Sunday, January 18, 2015

SM Baguio Under Fire For Cutting 60 Trees In The Dead Of The Night To Pave Way For Sky Park

Like a flicker of light that adamantly refuses to fade away into the dark, the tree cutting/earth-balling controversy at Luneta Hill in Baguio City has once again reared its ugly head. During the last year or so, the controversy was barely recognizable in the background while the city concerned itself with other issues. However, with the confirmed reports that dozens of trees were cut down anew by SM at the same hill in the night of January 16, the issue has quickly grown into a full-blown fire.

When morning broke on January 17 and news of the felled trees made its way into the consciousness of Baguio citizens, concerned parties and groups started trading shots. Karlo Marko Altomonte, one of the most recognizable members of Save 182, didn't mince words when he published on his blog a scathing article on SM City Baguio and other guilty parties whom he referred to as SM's "enablers".

Who are these "enablers"? Altomonte made a list and it's composed of the following: the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of Public Works and Highways, the city council, Mayor Mauricio Domogan, members of the judiciary and the bar who had a hand in the case, and the news media. Altomonte went the extra mile by stating that some members of the media "willingly sang SM's songs, forwarded their half-truths and outright lies for free movie passes and a gadget or two".

How many trees did SM cut on the night of January 16? The exact number is not known. ABS-CBN News says 60 trees. The Northern Dispatch Weekly says 70 trees. We can meet in the middle and say that around 65 trees fell to the ground that night. From the verandas of the shopping center facing the University of the Cordilleras, you can see the now-empty space where the pine and alnus trees used to stand. The felled logs were covered in blue tarpaulins. Tree branches and yellowing saw dust litter the ground. Below are a few photos we took from the area.

According to reports, SM hired around 100 laborers to chop down the trees in the middle of the night. Floodlights bathed the workers as they sawed away at the trees. In an official statement, the mall reiterated that the removal of the trees will pave the way for a Sky Park which they claim will feature green facilities that will help absorb the impact of climate change.

According to the same statement, the Sky Park will "feature green walls consisting of live plants that will help improve air quality, making the mall both relaxing and enjoyable for the whole family. It also consists of a sewerage treatment plant (STP), and an underground rainwater catchment tank in the basement. The excess space of catchment tank will provide additional parking space that will help decongest traffic along Upper Session Road."

SM also defended the removal of the trees by stating that the environmental cases filed against the mall have been dismissed and the Temporary Environmental Protection Order (TEPO) issued against them in 2012 has been lifted. The Court of Appeals lifted the TEPO last month. In effect, as far as the law is concerned, there are no legal impediments that would stop the mall from moving on with its Sky Park project.

It can be recalled that thousands of Baguio citizens protested the earth-balling and cutting of trees by SM in 2012. This led to the filing of environmental cases against the mall and then the subsequent issuance of the TEPO which was lifted last month.

The recent cutting by SM has outraged a lot of people as evidenced by their passionate posts on social sites like Facebook and Twitter. Many of them concede to the fact that they are losing the fight (as far as the struggle to keep the trees standing is concerned) but there's a lot of positive thinking being spread around. Baguio resident Kaycee Yangot writes on Facebook, "The legal case against SM accomplished much regardless of the outcome in the judicial arena. It opened conversations on environmental issues, local governance, corporate greed, and other related concerns. The narrative now ---and even a child of tender age will tell you that--- is that we only have one Earth which we must cherish."

On the other side of the stick, there are those who support SM's project and then there are those who are very critical of the movement to stop the mall from cutting more trees. Paul Farol, a regular contributor to the blog Get Real Philippines, wrote a piece lambasting a certain Noemi Dado whom Farol claims to have "been engaged in brand bashing against SM for over two years". Farol has written several pieces for Get Real Philippines in the past that criticized protesters against SM, often painting them as hypocrites. Basically, Farol's argument is that SM can do whatever they want because they own the land, they have all the necessary permits, and Baguio has lost its allure anyway.

In his most recent piece, Farol wrote, "We also have to throw out the issue of aesthetics because as far as that is concerned, Baguio has long lost the allure that it once had when it was run by the Americans nearly a century ago."

Farol's article attracted mostly negative reactions. Eugenio Lopez commented, "The issue is about the RUINING the environment and surroundings in place for a SUBSTANDARD development, and the SM Group is pretty consistent in promoting their business at the expense of the environment’s destruction, which in effect affects the community living near the place."

Farol also doesn't think that cutting 60 trees is environmental destruction. Replying to a comment which stated that what SM did was environmental destruction, Farol said, "60 trees were cut, you call that environmental destruction? Wow!" However, Farol did not elaborate what he thinks should constitute environmental destruction. 100 trees? 500? 1000?

With the dismissal of the cases filed against SM and the lifting of the TEPO, the future of the trees still standing in Luneta Hill is unclear. In the words of Altomonte, "they are still worth fighting for". Last Sunday, several people against the SM project staged a small protest inside the SM premises. They carried with them black balloons which to a lot of people is a fitting symbol to the 60 that fell and the seemingly dark future of those that still stand.