Saturday, April 28, 2012

For the love of... home

“These mountain people are the most unconquerable of all the natives of this country” – Fray Juan Medina, a Spaniard declared in 1630, after several failed attempts to subjugate the Igorots. A few decades later, Diego Salcedo, the Spanish Governor General of the Philippines from 1663 to 1668, would say of the enduring freedom of the Igorots – “... a scandal and a mockery, an embarrasment that right in the heart of the colony, in the main island of Luzon, natives remained pagans... and their gold remained unreachable.”

So do not think for one moment that we in the Save 182 movement would give up on our home that easily.

SM City Baguio stepped up its pulic relations efforts in the last couple of weeks – both on print and online. Well, Henry Sy isn’t one of the world’s richest men for nothing - he can afford the luxury of expensive PR firms. As for us in the streets, we can only hope that the media would find our struggle newsworthy at all. And lately, fortunately, suprisingly, after a couple of months of what was begining to feel like a media blackout, the protest finally made it to the pages of both local and national papers, together with ample air time on TV.

So now we are seeing the power of SM’s money at work - typing in the phrases “SM City Baguio,” “Baguio Pine Trees,” and other related words in various online search engines now result in page and pages of SM propganda. In web talk, it’s called SEO writing – Search Engine Optimization. It’s not cheap. Both op-ed and news pages of certain “established and reputable” dailies and weeklies have been churning out praises for SM’s expansion project, and jeers for the protest movement. At times, these press releases border on the ridiculous and outright disinformation.

They ask, why are we focusing only on SM City Baguio when trees, at times entire forests, are being destroyed in other parts of the the city, nay, the whole region... the whole country? The movement is composed of individuals, institutions and organizations who are also involved in addressing various issues affecting Baguio, and as a group we oppose all misdirected efforts that threaten, harm and cause the killing of Baguio's remaining trees – but the 182 trees that SM City Baguio considers as dispensable in the name of crass commercialism is what brought all of us together, and united we will remain saving the lives of those life-giving trees. With this, we remain committed to opposing SM City Baguio’s insatiable greed and their attempt to completely eradicate competition, mostly homegrown small to medium-sized businesses that actually pay their taxes to the city unlike SM; or their wanton disregard for the welfare of their immediate neighbors, the historical value of Luneta Hill and the heritage of this beautiful city.

They ask, what right have we to prevent SM City Baguio to do as it pleases within their private property? Freedom is not absolute, with it comes responsibility. Common people such as us can get arrested for burning a small heap of dried leaves in our own backyard, why should Henry Sy and SM City Baguio get away with putting lives and properties at risk with this expansion project?

They ask, has the movement taken a step back and have agreed to SM City Baguio’s plan to earthball the trees? NOT AT ALL. We oppose the removal of those 182 trees on Luneta Hill by any means – be it earthablling or cutting, for we know for a fact that either of the two methods can result in the death of those trees, the former merely delaying the practically inevitable. And after seeing the way SM City Baguio conducted the earthballing of around 50 of the 182 trees, we are convinced now more than ever that the trees will surely die.

Detractors, spinmeisters, paid hacks would like the public to believe that the protesters are motivated by sinister reasons and other vested interests. Some even forward various ridiculous conspiracy theories to discredit the movement. There’s a new tag for the protesters being circulated online, “the haters.”

Don’t they get it? We’re all here despite the effects of doing all we can to oppose one of the world’s richest men have had on our personal lives, our jobs... we’re all here despite and in spite of the way most of our supposed public servants have become powerless and willing slaves to corporate greed... we’re all here because of one thing – we love our home, Baguio.

And if you have not felt the kind of love we in this movement have for our home, then maybe it’s time you do. For only when all, or at least most of us do will we have real hope for this country.

*My column in the April 29, 2012 issue of Cordillera Today

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day: Revisiting that pale blue dot

As we celebrate Earth Day, I thought I’d revisit an article I wrote on October 2, 2009, as we tried to rise above the destruction caused by typhoon Ondoy, and as Pepeng made its way this time to wreak havoc in the mountains of the Cordilleras and nearby low-lying provinces. Here is that article:

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Carl Sagan said that. He was talking about a photograph taken by that NASA space probe, Voyager 1. The photograph, perhaps unless explained to its viewer, may not make sense at first glance: a dark background with a scattering of tiny specks and a ray of light that runs vertically through the middle, and barely visible somewhere on that ray of light, is a pale blue dot: Earth. That space probe was launched in 1977, originally with the primary intention of visiting Jupiter and Saturn, but currently on an “extended mission to locate and study the boundaries of the universe.” Upon Sagan’s constant prodding, and after completing its primary mission, on Valentine’s Day, 1990, NASA decided to command the probe to turn around for the last time and take a photograph of our home from 3.7 billion miles away. And there was home… “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

It does put things in a different perspective, doesn’t it? Zoom in on that blue planet, zoom in further on the biggest continent in that planet, and zoom in even more on that collection of roughly 7,000 islands – somewhere in those islands, in a place they call Metro Manila, hundreds died and thousands were left homeless.

A weather disturbance that occurs here and there and every now and then on this pale blue dot brought in so much rain which resulted in unprecedented flooding in the area. It was, on that Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009, a great equalizer. It did not spare anyone, it did not choose between rich and poor, good and bad: powerful politicians, celebrities, common folk, it didn’t matter. Everyone was helpless.

You may think so highly of your position in government, or your popularity as a celebrity, but in the eye of “Ondoy,” you’re just one of billions of this mote of dust’s inhabitants, and in that instant your life mattered just as much as your neighbor’s noisy mongrel. So the next time you are deluded into believing that you are so great and powerful, privileged and untouchable, remember that during that one stormy day, you felt the same way everyone else did: small and powerless against the power of… what? Just a combination of some amount of warm and cold air spinning in one direction and coming your way.

After collecting donations and distributing all those relief goods (go ahead, put a sticker with your name on it if that makes you feel good about yourself), after caring for someone other than yourself for one brief moment, and after getting our lives back together again, remember that just some hundreds of meters above and your face cannot be recognized anymore. A few kilometers away from earth and your home cannot be distinguished from everyone else’s. Just a little beyond the earth’s atmosphere and you’re not even a dot anymore. And from 3.7 billion miles away?

Carl Sagan further said, “The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate… Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand… It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
There’s something, someone, out there that, who, is so much bigger than you are and will ever be. Call it what you want… I believe it’s God. And if there’s one lesson that can be learned from all this, for me it’s this: Remember your place in this universe. There’s so many ways you can make your short visit on this pale blue dot matter.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The night the trees on Luneta Hill fell

We received the news moments before the gathering we scheduled at the U.P. Baguio auditorium yesterday afternoon. “TEPO extended until after the case is resolved.” The text message came from a member of the movement’s legal team, Atty. Chris Donaal.

There were only around six of us at the time, waiting for the other members of the movement to arrive, but our shouts of joy filled up the still empty hall.

It is a temporary victory, but a victory nonetheless. I have said it before, for every day that those trees stay alive is already a vitory for the city.

Whatever remains of the 182 trees since SM City Baguio, a like a thief in the night, proceeded to begin the massacre under cover of darkness and hidden behind walls, on the night of April 9, 2012, despite the issuance of a Temporary Environmental Protection Order by the court.

Moments before receiving the message from Donaal, we were already contemplating what to do in case we lose this struggle. You can’t blame us, almost all of our government institutions have turned their backs on the people and their opposition to the rape of their home’s natural environment. Despite the issuance of a 72-day stay of the execution of trees by the court, SM City Baguio, through devious legal maneuverings, tried to skirt the law claiming that the TEPO must be served to their lawyers in Manila and not here in Baguio. This meant, for them, that “officially,” they have not received the order and therefore it doesn’t exist and that they can go on with their earthablling activities on Luneta Hill. That night, trees started falling on Luneta Hill.

Some young members of the movement went to the Mayor’s residence to plead our case with him – his hands are tied, was essentially his reply. The concerned City Council committee, and the councilors who signed their report,have showed their true color when it all but directly endorsed SM City Baguio’s expansion project. And when we begged the police that same evening to do help enforce the court order, they watched on the sidelines as more than 50 security guards and personnel of SM City Baguio surrounded the roughly one dozen of us who were there to try to stop the crime being committed against the environment, against Baguio. They were there, around 10 or so of them, on the other side of Luneta Road, watching, as guards shoved and pushed us around. This is the same police force that can form a human barricade of police officers complete with shields and truncheons ready to protect SM City Baguio whenever we stage a rally on Luneta Hill. This is the same police personnel whose salaries the people’s taxes pay for.

And this is what it’s all about – clearly, it’s not just about the 182 trees on Luneta Hill, and even if it were so, so what? See, those trees, just like the Jadewell contract and the concrete pine tree, represent all that is wrong in our society, they uncovered a rotten political system that is the true cause of all our woes. They showed us what caused the garbage slide in Irisan, the pollution that envelope Baguio, the slow decay of this beautiful city, the sorry state of our educational system, the poverty all around us.

Congratulations, Baguio, on this temporary victory. It’s not over yet...

(my column in tomorrow's issue of the Cordillera Today)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Greenwashing and SM City Baguio

“SM City Baguio’s green design is an example of a development project that does not only look on the economic aspect of development which will also be a big support in the tourism industry in the locality for it will offer something new in the city, It is also a development putting much into consideration the protection of the environment which some developers in the city of Baguio failed to do. The SM expansion design will speak for itself.”

The above paragraph was part of an opinion column published in a local daily last February 16, 2012 ( I agree with the last sentence – that the SM expansion design speaks for itself, and what it spoke of were gross ignorance, corporate greed and utter disregard for the community’s sensibility and the city’s heritage. So did the article, and what it spoke of was its failure as a PR effort.

First, a “Green Building,” according to Wikipedia, refers to a structure and using process that is environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's life-cycle: from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition. With just the first consideration, SM City Baguio’s expansion plan already fails miserably. Their chosen site is also the site of 182 living trees that already provide breathable air in the already heavily polluted Central Business District.

The expansion’s design also shows us that they’re not really building “on” Luneta Hill, they’re practically obliterating half of the hill to accommodate their new building. The hill that gave birth to Baguio as a city will be defaced, almost eradicated from the face of the earth.

The article also raved about the much ballyhooed roof garden that SM City Baguio plans to install on their new structure, just like the one they have at SM City North Edsa, as if this could really get even near what the existing trees in the area have been providing the community for decades: clean air, protection from harsh weather conditions and aesthetic value. Will their roof provide for soil that’s 20 feet deep or more for real trees to grow on it? And the “landscaping” at the roof garden of SM City North Edsa constantly changes, which tells us that either plants there die or are merely rented and need to be replaced every now and then.

And in an attempt to address the heritage issue, the article also waxed pathetic about the expansion’s design that incorporated “the concept of rice terraces which is part of the history of the region.” Aw, come on.

Fact is, from any angle, SM City Baguio’s expansion cannot be justified given the impact it would have on the environment, the welfare of the community and the heritage of the city. It’s also shocking that two faculty members of the University of the Cordilleras have all but sanctified the expansion project as if it’s the Holy Grail of green architecture, when it is their campus that will be the first to suffer the consequences should any, God forbid, natural disaster is triggered by the mass murder of trees and the carving of that hill.

SM City Baguio has also been trumpeting the 2,000 saplings they have planted in the last few years and the 50,000 saplings they promise to plant to replace the ones they plan to “earthball.” I wonder though how many of those 2,000 saplings they’ve planted have actually grown into mature trees. I wonder if they’ve ever gone back to check on those saplings at all. That’s the thing about these photo ops masquerading as tree planting activities – they have their pictures taken holding a sapling, and they believe they just saved the world.

And if they can prove that their efforts in the past have indeed resulted in full grown trees today, I congratulate them, but it still does not justify killing those trees in the name of crass commercialism and heartless capitalism. It’s like a public official saying he should be allowed to steal from government since he’s built overpasses and waiting sheds in the past. Or a murderer claiming the he should be allowed to kill at will since he's also a father who's sired a child.

I do read SM City Baguio’s pronouncements about their planned expansion project, hoping to see a glimmer of any good that could come out of it. Alas, I see none. They’ll have to do better than a sad attempt to brainwash, or greenwash as environmentalists call it, the community.

Make no mistake, there’s hardly any real green about SM City Baguio’s expansion plan.