BAGUIO CITY—On the night after Easter, environmentalists kept vigil outside Luneta Hill in Baguio City to watch over 182 trees that will be transplanted to make way for an expansion of a shopping mall.
They gathered in front of the SM City Baguio on Tuesday dawn when they detected signs that the trees were being uprooted. The environmentalists were joined by Catholic nuns, teachers and students.
The city’s major businesses have always dismissed these environmental mass actions as unnecessary, saying investors have tripled the pine tree population to make up for trees that stand in the way of progress and development.
At a Feb. 27 public hearing, Bien Mateo, SM Supermalls vice president for operations, told the city council that the company would plant 10,000 pine trees in designated watersheds this year, and 500,000 more in subsequent years.
Since 2003, development projects and safety issues have been sufficient reasons for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to allow 4,729 trees to be cut, according to a DENR inventory report submitted to the city council and the Baguio Regreening Movement (BRM).
Government regulations require businesses and property owners that seek tree-cutting or earth-balling permits to replace each fallen tree with 30 to 100 saplings, which would have benefited the city with 47,290 new pine trees, said Councilor Erdolfo Balajadia, who chairs the BRM as well as the council committee on health and sanitation, ecology and environmental protection.
The DENR’s March 9 report shows that 384 of these tree-cutting permits were meant to remove “obstructions” to the development projects of the Baguio City Economic Zone and of the developer as well as the administrator of Camp John Hay.
Some of these trees stood in the way of improvements at the presidential Mansion, while some trees were displaced by the development of a new extension campus of the Saint Louis University. Some trees were lost due to expanding subdivision projects and several trees were cut to make way for private home expansion work.
But most residents have had to weigh the cost of losing almost 5,000 fully grown trees against acquiring 50,000 new trees.
For the summer capital’s longtime residents, the outrage over losing more trees is an expression of Baguio’s survival instinct, said outgoing University of the Philippines Baguio Chancellor Priscilla Supnet-Macansantos, who testified at the Feb. 27 public hearing held by the city council.
What is at stake is not the substitution of hundreds of trees but what Baguio’s ecology will suffer for 20 years until these trees mature, she said.
Baguio residents are as accustomed as the next politician to equate the loss of trees to the perils of climate change, owing to the series of natural disasters that hit the country.
But the city’s love affair with trees did not start that way.
In 1988, a squatting problem at Busol watershed drew attention to the fact that Baguio’s water source is being outpaced by the city’s growing population.
In 1990, after the Luzon earthquake devastated Baguio, nongovernment organizations gathered to discuss the impact of the disaster on the community, and concluded that the city’s water supply suffered the most.
Every resident becomes protective of trees because his or her daily water supply has been rationed for the last 40 years by the Baguio Water District, said former Mayor Braulio Yaranon, who championed tree conservation in battling Camp John Hay’s privatization in 1993.
The city’s trees have also been dying, gauging by the 746 dead trees in government reservations and private property that needed cutting between 2002 and 2011, said Balajadia.
“Why are so many pine trees dying?” he asked.
Most of the permits issued to cut these trees benefited Camp John Hay and Teachers’ Camp, both heavily wooded sections of Baguio, he said, citing the DENR inventory.
Clarence Baguilat, DENR Cordillera director, acknowledged in a report that “the proclaimed watersheds and forest reservations estimated at 20 percent of the city’s total land area … continue to be reduced, degraded or converted to other land uses.”
Baguio’s forest cover is estimated at 1,446.81 hectares (25 percent of the city’s 5,700-ha territory), he said. Only 45 percent of these woodlands compose proclaimed watersheds or forest lands because the rest stand on private property, he said.
The city’s largest forest cluster, for example, crosses into two special economic zones, he said. Investors hosted by these two economic zones were the first to undertake earth-balling technology as an alternative to tree-cutting, he said.
But based on a 2009 study of 91 earth-balled trees, the transplanted trees in economic zones, with trunks measuring 11 to 20 centimeters in diameter, all died within four months. The 21 trees that survived had trunks measuring 10 cm in diameter.
The DENR said earth-balled pine trees have an average survival rate of 21.5 percent.
Baguilat said developers displacing trees to make way for their projects could be forced into improving Baguio’s watersheds, given that these reservations are already suffering significant destruction.