Thursday, September 12, 2013

Option 2: SM City Baguio listens to protesters and redesigns their expansion plan

Right before the recent elections, I received a text message from Sister Fidelis, an Assumption nun and one of the staunch supporters of the protest against SM City Baguio’s expansion plan that will result in the removal of 182 trees on historic Luneta Hill. She had something very important to share with me regarding SM, her message read. We agreed to see each other at the soonest possible time.

I was very excited, since the case we filed against SM along with the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has been dismissed by a local court, and I have been hoping for some good news about our protest. Sis. Fidelis and I wouldn’t see each other until after the elections.

In one post-election gathering, she pulled me aside away from the crowd and shared the news: she had a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Hans Sy, son of tycoon Henry Sy, founder of SM. But I wasn’t prepared for what she had to say, the gist of which was in that meeting, Mr. Sy was able to answer most of the issues that we have been raising against SM. We agreed to meet again soon after so we can discuss what she had just shared with me in more detail and without the distractions of a post-election party.

Some days later, we were having coffee in a fast-food joint along Session Road. And I still couldn’t believe that Sis. Fidelis, one of those who attended almost all of our protest actions against the expansion plan, the one who helped convince a lot of people to join the protest movement, be complainants in the suit and join our call for a boycott of SM City Baguio, seemed to be having a change of heart.

“I got to hear things directly from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, Karlo,” she said to me. I told her that the Hans Sy she was describing to me – patient, calm, mild-mannered, seem to be very different from the Hans Sy I met at the meeting arranged by the late Sec. Jesse Robredo at Camp Crame. The Hans Sy I met there was the stern, unemotional business executive who insisted that removing that many trees for the benefit of one corporation, their corporation, and at the expense of a community’s heritage and future, was justified.

We have always met them, SM, under hostile circumstances – the Baguio City Council hearing, the dialogue in Camp Crame, the court hearings, on the streets when their guards along with the local police would attempt to curtail our right to a peaceful assembly.

“But this time he was just meeting with an older sister,” she said, “so the atmosphere was different.” True, maybe – but I had to remind Sis. Fidelis that the protesters really can’t be blamed for the hostile attitude and the anger in their hearts at the prospect of having their home scarred forever, their heritage and history wantonly desecrated.

Sis. Fidelis narrated how she first tried to set a meeting between herself and Teresita Sy, “she’s our alumna,” the gentle Assumption sister shared, but she never got any reply from Henry Sy’s daughter. Then one day, the office of Mr. Hans Sy got in touch with her and informed her of Mr. Sy’s willingness to see her.

According to Sis. Fidelis, after patiently listening to her enumerate all the issues we’ve been raising against SM, Mr. Sy calmly shared with her their side of the like how  the Deed of Absolute Sale came with a cover letter from the Office of the President authorizing Exec. Secretary Paquito Ochoa to sign in behalf of the President (we’ve always questioned Ochoa’s signature in the deed above the president’s name); and that while they do hire contractual employees, they do this only to augment their regular workforce during peak seasons (we’ve questioned their questionable and alleged unfair labor practices, “contractualization” in particular).

I was not convinced. There were still loopholes in Mr. Sy’s justifications. But, at the end of our coffee talk, Sis. Fidelis informed me of SM’s new plan for the expansion area and asked if I would be willing to sit down with representatives of SM City Baguio for a dialogue. I am, I said, but not as a representative of any group, organization or movement but just as an individual. A meeting was set between Sis. Fidelis, myself and Mr. Bien Mateo, SM Supermalls Vice President for Operations and Mr. Jansen Pe, Mall Manager of SM City Baguio.

It was awkward sitting across the table from the person whom many of us perceived as the “face of the enemy” – Mr. Mateo was the one who presented SM’s expansion plan at the Baguio City Council hearing, he’s the face one always saw on TV justifying the removal of 182 trees for a parking building, next to Henry Sy, to a lot of us, he was the face of SM’s expansion plan.

Mateo opened the meeting with, “we’re bad communicators, we admit that.” I did not contradict him. He went on to say that it was their hope that through dialogues such as this one, SM can better respond to the issues being raised by the protesters. I kept my guard up, and wanted to get into the heart of the matter right away so I asked – what’s on the table?

Mateo talked about how Mr. Hans Sy called for a meeting one day and told them how much he admired the passion and determination of the protest group that have come to be known as the Save 182 Movement. He told his staff that he believed that they would be better off working with this movement, and not against it. Listen to their voices, their issues, take all those into consideration and re-design the expansion plan, Mr. Han Sy was said to have told his people. Some time later, the architects submitted various concepts for the re-design, all of which were attempts to minimize the damage that would be done on the area’s ecosystem, save as many trees as possible, while still serving SM’s intention of addressing the alleged soil erosion issue in the area, and of course to bring additional revenues to the company coffers. From what the architects submitted, Mr. Hans Sy, according to Mateo, chose one concept and gave the go-signal to finalize the blueprints based on that concept.

Do you have a blueprint or at least an artist’s perspective of this new plan? I asked. Not yet, Mateo said, but he did share that the new plan drastically reduced the expansion plan to roughly half its original size, and would save close to a hundred out of the remaining 133 trees in the area. Mateo also said that in a couple of weeks or so, they can present the drawings so I asked if I could bring in more people when they do. I intended to bring to that next meeting the people I have been personal working closely with in the last year and a half that we’ve been struggling to save the trees on Luneta Hill, people who have been there from day one and at almost every single significant event – meetings, court hearings, legal research work, rallies, conferences, etc. 

A date was set and this time, I came with Atty. Chris Donaal, de facto lead counsel of the complainants in the environmental suit filed against SM, Glo Abaeo, president of the Cordillera Global Network, CGN members Gideon Omero and Nelson Alabanza and fellow Open Space, an artist collective, members Ethan Andrew Ventura and Eunice Caburao.

In that next meeting, Mr. Bien Mateo, again accompanied by Mr. Jansen Pe, presented the artist’s perspective of the re-designed expansion plan. Much of the earth space fronting Gov. Pack Road, originally planned to be completely cemented over with a 4-storey commercial complex, will now be left untouched along with the more than one hundred trees therein.

Ideas were floated around from the protesters’ side of the table: can we bring the original number of trees back to 182? Maybe even plant more? Will SM commit that it would really stick to this new design? Can it be turned into a nature park, and that park will be open to the public, even to non-patrons of the mall? Can SM also commit that after this expansion, no more buildings will be erected within the property? Can their mitigating efforts be concentrated within the Central Business District (CBD) where their operation’s effects are more felt? Would they be willing to sponsor serious and carefully-planed urban re-greening efforts in the CBD?

Mr. Mateo, representing SM in that meeting, said yes to all of the above. Lastly, we informed Mr. Mateo and Mr. Pe that this would have nothing to do with the ongoing appeal of the case we filed, currently pending with the Court of Appeals. We reiterated that the case will still be pursued.

SM’s re-design of the expansion plan came as a surprise for after the dismissal of the case by the lower court and despite the appeal filed, the Temporary Environmental Protection Order (TEPO) issued against them has been deemed lifted and there was no legal impediment anymore that would SM from going ahead with the execution of their original expansion plan.

The numbers, in a nutshell are these: there were originally 182 trees, a mix of alnus and pine. SM was able to earthball 49 in April, 2012 prior to their acknowledgment of the TEPO issued, all of these were alnus trees except for one pine tree, leaving a total of 133 still standing on the expansion site. Based on their re-designed plan, out of those remaining 133 around 120 trees, mostly pine, will be left untouched, or only 13 would be affected. There will be much earth space left that can accommodate a number of new plantings that can bring back the number to 182, or even go beyond it.

The re-designed plan was presented to a number of members of the protest movement and so far the reactions have been varied. While some welcomed the prospect of being able to save more than a hundred trees, others rejected the new design outright.

I, personally, after all those late nights with volunteers helping the legal team prepare for the marathon hearings that lasted six months, all the rallies, concerts, symposia, dialogues, confrontations over a period of more than a year, having been threatened with physical harm, having been betrayed by officials in all three branches of the government, having seen how politics reared its ugly head in the struggle to save our city’s environment, how vested interests compromised the integrity of both sides, how trapos and other miscreants tried to appropriate the protest movement for their selfish intentions, I welcome the prospect of saving more than a hundred trees, than losing every single one of them. I welcome the prospect of looking up Luneta Hill today, tomorrow and decades from now, to see a canopy of green instead of a huge soulless chunk of concrete.

The original design of SM City Baguio's expansion plan

Top view of the new design as presented by Mr. Bien Mateo,
Vice President for Operations of SM Supermalls. The  blue shaded area shows the
building footprint of the original design, while the red shaded area shows
the footprint of the new design.
I, personally, joined the protest movement to do what I can to save as much of Baguio’s trees from being needlessly felled. 182 on Luneta Hill. Hundreds more along Marcos Highway being threatened by Moldex. And thousands more inside Camp John Hay and within the Forbes Park forest reservation.

Every tree saved is a victory for the people of Baguio and the environment. More than a hundred trees saved sends the message that we, the people of Baguio, care not only about our own interests today but also that of our children's tomorrow and the heritage that was handed down to us by those who came before us, and that we’re ready to put ourselves on the line to defend all that.

And while one Honorable Mauricio Domogan will always be remembered as the Mayor who said “I cannot do anything” when the people turned to him to save the trees, the Save 182 Movement will always be remembered as that group of individuals from all walks of life who shared one thing in common: they cared, and despite all the odds against them, was able to save more than a hundred trees on Luneta Hill.

Now, let's see if SM will keep its word. And borrowing from Sting, who moved his concert last year from SM-MOA to Smart-Araneta in support of the protest, "we'll be watching you."


Shadow Jedi said...

Very nice!
Hope SM sticks to their word.
Thank you for all the hard work and persistence.

Jellyfish said...

Thanks for following up the issue KMA. This takes a lot of time and effort. You would think that big corporations like SM which rely on millions of people for their money would automatically factor in a nice wholesome environment into their building plans. But no, they have to rallied against and get protests before they even begin thinking about what's good for their customers. Do you think SM can make this part of its company credo after this experience?

synapse123 said...

This will serve as an inspiration for all of us. We have to stand up for what we believe is right, no matter how small we think we are. Because we can make a difference. Thank you.

KMA said...

Thank you, all of you, for believing int this cause. The victory's not complete, but after more than a year of heartaches and disappointments, we should celebrate every victory, no matter how small.

In the meantime, let it be known that we will still pursue the case we filed against them, currently pending with the Court of Appeals.

KMA said...

And Jellyfish... we sure hope so.

alice lansang said...

I believe in dialogue.
True dialogue... of equals...
and where the agreements are clearly set on paper. I am not a lawyer, but
someone told me, nowadays - tis best this way.. else we are might be beating the air futilely in the future though I believe that Mr. Sy is an honorable man as all our Senators and Congressmen are called
your honor.
For the sake of the trees, for the sake of Baguio, for the children of the future, for all the effort done by so many people...
I wish us the best... God bless.
Sr. Alice Lansang, icm

Anonymous said...

Friends in Bagiuo..... was there no paper between the SM management and the protesters to ensure that REALLY they will redesign SM Bagiuo to save the hundred trees? What if they will make shift in the course of their construction? What about MOU - Memorandum of Understanding or MOA between the Sy's and the Advocates of save 182 trees of Bagiuo?

Sr. Susan Bolanio, OND

KMA said...

Sisters Alice and Susan, no there was no MOU but that was brought up too during the meeting and as soon as the final blueprints are out, which we asked to see first since the drawing presented was just an initial concept, they will present it again.

Mr. Mateo did say that once the blueprints are finalized, they are willing to sign on it.

But having an MOU between SM and the protesters will be difficult to execute for this early, a lot of people in the protest group are already rejecting the redesign and any idea of entering into any agreement with SM.

In the meantime, the case at the Court of Appeals goes on. We did reiterate that during the meeting, that regardless of this redesign, we will pursue the case.

Anonymous said...

I hope SM will stop building malls but eco parks and support community managed eco tourism programs/ projects. Malls create consumerist mentallity rather than a create long term productive employment ( manufacturing & industries harnessing local produce/ talents/ skills)that are environment friendly. Masyadong nang polluted ang baguio city...pag nawala pa ang mag puno at links to your roots... eh hind na maganda magpunta sa Baguio...

Rico Gutierrez said...

This is certainly welcome news. Congratulations to all Baguio environmentalists who have helped to bring about this outcome.

The lsst Baguio election must have been an eye-opener. Although SM's backers won, they did so only by a small margin (compared to the previous one).

Jny May said...

Wow! Good news indeed! Praying for more mutual agreements for the good of the city and the good of the community. Win-win! Thank you for doing all the hardwork and standing strong! Cheers for the City of Baguio!

Anonymous said...

Baguio is the City of Pines, not the City of concrete!

jumel miller said...

Mabuhay Sir Karlo, your bravery and love for Baguio is indeed a work of a hero.People don't realize that the value of every tree is saving a life already. Prayerfully that there will me more people who will support this endeavor. Godspeed!

KMA said...

Salamat, Jumel