Saturday, May 25, 2013

Seeing green, finally

Mayor Mauricio Domogan’s declaration that he wants a local Environment Code passed before the entry of the new-elected city council on June 30 is a far cry from his “I cannot do anything” stand on the Luneta Hill issue involving the city’s already biggest mall’s unwavering desire to remove one of the very few remaining green covers in the central business district for an expansion project. And regardless of one’s political leanings, we must welcome and support the mayor’s efforts to fast-track the passage of this code. It’s about time.

The proposed ordinance is supposed to be “all-encompassing” and will cover a wide range of issues, let’s begin with one: land management and classification. I am hoping that this provision will result in the clearing up of grey areas in our existing zoning ordinances. For example, owing to its size and clientele, SM City Baguio is undeniably a regional mall, which should merit a C3 classification. Luneta Hill is a C1 area. But City Planning and Development Office OIC Evelyn Cayat was able to convince the court that heard the environmental case filed against SM, by zigzagging through the loopholes of the existing zoning ordinance, that a project involving a 4-storey commercial complex and a 5-storey parking building that will be added to the already imposing structure on Luneta Hill is allowed in a C1 area. She even pointed out that the Baguio Country Club is the only entity classified as a C3 structure. We don’t need an urban planning expert to know which between SM City Baguio and the Baguio Country Club generate much more pedestrian and vehicular traffic, which requires more power to operate and which impacts the city’s environment more.

Another very important component of the proposed ordinance is the “preservation of parks and heritage sites, urban greenery and architecture.” This should hopefully put an end to the rampant wasteful multi-million-peso concretization of our public parks. Erecting concrete buildings cementing much of a botanical and a rose garden is senseless. Not to mention tasteless. Gardens need earth space and greenery, not hallow blocks. The preservation, and more importantly the enhancement of urban greenery is essential to our quality of life. It is in fact, a right enshrined in our constitution: “The State shall protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature.”

I am quite apprehensive though about the provision that would involve the non-issuance of building permits to construction projects without rain-harvesting facilities. With the rapid urbanization that Baguio is currently undergoing, having all those imposing hotels, condominiums, commercial buildings and others have their own rainwater harvesting facility might impact on the city’s water table. The mayor laments that much of rainwater the Baguio receives gets washed out to the sea due to our lack of rainwater-harvesting infrastructure. Trees, forests and watersheds are the best rainwater harvesting facilities, having more of these will keep most of the water within our midst and available to the residents of Baguio – particularly to ordinary households that cannot build four thousand cubic-meter water reservoirs that SM City Baguio plans to have in their expansion project. In this area, it’s about time the Baguio Water District step up and start justifying the generous salaries that their executive have allotted for themselves.

Bottomline: the proposed Environmental Code is an urgent matter that must be taken up and passed at the soonest possible time. And hopefully in consultation with the people – after the Jadewell, SM, Uniwide, Protech issues and others, we now know that it’s not wise to keep this within the walls of the city’s executive and legislative offices.

And this could also be an opportunity for our councilors who acted like SM City Baguio’s counsels during the public hearings conducted on the expansion project to redeem themselves and show us that they do have a heart and in it is the welfare of our people today and this city’s future generation.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Who won?

On the night of the canvassing of votes at the Baguio Convention Center, the loudest sound that can be heard in the area did not come from inside the hall where the general public was barred from entering and only Comelec personnel, poll watchers and members of the media were allowed to witness the counting of votes. It came from a loudspeaker just a few meters from the entrance – a bingo game was ongoing and apparently an election was not reason enough for the operators of the gambling game nor the supposed beneficiary (we were told that it was a “Barangay fund-raising effort”) to show some respect and give way to the process that is the heart of our democracy.

We called the attention of a policeman on duty, who escorted us to their commander who was slouched on a chair on one side with his feet up, texting. “May permit yata sila e,” he said to and without looking at us. “Yata.” I asked, would you like to get up and check if they do have one? He didn’t reply. A city councilor who happened to be in the area politely reminded the commander that gambling is prohibited during elections, whether they had a permit or not. Still no reaction from the commander. I said, “hindi po ba nakakahiya ang Baguio na habang nagbibilang tayo ng boto ng taumbayan ay may pasugalan sa tabi ng bilangan?”

So what happened inside? Out of 153, 423 registered voters in Baguio City, the total number of votes cast for mayor was only 86,945, which meant that 66,478 did not bother or were unable to choose the city’s top executive in this election. For congressman, there were 86,976 votes cast, and 66,447 missed the chance to choose their representative in congress. In Baguio, just over half of the voting population, 57%, made their voices heard.

The incumbent mayor Mauricio G. Domogan, garnered 43, 218 votes – or more than 4,000 votes less than his total in 2010. Opposition candidate Jose Molintas got 39,073, or over 12,000 more than what he got three years ago. The decrease in Domogan’s votes and the overwhelming increase in Molintas’ were not enough though to unseat the incumbent, or steer this city towards a new, better, direction.

So who won inside the Baguio Convention Center? Mauricio G. Domogan. And while only 28% of us wanted Mauricio Domogan to continue to be at the helm, the rest of us, the 72% who either did not vote for him or at all, would have to rally behind him in every just, righteous and honest endeavor that would help make Baguio a better place for all of us,or in front of him whenever an attempt is made to put the welfare of the people and this city in peril. 

So who won in that bingo game just outside the Baguio Convention Center? I don’t know, but I know that the people of Baguio lost there and the people behind the travesty just spat on the face of our democracy and the dignity of our beautiful city.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Twilight in Baguio

Should I list down my choices in this year’s senatorial and local elections? No, I won’t. It’s not about who our choices are, it’s about how and why we arrived at them.

In 1995, I was in Baguio, not as a tourist nor as a young kid tagging along my mother in one of her frequent visits to artist friends in the City of Pines, but as an actor in a foreign film production being shot here. Our locations were Binga and Ambuklao Dams and the mountainsides somewhere in Marcos Highway in the general area where the viaduct is today.

At the end of one particular shooting day, I was with my co-actors on the side of Marcos Highway waiting for the van that would bring us back to our respective cottages at Camp John Hay. The fog cleared to reveal one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. The usually rowdy bunch of theatre actors were silenced by the heavenly spectacle. And as in a stage play’s closing scene, the fog started rolling in again just as the sun disappeared on the horizon.

The van arrived just as a gentle rain poured - twilight in Baguio became more surrealistic, magical when experience through a sheet of rain and wisps of fog. The scent of pine welcomed us in Camp John Hay and soon there I was all bundled up in a thick sweater and a bonnet, being warmed by a mug of freshly brewed Benguet coffee at the nearby Lone Star Steak House and I realized right there and then: this is where I want to spend most, if not the rest of my life.

Baguio City. In less than a year my wife and I moved here.

We did stage plays mostly at the Bulwagang Juan Luna of the U.P. Baguio, jammed with hand drums around a bonfire at CafĂ© by the Ruins, floated altars at the Burnham Lake every July 16 for those who perished during the earthquake of 1990, attended exhibit openings and went on impromptu picnics on hillsides along Loakan Road, read books lying on the grass at the Rose Garden. We took walks, lots and lots of long walks – in the rain, under the sun, picking up twigs and fallen branches along the way home to light up the fireplace in the evenings.

One day I heard about the impending turn-over of Camp John Hay to a private consortium posed to turn it into a “world-class” tourist destination – I attended the public hearings and rallies denouncing the plan. Soon after, the city woke up to find its streets surrendered to, again, a private firm that charged citizens P20.00 for parking along the road that are supposed to be “beyond the commerce of man” and those who refused to pay had their cars towed. I joined demonstrations against the then planned mall on a hill and casino at Mountain Breeze theatre in Camp John Hay. The people won some battles, lost some.

The war is still raging, 182 trees are being threatened on Luneta Hill by a greedy corporation, so are hundreds more by a realtor on Marcos Highway, people died and homes got buried under a garbage-slide and the people have been told over and over again that they, the ones in power, "can't do anything."

The war is still raging, with the people and a sustainable future on one side, and a corrupt political system that encourages corporate greed at the expense of the welfare of the people and the city itself on the other.

I know which side I’m on in this war – I’m on the side of picnics under the sun, long walks around town, the scent of pine, a vibrant arts and culture scene, and reading books while lying on the grass. A beautiful, progressive sustainable city in harmony with its natural environment – that is the key principle that guided me in choosing the city’s future leaders on election day, because I want to do all I can to pass on a Baguio that is as beautiful if not more so to my children and their children.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Love songs, trees, a few good men and women

A voice outside a popular watering hole along Session Road sings of love lost accompanied by the loveless sound of a midi keyboard. His voice is occasionally drowned out by the noise of politicians’ promises in the form of soulless jingles coming out of mono speakers mounted on top of jeepneys. A lot of these politicians just don’t get it, the blind singer can see through the charades I’m sure.

A van was parked in between two empty slots along Session Road, I politely asked the driver if he can move the vehicle a bit so two cars can park instead of just one. “Mahihirapan akong lumabas e,” he said. His van had speakers on the roof and posters all over it proclaiming a congressional candidate to be among the “few good men” in Baguio. Nahihirapan akong maniwala.

What’s up with the trees on Luneta Hill? Since the lower court dismissed the case we filed in our effort to save the trees from SM City Baguio’s backhoes to give way to their expansion project, we have been waiting for the case to move at the Court of Appeals. In the meantime, we’re wondering if SM would like to let us know if the initial 49 trees they were able to uproot survived at all. The remaining trees on a hillside directly above a university and a high school nearby don’t look healthy too.

The Save 182 Movement will remain apolitical and will not directly endorse any candidate in the coming elections. We were united by a cause – to save the trees on Luneta Hill. And we would like to remain united, and politicizing the group by directly getting involved in the on-going campaign would be divisive as each of the individual members and allied people’s organizations have different political agenda.

We do endorse a common cause though – the protection of the city’s natural environment and heritage. And there are some candidates out there who have championed that cause. We’re taking note.

I posted a photo online of a guy, obviously a foreigner whom I learned is an artist who has been living in Baguio for a long time now, sweeping at the Post Office Mini-Park. I watched him for the next hour making sure not a single cigarette butt or piece of plastic was left. Then with a bucket of water and a tabo, he ended his morning ritual by watering the flowering plants around the park. One “taga-Baguio” commented on the photo I posted, “may bayad ‘yan.” As I write this, close to 500 have “liked” the photo, and close to a hundred have shared it with others. If only half of them would pick a broom too…

If only half of them would actually pick up a broom.