Transfer of Baguio trees to proceed
Court lifts order that stopped expansion project of retail giant SMBy Vincent Cabreza
Inquirer Northern Luzon
BAGUIO CITY—A local court dismissed an environmental lawsuit that stopped the earth balling of at least 182 pine and alnus trees by a shopping mall here for an expansion project, ending for now a standoff that had affected all tree-cutting applications in the summer capital.
Baguio Regional Trial Court Judge Antonio Esteves, in a Dec. 3 order, ruled that the Cordillera Global Network (CGN), which succeeded in winning a temporary environmental protection order (Tepo) against shopping mall giant SM and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on April 10, had failed to prove that SM City Baguio’s expansion would harm the environment.
In his 20-page decision released to CGN on Wednesday, Esteves said CGN “failed to substantiate [its argument that displacing 182 trees would result in] damage to the environment that is so serious it cannot be remedied.”
He directed the expansion project to proceed.
Based on evidence
Esteves, in his ruling, said he sympathizes with CGN’s position, being a resident of Baguio, but the court had to proceed based on the evidence presented by CGN and SM.
Gloria Abaeo, CGN president, said her organization would appeal Esteves’ decision.
She said CGN had anticipated the difficulty of mounting an environmental lawsuit against a corporation but her group had learned enough from the Baguio trial to prepare them for future legal battles.
Esteves’ decision also lifted the Tepo issued by Baguio RTC Judge Cleto Villacorta III to prevent SM City Baguio from earth balling (relocating trees using a machine) to another site of the mall at Luneta Hill.
Clarence Baguilat, DENR Cordillera director, had instructed the agency’s foresters to determine the condition of trees which SM had tried to earth-ball before the court imposed the Tepo.
As a consequence of the issuance of the Tepo, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje had directed the DENR Cordillera office to suspend the processing of tree-cutting permits in Baguio City and to forward all tree-cutting applications to his office for clearance, Baguilat said.
Esteves’ ruling addressed all key arguments raised by CGN.
Among the group’s major point was that the SM expansion project would violate President Aquino’s total log ban policy, which he expressed through Executive Order No. 23.
But Esteves said CGN did not provide evidence that the 182 trees “are part of a national or residual forest.”
He said SM’s lawyers were able to present evidence that the mall expansion project and the displacement of the trees were granted permits after SM followed all requirements imposed by the government.
Esteves also dismissed CGN’s argument that DENR and SM did not follow the prescriptions for processing an amended environmental compliance certificate (ECC) for the expanded mall project, including the holding of public consultations to secure social acceptability.
The ECC certifies that a developer has complied with all the requirements to establish the environmental impact of its project and to enforce an environmental management plan, according to DENR records.
SM complied by submitting an environmental performance report and management plan, Esteves said. With a report from Frank Cimatu, Inquirer Northern Luzon