Saturday, June 30, 2012

Watch closely

This early, new political alliances are being brokered, old ones are reinforced, and depending on who the media believes deserves airtime and column inches in the coming months, we will either be ushering in a new breed of real public servants next year… or be stuck with the current powers-that-be that have been around since Baguio was given a fresh start following the July, 1990 earthquake.

In exactly one year from today, we will once again be hoping that we, the people, made the right choices and that our real choices will not be robbed of the opportunity to steer Baguio in the right direction.

Today also marks the beginning of the second act of life in Baguio this year. The year began with SM City Baguio’s announcement of its expansion project that threatens to essentially eradicate Luneta Hill from the face of Baguio, along with 182 trees that form part of our city’s last stand against urban decay. This was immediately followed by the biggest protest rally ever held in the city in recent years, and the biggest slap in the face the community ever received with some of our leaders’ defiant, albeit misguided and untrue, stand that they are powerless to help save what’s left of Baguio after years of rapid mindless urbanization.

That issue has quieted down in recent weeks as the case filed against the expansion proponents enters the trial proper. So while the Temporary Environmental Protection Order issued by the court remains that will keep our hopes for Baguio’s survival as a City of Pines alive until the judge hearing the case hands down his verdict, other issues have come out.

The City Government and Protech, the corporation that sold us the 128 million-peso ERS machines and supposed messiah that will finally put an end to our garbage woes, continue to pass the buck around. In the meantime, garbage continued to pile up uncollected along the city’s streets. Corruption reared its ugly face again in the form of inefficient and at times unnecessary public works projects, and the fact that all these projects are being done a year before elections did not escape the attention of the people.

And today, Act Two of the year begins. What can we look forward to? In a couple of weeks we will mark the 22nd anniversary of the tragic earthquake that brought Baguio to its knees. On August 27, it will be a year since lives and property were lost when a mountain of garbage came rushing down from Irisan down to Asin Road. Baguio will then celebrate its charter day on September 1, its 103rd since George Malcolm envisioned a city “unconstrained by petty politics” in 1909. Before the year ends, the judge hearing the case against SM will rule on how much the 182 trees on Luneta Hill matter.

In the second half of the year, we will be looking forward to a court decision while remembering two tragic events in and observing the birth anniversary of a city. Earthquake, garbage slide, a vision for Baguio and a verdict.

Watch closely. 


*my column in the July 1, 2012 issue of Cordillera Today

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The case of the disappearing hill

We are at the point of no return – in the next few weeks, the court will hear the arguments on whether SM Investments Corporation, a.k.a. SM Prime Holdings, a.k.a. SM Supermalls, or more commonly known to the community as SM City Baguio, should be allowed to do as they please with Luneta Hill – the historic promontory at the top of historic Session Road that served as the birthplace of this historic city.

And before the year ends, his decision will determine the direction that the erstwhile Summer Capital, once the City of Pines, in the past considered as one of the most beautiful hill stations in Asia – Baguio City, will take.

One takes us on a path of sustainability, a future Baguio that values the importance of living in harmony with our natural environment, a community that cares not only for its present but also treasures its past and more importantly, unselfishly considers the kind of home it will pass on to its children.

The other takes us all downhill towards a soul-less concrete jungle, a community that sees nature not as a nurturing mother but as an obstacle to more money, a Baguio where greed and selfishness reign, the final nail on the coffin of the city’s pioneers’ vision of a beautiful city.

On one end of the bar is a battery of high profile lawyers from the Solicitor General’s office and two of the most prominent law offices in the land. They are backed by two of the country’s most powerful influences – the government and an unimaginable amount of money courtesy of the country’s richest man.

On the other end are a handful of people’s lawyers, among the few who are still principled enough to be in the profession not to enrich themselves but to fight for what is right, representing a group of people who believe that Baguio’s natural beauty, dignity, history, way of life, its source of life, are all worth fighting for.

Ask yourself, which will really be more beneficial to the people of Baguio – the building of an enormous concrete structure, or the preservation of whatever remains of the city’s natural environment? Will Baguio really suffer and the quality of life in this highland city deteriorate if SM City Baguio is not allowed to go on with its expansion plan? Or is the opposite true?

Will we truly be happier and have a better life, with less trees and a bigger SM City Baguio?

SM does not only plan to build on Luneta Hill, looking at their plan, the expansion will almost completely obliterate it, and all that it stood for, and most of what naturally stood on it, from the face of Baguio.

Are we really ready lose Luneta Hill, forever?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Taking stock (part 2 of 2)

What do we want and how far do we go to get what we want? The thousands of people who marched, expressed their opposition to the expansion plan, including those who held vigils along Gov. Pack Road and those who stood by the sidelines silently supporting the movement, have different agendas, motivations for doing so. And as sure as we alter the composition of the whole universe with every breath we take, whatever we do, we must think about its impact beyond the 182 trees.

I personally will not go as far as wanting Henry Sy’s empire to crumble for I know how many families depend on the employment opportunities that SM offers to survive at all. And I know how it is to be hungry, I struggle for my family not to be every single day. I do advocate the boycott of SM’s businesses and I know that this will never cause the total downfall of one of the country’s richest corporations, but I do hope that it impacts them substantially enough for them to listen to the sentiments of the communities where they operate.

Others will point out SM’s well-known unfair labor and business practices, contractualization included, as enough reason to bring SM down. I myself am aware of these, and in fact have been a victim somehow, but this is not a reason to want to close down SM. Instead, it is reason enough to fight for the rights of SM’s employees and suppliers.

And I am also not inclined to join the call to oppose any kind of expansion at all. While I do believe that SM should, at some point, be satisfied with cornering a huge part of the local consumer market and the amount of money they are earning because and at the expense of the Baguio community, they can endeavor to enhance their business in Baguio so long as they do not compromise the welfare of the community and the environment.

Porta Vaga has added restaurants on their rooftop, and with the imposing roof they’ve placed over their parking lot, has turned the parking facility into a multi-purpose hall for concerts and other events – these were expansion efforts. The owners of Sunshine Supermarket have built a multi-storey hotel in their property – this was an expansion project. Tiong San Harrison has added floors to their original building – this too was an expansion project, so was the extra floor added to La Azotea for Kidlat Tahimik’s VOCAS project.

There are ways to do their expansion project that would spare the trees, Baguio’s heritage as the City of Pines and indeed without endangering lives and property within their immediate vicinity. If there’s a will, a heart and a conscience, there are so many ways to do this.

Baguio is a special place, a city that existed primarily because of its natural beauty . Baguio is Baguio not because of what was built here, but because of what we have left untouched throughout its more than 100-year history.

Dismissing the 182 trees as mere obstacles to progress and economic growth, and allowing SM, and indeed Camp Joh Hay Dev. Corp., Goshen Land, SLU, BSU, et al to earthball, cut or kill their way to build more concrete boxes to earn more money sets a dangerous precedent. It tells all others that our pine trees are mere obstacles, instead of an essential part of our heritage, our life, our being.

And that is why I am here.

*My column in the June 17, 2012 issue of Cordillera Today

Monday, June 11, 2012

Taking stock (Part 1 of 2)

A netizen once commented on my stand to boycott SM everywhere for their wanton disregard for Luneta Hill’s historical significance, the heritage of Baguio and the potential environmental impact of earthballing and with it the probable death of 182 trees – “and if you’re successful and it results in the closure of at least one mall, how do you live with the fact that you caused thousands to lose their livelihood?”

One, even if it becomes 10 times more successful than it is now, I don’t believe it would be enough to close down SM, or at least SM City Baguio. But it would definitely make a dent in their bottomline – and since it’s the only language these corporate entities seem to understand, they might just be able to acquire a bit of conscience and re-think their plan to ravage a whole hill simply to enable them to buy more luxurious cars, bigger yachts and mansions in even better locations.

Am I anti-SM? As far as the trees on Luneta Hill, and what they represent is concerned, yes I am. Do I hate SM? Not exactly, but I am angered by the fact that nearly one-third of the 182 trees have already been given death sentences, if not already dead.

I have taken advantage of the way SM has contributed to redefining life in Baguio in recent years – I may not totally agree with it, but the fact is thousands of us have ditched Baguio’s beautiful open spaces as a primary recreational destination for the family for the concrete box up the hill, and whenever presented with the opportunity to communicate to those thousands, I, together with the artists I collaborate with in our group, Open Space, grabbed that opportunity to tell stories that we believed must be told. A lot of these thousands would otherwise never have given theater the time of day.

A moratorium on logging, which is effectively a total log ban, is currently being enforced preventing the harvesting and transportation of lumber all over the country, according to a friend in the construction business. She added this has resulted in much higher prices for lumber (another friend informed me that the price of ¼” thick plywood that we used to buy at P250 now sells for up to P400), slowing down the construction industry, even causing the cancellation of certain construction projects. It doesn’t take a college degree for anyone to surmise that this will, if it hasn’t had, result in loss of jobs for a lot of construction workers. Never mind the lost business opportunities for rich contractors, they have enough to hedge the effects for quite a while.

This, according to her, was the national government’s response to the Luneta Hill issue so as not to make the Sys feel that their SM is being singled out.

Am I for a total log ban? Not exactly. Can we live without wood products? I don’t think so. From the toothpick at the table to the roll of toilet paper in the bathroom, from the pencil your child uses in school to the door that we close at night to keep the family safe – they’re made of wood. Wood comes from trees.

I am for responsible logging – “prohibit logging operations of any kind in any forest, timber land, forest reserve or watershed” as Senator Loren Legarda proposed in Senate Bill 73. I hope she can add historical and heritage sites to the list. Lumber must be sourced from trees that were specifically planted for this purpose. Responsible logging can even help add to our total tree canopy instead of take away from it for loggers can actually “farm” trees on previously barren lands.

Another comment from a fellow protester also caused me to stop and think: “we are not only for the trees, we are anti-expansion altogether – even if SM decides to re-design the expansion to allow the trees to live and stay where they are, we shouldn’t allow it.”

(to be concluded)

*My column in the June 11 issue of Cordillera Today

Saturday, June 2, 2012

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

My column in the June 3, 2012 issue of Cordillera Today 

…in Baguio. For me, at least. The beginning of the rainy season. The downpours won’t be as harsh as they would be later this year – in August or September or October when our dates on stage or planned morning walks get postponed or canceled due to typhoons.

At this time, days usually begin with a calming sunrise. It’s cool that you want to stay a little bit longer under the covers, yet the soft warmth of the sun makes you want to seize the day. I usually do, with a steaming mug of Benguet brew. If only I didn’t smoke cigarettes, everything would be almost perfect.

By midday the light segues into a muted grey as fog slowly crawls in from the surrounding mountains gently blanketing a tired city. If you’re outside, walking, you feel the gentle mist on your face. That never fails to bring a smile on my face.

From indoors, you would catch yourself looking out the window, at first consciously watching, marveling at the magnificent sight of the skies coming down to kiss the earth. Then you get lost in the haze, you get lost in daydreams, in images of the past, in promises that tomorrow’s sunrise holds. And when the fog makes its exit, you are reminded of the present – where you are, right here right now.

And then the rains make their entrance, at times too gentle to even notice, at times too intense to ignore. The trees soak it up, a little wind and they begin to dance. You can almost feel the flowers make a face as they meet the shower with open petals.

Water flows down the hillsides, down the streets, giving the city a much needed cleansing ritual. The rains will do that for the next half of the year, to clear away as much of the debris of the past six months as possible.

At this time of the year, Baguio is reclaimed by its people from its visitors, lovers, returning sons and daughters and friends. The sidewalks, as crowded as they have been lately, is not as suffocating. There’s enough elbow room to wave hello and nod a smile to an acquaintance you’re sure to encounter wherever you may be.

At this time of the year, Baguio is the perfect venue to open an art exhibit; a play; an intimate musical performance, an open mic – all good enough reasons to get together with kindred souls, think up ideas for a new painting, story, song or poem, or for a few bottles of tapeuy or a seemingly never-ending jam with djembes and gongs.

At times the rain goes on until long after the sun has set. Other times it stops sooner, soon enough for the fog to make another entrance. And however harsh the world has been to you, in Baguio, during the rainy season, you know everything’s going to be ok.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and I heave a sigh of relief that I’m spending it not anywhere else but here in Baguio - home.