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.


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.

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