Saturday, September 29, 2012

Infestation in Baguio

SM City Baguio’s latest justification for removing 182 trees on Luneta Hill for their parking lot: with the presence of the dreaded Ips Caligraphus infestation, the trees are going to die anyway. 

Let’s go back to the beginning of this battle between the people of Baguio and the future of their city on one side and SM City Baguio’s insatiable greed for money and utter disregard for the natural beauty, heritage and dignity of their host city and the welfare of its people on the other. 

When the issue was first brought to the public’s attention, they said that they’re ridding one side of historic Luneta Hill of trees for a parking lot. But when the protest movement started gaining ground, and perhaps realizing that their argument provides the protesters with the perfect anthem in Joni Mitchell’s song, Yellow Taxicab (“they paved paradise to put up a parking lot”), they changed their tune – it’s not “merely” a parking lot, it’s an expansion project that would include more commercial stalls that will benefit the city of Baguio. How so? The parking building will help ease traffic within the central business district (how when even the current size of SM already congests Upper Session Road, and the new facilities would even jam more people and vehicles in the area?). The additional shops would provide jobs (the kind where you’re deprived of your rights as an employee through contractualization). The expansion would mean added revenues to the city (SM City Baguio pays its taxes to Cavite where their corporate headquarters is located). Of course they intentionally omit the part about the amount of money this expansion will bring in for Henry Sy and his minions, and that this is actually the main reason for the expansion.


When the focus of the protest zeroed in on the 182 trees that they have put on death row, they trumpeted their plan to have a “sky garden” that they claim would mitigate the effects of losing 182 full grown trees. Still, the people were not fooled, for how can potted ornamental plants match the benefits of full grown pine and alnus trees? 


A case was filed against them and the government agencies responsible for enabling SM to do as they please with the property they have acquired under questionable circumstances.


Petitioners, wearing green arm bands, at the court hearing on Sept. 25 to show support
for the volunteer lawyers led by Atty. Chris Donaal and the NUPL 

And last Friday, Sept. 28, in court, they had a Department of Environment and Natural Resources – Cordillera Administrative Region (DENR-CAR) employee on the witness stand who claimed that based on their inspection of the trees at the proposed expansion site, a number of trees were infested by ips caligraphus, the dreaded pine tree killer beetle and that there are no known scientific and effective methods of addressing the infestation other than to cut and burn the infected trees. This they learned on April 3, 2012, according to the DENR employee, yet when they began earthballing operations on April 9, they did not prioritize the removal of the infected pine trees. There’s no excuse – there was no Temporary Environmental Protection Order issued yet on that day and if there really was an infestation, they could’ve removed those infected trees first and somehow prevent its spread to the other healthy trees. But did they? No, they proceeded to earthball more than 40 trees, and left the alleged infested trees right where they can threaten the remaining healthy, full-grown trees on Luneta Hill.

Or maybe that was the intention? 


And when asked what actions the DENR-CAR took upon learning of the alleged presence of an infestation, the witness replied that she didn’t know if there was any action taken either by SM or her office after she and her team submitted their findings. 


This testimony came at the heels of Engr. Bien Mateo’s, Vice President for Operations SM Supermalls, admission in court that they are building a 9-storey structure above ground, while their building permit application form indicated a 4-storey building and when their witness, City Building and Architecture Officer Engr. Oscar Flores, presented their blueprint in court, it showed a building complex with the biggest and tallest structure at 5-storeys with one basement that would hold a water reservoir with 6.9 million-liter capacity. 


All of this tells us that, indeed, there is an infestation – Baguio is riddled with lying, inefficient, corrupt pests. And we can easily rid our city of these pests simply by exercising our right in next year’s elections with the bright, green future of the city in mind. 


Yeah, it’s time we rid Baguio of these pests. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Save 182 who?

In the days leading to the planned rally on January 20, 2012, our own group, Open Space, met and decided to not just join the rally, but offer whatever we can to make it a success. We got in touch with Dr. Michael Bengwayan, known as among the first to call the public's attention to the expansion project of SM City Baguio which would result in the removal of 182 trees on Luneta Hill.

That expansion project has been in the radar of various cause-oriented groups in the city for the past couple of years, but then, it was dismissed as a rumor or at worst, a possibilitiy that SM has been exploring. That was until SM came out with the a confirmation towards the end of 2011.

Baguio woke up to a new year with the threat of the mass murder of trees to pave the way for a parking building staring them in the face. Bengwayan started an online petition, and others started blogs, webpages, Facebook groups and fanpages to protest the expansion project.

Soon, people started calling for a public demosntration, a rally. Januay 17 was the original date, which was later moved to January 20. Some groups went ahead with a rally on the 17th, while a bigger rally was planned three days later.

Our group offered to lend a public address system for the rally. On that day, we arrived at Malcolm Square a little past noon to set up speakers and microphones. Some members of our group joined the march while some stayed at the square to man the equipment. We printed placards that day that said:

When the march reached Malcolm Square, we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who joined the rally: students, the religious, artists and other concerned citizens of the city who have had enough of mindless and heartless urbanization at the expense of the environment and the welfare of the greater majority. That rally was to be extended right at the entrance to SM City Baguio's humongous commercial complex.



Atty. Cheryl Daytec of the National Union of People's Lawyers speaking at the rally
Members of the group, Open Space
Dr. Michael Bengwayan being interviewed by the media
a child says it all
A policeman attempted to arrest a protester
A series of meetings were called during the days the followed. We met at the home of one of the protesters - in attendance were representatives of some of the major groups that participated in the rally. Another protest action was agreed upon - a tree planting activity, with Dr. Bengwayan's A Tree Day group providing the pine seedlings that would end in a marathon concert featuring artists from Baguio and some from Manila who symphatize with the plight of the Baguio community. That protest action, dubbed "Pine for Pine," was held at the Pine Trees of the World Park on February 5.
"Pine for Pine" tree planting activity and concert
A mass was held before the tree-planting activity
In that meeting, the need for a name for the movement was raised... the words Save the 182 Trees on Luneta Hill, Stop Corporate Greed, were floated. The people present in that meeting decided to simply call ourselves Project: Save 182.

Meanwhile, Cordillera Global Network, a local environmental and cultural group, spearheaded the filing of an environmental case against SM through its president, Glo Abaeo and lawyer/musician Chris Donaal. With the help of the Natonal Union of People's Lawyers (NUPL) through Ms. Cheryl Chyt Daytec, the case was put together which was signed by dozens of individuals and other local organizations and on February 27, 2012, the case was filed at the Baguio RTC.

At around the same time, the City Council of Baguio held forums to hear both sides, which always began with a multimedia presentation by SM City Baguio that seemingly turned the council hall into an SM cinema showing SM propaganda. On the other hand, the protesters came with nothing else but committment, passion and determination to protect Baguio's natural environment and heritage.

Among the highlights of that forum was Councilor Nicasio Palaganas asking the protesters what they have done in the past to protect the environment. When the question was thrown back at him, "the question is, councilor, being a ppublic servant being paid with the people's hard-earned taxes, what have you done for Baguio's environment?" His reply: I refuse to answer that question.
Seizing every opportunity to let the city's powers-that-be know of the community's sentiments - more spontaneous protest actions followed: among others, the "Jericho Walk" on Valentine's Day; a signature drive organized by the Baguio Environmental Action Network (BEAN) during Panagbenga's "Session Road in Bloom" which gathered more than 40,000 signatures to complement the roughly 10,000 sgnatures gathered online by Dr. Bengwayan's petition and "Expose Luneta Hill" late in March and in early April which had the group gathering across the expansin site for several nights with flashlights to light it up because of rumors that SM was going to start cutting trees any day then.

In every single public demonstration, the Baguio City Police never failed to reinforce SM City Baguio's own security personnel. Armed with guns and batons and protected by anti-riot shields, they would menacingly form a barricade facing the protesters that always included students and even young children, preventing them from marching on a public road that SM has all but claimed as its own.
Valentine's Day, "Jericho Walk", apeaceful demonstration
Protesters peacefully marched on sidewalks to avoid causing traffic. But when we got to Luneta Road, SM's guards blocked the sidewalk forcing us onto to the street
"Jericho Walk" ended with a peaceful candle lighting ceremony at the Post Office Loop mini park
In the first week of April, walls were erected covering the entire expansion site. Even the veranda of the mall was walled up to hide the activities within the site from public view. And in the evening of April 9, members of the group heard the distinct sound of trees being felled on Luneta Hill. Our lawyers filed for an urgent motion for a Temporary Environmental Protection Order (TEPO) the following day: Judge Estevez of Brach 5 of the RTC was unavailable but the group was able to get the TEPO from Branch 6. In the morning of April 10, the protesters gathered on Luneta Road to protest the felling of trees the previous night. That was when we received the news that we have obtained a TEPO. Meanwhile, Court officials together with our lawyers attempted to serve the TEPO to the defendants in SM City Baguio, but their local personnel refused to receive it, saying that this should be served to their lawyers in Manila.

That same night, SM continued the removal of trees on Luneta Hill. Several members of the group tried to get the police to enforce the TEPO, but they stayed a good distance away from the confrontation between members of Save 182 and dozens of armed SM security guards and construction workers who surrounded the handful of protesters that night. A minor scuffle ensued when SM's guards started rather violently pushing us away, and seeing that the police kept a hands-off policy, and having been told by the Mayor himself earlier that night that there's nothing he can do about the situation, we peacefully dispersed and resolved to hold a major demonstration the next day.

Text messages flew back and forth and postings on various online social networking sites were passed around all night and into the next morning to inform the people of the rally.


At a little past noon the following day, people gathered at the Baguio Cathedral grounds and later proceeded to Luneta Hill to protest SM City Baguio's blatant defiance of the TEPO.


Police block the protesters from marching on a public road
On April 16, 2012, the late DILG Sec. Jessie Robredo called for a dialogue between Save 182, SM's representatives, Mayor Mauricio Domogan, Rep. Bernardo Vergara, DPWH Sec. Rogelio Singson and DENR Sec. Ramon Paje at Camp Crame. Although no common ground was arrived at during that dialogue, the group was able to get SM to agree to an inspection of the site.

At the dialogue in Camp Crame called by the late Sec. Jessie Robredo. Shown here are (l-r): Karlo Altomonte, Mike Arvisu, Armando Palijon, a so-called tree-expert who admitted not having any experience at all plating or caring for pine trees, Atty. Donaal and Atty. Daytec
This was how SM "earthballed" mature pine trees on Luneta Hill
Atty. Chris Donaal (in glasses) and Dr. Michael Bengwayan during the inspection
A mediation session was mandated by the court for the parties to try to resolve the conflict on their own. We reiterated our stand that all we want is for the trees to be spared, for the trees to remain where they are, alive. While SM would not back down from their position that the removal of trees is non-negotiable. The mediation ended in a stalemate, and the case went to court for trial.

Save 182 held several assemblies in the hope of turning the movement into a full-fledged organization, but to date, it remains what it is: a movement composed of people who care enough for their home, Baguio, and will do what they can to defend it from corporate greed and a corrupt political system that enables the likes of SM to disregard the history, heritage and welfare of the city and its citizens for money.

Today, Save 182 has rested its case and its now SM's turn to present witnesses, starting on Sept. 25, 2012.

Our position remains, THE TREES MUST STAY WHERE THEY ARE... ALIVE.

I am Karlo Marko Altomonte, an artist and a Baguio resident and I am proud to be counted as among those who have come to be known collectively as Save 182 - citizens who stood against corporate greed and in defense of Baguio's dignity, heritage and natural environment.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

I root for the trees

As far as the environmental case filed against the owners and operators of SM City Baguio goes, there can only be one winner – the prosecution or the defense. The complainants or the defendants. A corporate entity owned by the richest man in the country or the community of concerned citizens who found the courage to exhaust all possible lawful and just possibilities to save a community of trees.

Fact is, Baguio’s natural environment has been under attack. There are less and less earth space in the city, and more and more pavements. There are less and less trees and more and more concrete structures. How far do we want to continue doing nothing before it’s too late? Sadly, as long as our leaders believe that the only road towards progress is by pouring concrete on every available space in the city, the quality of life in the city will continue to deteriorate until we reach the point of no return.

That’s the gist of the battle to save the 182 trees on Luneta Hill– for if the expansion project goes on, if the proponents are allowed to give the trees a virtual death sentence in the name of crass commercialism, then that’s the message that we’re sending to everyone in the community, especially the young: trees are mere obstacles to “development.” But are we really a developed city if we have less of nature and more man-made structures? Are we really better off with more parking lots and commercial buildings than open spaces where God’s creations flourish?

The answer seems to be obvious, which makes one wonder why there are only close 5,000 people during that really to protest SM City Baguio’s expansion project, when there are close to half a million people living in Baguio today. it could be bcause we have been used to quantifying things in terms of objects that are immediately visible, things we can touch, sit on, ride on, eat or eat from. We work hard and we get money in the end. We give that money to a vendor and we get goods in return, right there and then. Enough of us write this politician’s name on a ballot, and that politician sits in power for the next few years.

We don’t get to touch or immediately see the amount of fresh air that we lose every time a tree dies. We don’t see the trees sucking in the toxins from the atmosphere, the way an exhaust fan does to smoke emanating from the stove in the kitchen. We can’t put a price to how much less happy we feel when we’re surrounded by concrete buildings instead of trees.

As for me, I don’t want SM to win the case filed against them. I don’t wish for the court to uphold the permits given to them by our government to go ahead and remove the trees and build their parking lot and mall expansion. And I also don’t want for the complainants to be declared the “winners.” Because what’s at stake here are not any one person’s glory or pride, this battle goes way beyond that. And it's definitely not just about an artificial person's, or a corporation's right to earn as much money as they want. What’s really at stake here is life – the life of those trees that have nurtured the community and defended them from natural disasters for decades, and the quality of life that those trees help provide the human beings who live in this city.

At the end of the day, it’s not simply about being guilty or not guilty, winners and losers – as for me, in this battle, I root for nobody and nothing else but the remaining trees on Luneta Hill.

*my column in the Sept. 23, 2012 issue of Cordillera Today

Friday, September 21, 2012

"SAVE 182 OPEN TO 'AMICABLE SETTLEMENT' AS LONG AS THE TREES ON LUNETA HILL REMAIN WHERE THEY ARE, ALIVE"


SM City Baguio plans to embark on an expansion project that would result in the removal/earthballing and/or cutting of trees on Luneta Hill, an area that springboarded the birth of Baguio as a city and is among the very few remaining forest covers in Baguio’s central business district. On January 20, 2012, thousands of concerned citizens rallied along Session Road to voice their opposition to the project and a month later, on February 27, an environmental case against the expansion project was filed before the sala of Judge Antonio Estevez of Branch 5 of the Baguio Regional Trial Court.

The prosecution has recently rested its case and on September 26, 2012, the defendants, led by SM Development Corporation and its other affiliate corporations, along with their co-defendants – the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Department of Environment and Natural resources, will present their witnesses in court. The case, filed by concerned citizens and organizations of Baguio represented by volunteer lawyers from the National Union of People's Lawyers (NUPL), hopes to save the trees on Luneta Hill which are being threatened by the proposed expansion plan of SM City Baguio.

Recently, the Save 182 movement, the lead convenor of the protest movement, has received reports from various media outfits and personnel that the primary defendant in the case, SMDC, while confident that the court will rule in their favor, is still open to reaching an “amicable settlement” with the complainants. Asked to comment, the movement reiterates that while they or their lawyers have not received any proposal from the defendants with regards to a possible “amicable settlement, “ it has always been open to reaching a compromise with SM City Baguio as long as the trees on Luneta Hill are spared and remain where they are, alive.

In the court-directed mediation sessions conducted between the parties before the trial, the complainants have repeatedly informed the representatives of the defendants of their willingness to consider alternative expansion plans that would spare the trees, but this was rejected by SMDC which considers the removal of the trees as a non-negotiable aspect of their expansion plan. The movement even cited various construction projects in the city that were able to minimize their impact on the city’s already fragile natural environment if only to stress the point that while the movement welcomes development projects in the city, these must not be done at the expense of the environment and the welfare of the greater majority.

The trees are located on a hill in the center of downtown Baguio surrounded by schools, parks and other commercial establishments, and contribute significantly to the absorption of harmful toxins in the air and water runoff in its surrounding areas preventing natural disasters such as floods and landslides.

Save 182 pins its hopes in saving the trees on Luneta Hill in the integrity of the country’s justice system, and believes that the court will rule fairly and justly according to the testimonies and evidences presented with the welfare of the city and its citizens and the rule of law in mind.

----

For further information:
Karlo Marko Altomonte, Save 182
Mobile 09993892563
Email altomonte.projects@gmail.com

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Meet Nathan

*my column in the Sept. 16, 2012 issue of Cordillera Today

Nathan Cheng

At a workshop on garbage held at UP Baguio last August 29, 2012, the issue was tackled intensively but at the end of the day, we still spend astronomical figures to take care of our garbage and we still don’t have a sustainable solution to the city’s problem. But our family wanted so much to address at least our very own household’s waste management issues, so we visited a friend’s house the other day for some help.

Let me introduce you to Nathan Cheng. He did not put up a company, nor did he promise to end the city’s garbage woes. He did not run for any position in the last elections and I don’t think he plans to seek an elective position next year. Besides, even if he harbored any political ambitions, I don’t think he can: he’s only 13 years old. And a few years ago, he came up with the Vermi-Compostable Heterogeneous Organic Waste Bin Recycling System.

Vermi-what? Vermi-C.H.O.W., for short, as he calls his vermicomposting system.

A recycled plastic container serves as a garbage bin
Worm holes: the worms go out at night to secrete waste/compost, 
then go back in and continue to eat organic waste
Vermicomposting is the “process of composting using various worms, usually red wigglers, white worms, and earthworms to create a heterogeneous mixture of decomposing vegetable or food waste, bedding materials, and vermicast. Vermicast, also called worm castings, worm humus or worm manure, is the end-product of the breakdown of organic matter by an earthworm. These castings have been shown to contain reduced levels of contaminants and a higher saturation of nutrients than do organic materials before vermicomposting.” (Wikipedia) 

Vermi-C.H.O.W. Bin Recycling System 
What makes the system stand out is its simplicity – it is low-maintenance, very easy to manage and very efficient. The contraption is simple – a basin, a recycled water container in the middle, the biodegradable waste inside that container with some African nighcrawlers (Eudrilus eugeniae) along with it. The worms eat the waste, digest it, and then they get out of the container and use the basin as their toilet. Yup, Nathan’s pets are toilet-trained. The worms’ excretions have been proven to be highly effective as organic fertilizers.

Nathan’s mother, Antonette, showed us how the system works: place the biodegradable waste inside the bin and a few days later, harvest the compost in the basin. When the worms multiply and the bin gets too crowded, set-up another one. It’s that simple.

But does it work? First thing we noticed when we entered their house was how healthy their plants were – they’re all fed with the compost that the system produce. There were no flies hovering around nor was there foul odor emanating from the numerous Vermi-C.H.O.W. systems in place all over: the garage, the porch, out in the garden, up on the roof.

After being gifted with a starter kit, we made our way out and outside their house Nathan’s mother picked up a couple of bags of biodegradable waste left by their gate by their neighbors – Nathan’s system now takes care of all the biodegradable waste of their neighborhood.

Nathan’s system has won numerous awards but have you heard about it? Probably not, for Nathan is not interested in making millions and making others make millions from his invention. Neither will he allow politicians to capitalize on his brainchild to advance their vested interests.

In the meantime, Nathan Cheng, 13, is doing what most of our leaders have failed to do – do what he can to make Baguio a better place for his and future generations.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

One Peter Puzon (and why the crazies have my vote)

During the campaign period of the 2010 elections, a forum for mayoralty candidates was held. All candidates were invited and given the chance to speak about their platforms, except for one Peter Puzon. He filed a complaint before the Commission on Elections, citing the “equal access” provision and the spirit of the Fair Elections Act. His complaint was dismissed for according to the city election officer, the organizers led by the Hotels and Restaurants Association of Baguio did not commit any violation when it excluded him and that their act of omission did not mean that they favored “any group or political party.”

It goes without saying that the powers-that-be in the city dismissed Puzon’s candidacy as a joke. In their eyes, he was a nuisance candidate not worthy of an equal opportunity to present his vision for Baguio.

When the dust settled, Puzon received a measly 66 votes, placing 9th in a field of ten candidates and 47, 308 votes behind frontrunner and eventual winner, Mauricio G. Domogan who may just be remembered for saying he “cannot do anything” to save the trees on Luneta Hill from corporate greed.

After the elections, the candidates submitted their respective election expenses reports which had the top two winners, Mayor Domogan and Congressman Bernardo M. Vergara declaring that they spent less than half a million each, while Puzon pegged his expenses at P200.00. I believe Puzon’s statement, which translated into an average of P3.00 for each vote he received. If we are to believe in the mathematics of politics, had he spent the same amount as our sitting Mayor, and assuming that the close to half a million-peso expense report is true, he would have gotten at least 160,000 votes – more than three times what Mayor Domogan got.

We hardly hear from the eight other candidates these days, as if they can only care about Baguio if they’re in power.

But Peter Puzon, the “nuisance candidate?” You may catch him at the City Council sessions, intently listening to deliberations on important issues that affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of Baguio residents, other times he’s seen handing out photocopies of his very own newsletter containing his stand on various community concerns. I still have his statement on the utterly anti-poor policy of limiting the pedestrian crossings on Session Road to ensure that those who own cars can cruise along the historic road with ease, while those on foot will have to walk the extra hundred meters or so to cross.

In the coming weeks, we will start to hear again from the “genuine” candidates for various positions in the city – it’s election time, time to “care” for the city once again. I don’t know if Peter Puzon, the one whom most pundits dismissed as crazy for running for Mayor, will file his certificate of candidacy this time around, it doesn’t matter for in my eyes, he is the only one from among all the candidates in the 2010 elections who never stopped caring for his city and continued to champion causes he believed in.

Who’s crazy now? Peter Puzon or the ones gave us the Irisan garbage slide that claimed lives and property? Peter Puzon or the ones who wasted millions on inefficient Environmental Recycling System machines? Peter Puzon or the ones who are proposing to turnover the Baguio Athletic Bowl and the Baguo General Hospital to private interests? Peter Puzon or the ones who let corporations lord it over the city these days, raping the environment and wantonly violating the laws of the land and getting away with it?

Peter Puzon never stopped doing something for a better Baguio, as opposed to the ones who have admitted that they “cannot do anything,” and the ones who just stopped caring after losing the election. If they say his kind is crazy, then the crazies will have my vote next year.