A paved forest? ‘Redevelopment’ of Arroceros park questioned | Inquirer News
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A paved forest? ‘Redevelopment’ of Arroceros park questioned

/ 05:32 AM November 21, 2021

PEDESTRIAN-FRIENDLY? A civic group with a long history of defending Arroceros Park against multimillion-peso construction projects is again agitated, this time over the current “improvements” being undertaken under Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso. Members of the Save Arroceros Movement were “shocked” particularly after seeing these concrete walkways, which they say would ruin the natural forest undergrowth. —PHOTO BY RICHARD A. REYES

MANILA, Philippines — Almost three decades ago, a women’s organization pulled off a major feat in its environmental advocacy, turning an idle piece of public land at the heart of Manila into an urban forest.

Arroceros Forest Park came to be known as “the last lung” of Manila, covering a 2.2-hectare property in the Ermita district that the city government purchased from Land Bank of the Philippines in 1992 for P65 million, during the term of Mayor Alfredo Lim.

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The Winner Foundation (WF) entered the picture in 1994 as designated caretaker of the park to help realize Lim’s plan of turning the area into an oasis of green within the bustling city. Through the foundation, some 3,000 trees and 8,000 other plants, including varieties from other parts of the country, have since been planted and nurtured in Arroceros.

But in the years that followed, as City Hall came under different administrations, the civic group found itself repeatedly defending Arroceros against multimillion-peso “development” plans that went against the original vision.

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Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta, the current WF president, recalled that when she joined the foundation and set foot at the park for the first time in 2004, the contention was over a project of then Mayor Lito Atienza, who had a building contructed within Arroceros to house the administration offices of the Division of City Schools Manila.

To make room for that structure and its access points, “thousands” of trees were cut in the process, Mabanta said.

In 2007, “when Atienza lost to (the comebacking) Lim after three terms, we replanted a lot of trees,” she told the Inquirer in an interview last week.

Online petition

Ten years later, another “threat” to the trees emerged, this time during the term of Mayor Joseph Estrada, who reportedly planned to build a university gymnasium inside the park. It was at this point that a new group—independent of the foundation but sharing its mission—was formed to protect the park more aggressively.

The Save Arroceros Movement (SAM) took its campaign online and gathered over 200,000 signatures in a petition opposing Estrada’s plan. For Mabanta, it seemed as though many Manileños learned about the park’s existence “for the first time” because of the petition.

The city government then did not formally notify stakeholders like the WF about the gymnasium project, according to Mabanta, but it sent a letter in July 2017 telling the foundation to vacate its office in Arroceros. Eventually, nothing came out of the reported plan.

Today, however, the park is again undergoing changes — the kind SAM members and supporters like Mabanta didn’t expect under Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso.

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In March last year, Domagoso signed City Ordinance No. 8607, or the Arroceros Forest Park Ordinance, declaring the site a “permanent forest park” and alloting an initial P1 million for its upkeep under a new governing committee.

In for a ‘shock’

“It said a park management team will be formed with the stakeholders and the local government, but that never happened. After [Domagoso] signed the ordinance, we never met officially again, even after we tried to meet a few times,” Mabanta said.

The mayor later came up with a “redevelopment” plan for the park that included extending it further toward the now-refurbished Metropolitan Theater, constructing two office and commercial buildings in front of the park, and implementing a “general beautification” scheme.

“But they said they would not really touch the park. They said they’re going to build pathways but won’t kill the trees. That’s why we were in shock when we visited the park (on Nov. 12),” Mabanta said.

Arroceros Park—PHOTO BY RICHARD A. REYES

Concrete walkways

She was particularly referring to the paved walkways that are slowly forming a maze-like network of promenades within the park. Among the areas being transformed this way is the Juvenal Sanso Garden, named in honor of the eminent Spanish-born painter who was raised in the city. The garden is known for having tree species brought into the country via the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade during the Spanish era.

Mabanta said the foundation was actually OK with having walkways—but they should be made of wood, not concrete.

Also to be built is a playground, which would further affect the forest’s natural undergrowth, Mabanta said.

One of her colleagues who also visited the park on Nov. 12 already sensed that something in the Arroceros’ arborial ecosystem was already off. “I didn’t see a single bird that morning, when before we had more than 24 species,” WF chair Regina Paterno said in a Facebook post.

Mabanta acknowledged that the city government may have no intention of “harming” the urban forest, but that the local officials in charge may have a different idea “when they kept saying ‘pagagandahin namin ’yan’ (we’ll make it beautiful).”

‘Graveyard of trees’

“But how can you improve a forest? It’s already there—over 30 kinds of birds identified, all these flora and fauna; they’re already inside. You destroy all that by putting these paved structures,” she said.

To keep a patch of forest in its ideal state is to restore it to “how it was before … [when] people were just happy to find green in Manila, without any structures,” she added.

(Days after the photos of felled Arroceros trees circulated online, a concerned citizen, artist Bart Guingona, drew public attention to another area that he said had been reduced to a “graveyard of trees.” He posted a video on Twitter showing stumps and a fallen tree trunk along a stretch of Quirino Avenue near Metro Manila Skyway Stage 3.)

Response from Isko

Reached for comment, Domagoso, who is running for president in the May 2022 elections, maintained that “not a single tree [had been] cut” in Arroceros in connection with the projects on his watch.

He said the chopped-up trees shown in pictures that surfaced online on Nov. 12 were not from the park but from a section of the Pasig River easement area, where an esplanade project of the Department of Public Works and Highways is under way.

That area is not part of the Arroceros property, the mayor stressed in a text message to the Inquirer on Thursday.

Bea Dolores, a heritage preservation advocate who made a now-viral post about the Arroceros developments, said she was contacted by the mayor’s office to also clarify that no trees had been cut in the park and that there would be more open spaces created once the extension to the Metropolitan Theater is finished.

SAM members have scheduled a meeting with Domagoso on Nov. 22 to raise the group’s concerns.

Mabanta said the group would ask the city government to stop the ongoing construction work, revise the redevelopment plan, and hold more consultations with environmental and civil society groups. —With a report from Inquirer Research

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