Calling telephoned Shoe Mart – but staff said the spokesperson is on leave.

Protests over the trees’ removal started with an online petition that went viral immediately.

Environmental activist Evangeline Ram is one of thousands who signed.

”Sometime on the 8th of January, I read on my Facebook account a petition to stop this expansion and the “murder of the trees”. I thought is this true? The person who started the protest was Dr Michael Bengyawan, he has PHD on environment science from the University of Dublin in Ireland. So I signed it. Now we’re more than 10,000 apart form via viral petition. The first protest was held in the 20th of January, it was participated by multi-sectoral groups.”

That rally on January was the biggest, dubbed as “Occupy SM Baguio”. Thousands of Baguio residents took part – some who migrated abroad came home just to join the protest.

Hundreds of people have been attending public hearings into the development conducted by the city’s legislative council

Rodolfo Balajadia chair of the Committee on the Environment, which presides over the hearings.

”SM countered that this development will benefit the tourism industry of the city, it will even create jobs, because this will be a world class development. They also said that we have been issued permits from the DENR, from the building official of the city, and other agencies that are supposed to issue permits for the redevelopment of their proposed expansion. The protestors say do not cut the trees, but SM says we are not going to cut them all, we’ll cut some, we’ll ball out some and transfer them to the other areas. “

When Shoe Mart says it will ‘ball’ the trees, it means they will be transplanted somewhere else, not cut down.

But environmentalists say this can still kill them. When a tree is dug for transplanting, more than 95 percent of the roots are severe.

Shoe Mart also promises to plant 20 thousand more trees but studies show it takes 25 years for a pine tree to mature.

About 50 oppnonents of  the project have filed a case in court against the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the director of the social action arm of the influential Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines, supports the protest.

”This so called aggressive development at the expense of the poor, the ordinary people, and the environment. That’s why we have to be conscious about this, it is not just a local issue but it is a sign of what’s happening all over.”

The protesters say they have just started – and Evangeline Ram believes they’re gaining momentum.

”When people start talking, when people want to learn more about the environment, then already we are winning. You set aside even your political differences. The entire process is democratic, participative, proactive, although in the beginning it was reactive.  People now have to become more vigilant and hopefully, SM would heed the call of the citizens, it is already getting enough profit.”


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