Friday, September 20, 2013

Love with all my life, check

It's 7:30 in the morning and I've been up since five. Nothing extraordinary there, five has been my usual waking hour for the past few years. I stop for a moment before refilling my mug. Just finished my third mug of coffee, nothing extraordinary there, really, that's usually how much it takes to get me going every morning. Except that I've heard so many times that I shouldn't be drinking that much coffee. But today's supposed to be a special day, I will go for that fourth mug. And that fifth stick. Not nice.

Anyway, days such as this one are a great time to take stock.

Be married to the perfect life partner, check. Have wonderful children, check, five times. I have traveled quite a bit, but I'd like to be able to see more of the world. Let's put an asterisk on that one.

Write a play, compose a song, paint a picture. Check. Full nudity onstage, asterisk. Maintain that sense of social responsibility when creating art, no to art for art's sake, and certainly never for money and money alone, honor the honorables, expose the what must be exposed, tell stories that must be told, and do all to tell them well, check.

Never compromise principles to please, because it's popular, or for 13 piece of silver, or even a hundred, check that and keep it in check.  

Choose a career path that I can be passionate about, never get bored with, check. And one that can provide the family with financial security. Another asterisk right there.

"You ain't seen nothing yet," the perfect mantra for this day, says a good friend whose turn to sing the song comes in just a couple of weeks or so. I like that, and shall keep that in mind as I write down an outline for a documentary on Cordillera cultural icons and the efforts of a group of young men and women to save sea turtles from extinction.

Love with all my heart. Check.

Other than all of that, it's really all about the five - five wonderful souls that I helped bring into this world. Make sure they will have good memories of how they got to where they're going when they get there. Laugh a lot with them. Make them smile a lot. Allow them to cry when they feel like it, be there to hug them when they do. One of them once wrote me a note that said, "I love you with all my life." Wow. So that's how it feels to be loved that way. That's exactly how much I love them.

So life begins 40, so they say. First day of the rest of it, the remainder of what's left of it. Wait, a message notification on Facebook. "Happy birthday," a dear friend says. Thank you, and thank God for allowing me to still be here today.

Monday, September 16, 2013

In response to Mr. Michael Bengwayan's statement

Mr. Bengwayan, posted the following on Facebook:

"The Fight for the Trees at SM is Far From Over

When I started the fight for the trees at SM by writing a petition that was signed by more than 40,000 people in the streets and more than 8,000 people online and by mobilizing and leading the first and biggest ever environmental protest in Baguio City on January 20, 2011, it was because of three things: first, the trees are our heritage and they are sacred to the people and the land; second, they are ecologically important, and third; they are a legacy to the next generations. The connection of people, culture and environment cannot just be defiled... especially, by an outsider.

Now, as we await the verdict from the Court of Appeals, I am told that some of the closest people who supported the cause, have succumbed to SM. Two have come out in the open accepting SM's position.

I have not given up the fight. SM sent a representative, a nun, to convince me that SM's intentions are good. I do not believe them. Already, the giant pine trees SM attempted to earthball are right there at SM ....DEAD, the others DYING. And SM, even if it redesigns its plan, will still kill trees.

I will wait for the verdict of the higher court and hope it favors us..and the real tree lovers and real people who love Baguio. If we loose, what else is there to do, but continue to protest."

As he is known to delete dissenting comments on his public posts on FB, here's my reply to Mr. Bengwayan's post:

The nun, Sister Fidelis, is not a representative of SM. She was not sent by SM. She sought you out to inform you of an important development.

And no, we have not accepted SM's position. We merely presented what they presented. In fact, we reiterated our position to Mateo and Pe that the case will push through, regardless of their latest action.

Let's stick to the facts.

And while you "wait for the verdict", we continue to work with the legal team, actively, to help in whatever way we can. It would be nice to see you take a more active role in the legal battle for a change.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Saving 133: Talk's cheap, time to start walking

In the beginning of 2012, the city woke up to news that the biggest commercial establishment in Baguio, the one that has forever altered the face and culture of this community, the reason why traffic had to be rerouted at the Central Business District, the reason why so many smaller businesses in Baguio have been forced to close shop for not being able to compete with a Goliath of a competitor, will be further expanding their business by putting up a multi-storey parking and commercial complex on one side of Luneta Hill. That side happened to be where 182 pine and alnus trees were located. One Michael Bengwayan, known environmentalist, started an online petition opposing the killing of those trees. And the people responded – “stop corporate greed, save the trees” was the common battle cry.

In the course of the protest, which has been dragging on to date, other issues against SM have been brought out: unfair labor practices (the question of “contractualization”); the legitimacy of their ownership of the property where SM City Baguio stands (the original title to the property labelled as OCT No. 1 has not been cancelled, and SM to date still doesn’t have a title to the property); the morality of further expanding the already biggest commercial center in the region), etc. But the one goal that surely united the people – save the trees on Luneta Hill.

An environmental case was filed against SM, which was unfortunately dismissed by a local court. An appeal is pending at the Court of Appeals. Currently, SM can go ahead with the removal of the remaining 133 trees on Luneta Hill, since they were able to “earthball” some 49 trees before they acknowledged the court issued Temporary Environmental Protection Order in April, 2012.

The Ayala example at Camp john Hay was often cited in the early months of the protest – the Ayala Technohub was able to minimize their effect on the environment by building around the trees as much as possible. Why can’t SM do the same? Some asked.

Then SM pulls out a rabbit – they are redesigning the expansion, taking into consideration some of the issues raised by various sectors. They have minimized the size of the expansion, saving more than a hundred of the remaining 133 trees in the process. Bien Mateo, Vice President for Operations of SM Supermalls, said that Hans Sy, son of SM founder Henry Sy, instructed his architects to listen to what the protesters are saying. Hence, the redesign to save as many trees as possible.

Reactions have been varied – some welcomed the prospect of being able to save more than a hundred pine trees, considering that at this point, SM can simply go ahead with their original plan and remove all those trees. But others are not happy at all: it’s not just about the trees, they say.

I would still rather that SM completely abandon their expansion plan – give local businesses a fair fighting chance, have them co-exist with the rest of the business community instead of setting out to completely eliminate the competition for that’s just being just plain greedy. Besides, I'm no engineer but I still think that reducing a hill's water absorption capacity, greatly disturbing the fragile eco-system in the area, a hill that stands directly above schools and an already flood-prone road, is not a good idea at all.

So, if there’s anyone out there, particularly from those who are completely rejecting the idea of saving more than a hundred trees in the reduced expansion plan and are screaming their heads off to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court and even filing more cases against SM, who will actually commit to be with us every single time a public demonstration is called for, spend late nights with the legal team in preparation for the various legal battles we face if we do file charges against SM aside from the ongoing environmental case, dig out of their own pockets money for various legal and other relevant incidental expenses, or even just religiously attend the hearings to be updated with status of the case, deal with death threats, lose time for other things in their lives such as time with their family specially children, lose work that brings in income to feed their families, be ostracized and ridiculed by paid hacks who have sold their souls and the integrity of their profession to the devil, almost miss enrolling their children the following school year because the protest movement took so much of their time that they lost money in the process, not to mention get an eviction notice, have their electricity and water service cut...

...then by all means, let’s bring this as far as this will take us. Because that's what it took as far as I'm concerned to take this protest this far. Just let me know when the next rally is, and we, my family and I, will be there. Put your money where your mouth is, as they say. And so should SM. Specially SM.

Otherwise, all of us, SM City Baguio, The Baguio City Government, and the community - talk's cheap, time to start walking.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Option 2: SM City Baguio listens to protesters and redesigns their expansion plan

Right before the recent elections, I received a text message from Sister Fidelis, an Assumption nun and one of the staunch supporters of the protest against SM City Baguio’s expansion plan that will result in the removal of 182 trees on historic Luneta Hill. She had something very important to share with me regarding SM, her message read. We agreed to see each other at the soonest possible time.

I was very excited, since the case we filed against SM along with the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has been dismissed by a local court, and I have been hoping for some good news about our protest. Sis. Fidelis and I wouldn’t see each other until after the elections.

In one post-election gathering, she pulled me aside away from the crowd and shared the news: she had a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Hans Sy, son of tycoon Henry Sy, founder of SM. But I wasn’t prepared for what she had to say, the gist of which was in that meeting, Mr. Sy was able to answer most of the issues that we have been raising against SM. We agreed to meet again soon after so we can discuss what she had just shared with me in more detail and without the distractions of a post-election party.

Some days later, we were having coffee in a fast-food joint along Session Road. And I still couldn’t believe that Sis. Fidelis, one of those who attended almost all of our protest actions against the expansion plan, the one who helped convince a lot of people to join the protest movement, be complainants in the suit and join our call for a boycott of SM City Baguio, seemed to be having a change of heart.

“I got to hear things directly from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, Karlo,” she said to me. I told her that the Hans Sy she was describing to me – patient, calm, mild-mannered, seem to be very different from the Hans Sy I met at the meeting arranged by the late Sec. Jesse Robredo at Camp Crame. The Hans Sy I met there was the stern, unemotional business executive who insisted that removing that many trees for the benefit of one corporation, their corporation, and at the expense of a community’s heritage and future, was justified.

We have always met them, SM, under hostile circumstances – the Baguio City Council hearing, the dialogue in Camp Crame, the court hearings, on the streets when their guards along with the local police would attempt to curtail our right to a peaceful assembly.

“But this time he was just meeting with an older sister,” she said, “so the atmosphere was different.” True, maybe – but I had to remind Sis. Fidelis that the protesters really can’t be blamed for the hostile attitude and the anger in their hearts at the prospect of having their home scarred forever, their heritage and history wantonly desecrated.

Sis. Fidelis narrated how she first tried to set a meeting between herself and Teresita Sy, “she’s our alumna,” the gentle Assumption sister shared, but she never got any reply from Henry Sy’s daughter. Then one day, the office of Mr. Hans Sy got in touch with her and informed her of Mr. Sy’s willingness to see her.

According to Sis. Fidelis, after patiently listening to her enumerate all the issues we’ve been raising against SM, Mr. Sy calmly shared with her their side of the like how  the Deed of Absolute Sale came with a cover letter from the Office of the President authorizing Exec. Secretary Paquito Ochoa to sign in behalf of the President (we’ve always questioned Ochoa’s signature in the deed above the president’s name); and that while they do hire contractual employees, they do this only to augment their regular workforce during peak seasons (we’ve questioned their questionable and alleged unfair labor practices, “contractualization” in particular).

I was not convinced. There were still loopholes in Mr. Sy’s justifications. But, at the end of our coffee talk, Sis. Fidelis informed me of SM’s new plan for the expansion area and asked if I would be willing to sit down with representatives of SM City Baguio for a dialogue. I am, I said, but not as a representative of any group, organization or movement but just as an individual. A meeting was set between Sis. Fidelis, myself and Mr. Bien Mateo, SM Supermalls Vice President for Operations and Mr. Jansen Pe, Mall Manager of SM City Baguio.

It was awkward sitting across the table from the person whom many of us perceived as the “face of the enemy” – Mr. Mateo was the one who presented SM’s expansion plan at the Baguio City Council hearing, he’s the face one always saw on TV justifying the removal of 182 trees for a parking building, next to Henry Sy, to a lot of us, he was the face of SM’s expansion plan.

Mateo opened the meeting with, “we’re bad communicators, we admit that.” I did not contradict him. He went on to say that it was their hope that through dialogues such as this one, SM can better respond to the issues being raised by the protesters. I kept my guard up, and wanted to get into the heart of the matter right away so I asked – what’s on the table?

Mateo talked about how Mr. Hans Sy called for a meeting one day and told them how much he admired the passion and determination of the protest group that have come to be known as the Save 182 Movement. He told his staff that he believed that they would be better off working with this movement, and not against it. Listen to their voices, their issues, take all those into consideration and re-design the expansion plan, Mr. Han Sy was said to have told his people. Some time later, the architects submitted various concepts for the re-design, all of which were attempts to minimize the damage that would be done on the area’s ecosystem, save as many trees as possible, while still serving SM’s intention of addressing the alleged soil erosion issue in the area, and of course to bring additional revenues to the company coffers. From what the architects submitted, Mr. Hans Sy, according to Mateo, chose one concept and gave the go-signal to finalize the blueprints based on that concept.

Do you have a blueprint or at least an artist’s perspective of this new plan? I asked. Not yet, Mateo said, but he did share that the new plan drastically reduced the expansion plan to roughly half its original size, and would save close to a hundred out of the remaining 133 trees in the area. Mateo also said that in a couple of weeks or so, they can present the drawings so I asked if I could bring in more people when they do. I intended to bring to that next meeting the people I have been personal working closely with in the last year and a half that we’ve been struggling to save the trees on Luneta Hill, people who have been there from day one and at almost every single significant event – meetings, court hearings, legal research work, rallies, conferences, etc. 

A date was set and this time, I came with Atty. Chris Donaal, de facto lead counsel of the complainants in the environmental suit filed against SM, Glo Abaeo, president of the Cordillera Global Network, CGN members Gideon Omero and Nelson Alabanza and fellow Open Space, an artist collective, members Ethan Andrew Ventura and Eunice Caburao.

In that next meeting, Mr. Bien Mateo, again accompanied by Mr. Jansen Pe, presented the artist’s perspective of the re-designed expansion plan. Much of the earth space fronting Gov. Pack Road, originally planned to be completely cemented over with a 4-storey commercial complex, will now be left untouched along with the more than one hundred trees therein.

Ideas were floated around from the protesters’ side of the table: can we bring the original number of trees back to 182? Maybe even plant more? Will SM commit that it would really stick to this new design? Can it be turned into a nature park, and that park will be open to the public, even to non-patrons of the mall? Can SM also commit that after this expansion, no more buildings will be erected within the property? Can their mitigating efforts be concentrated within the Central Business District (CBD) where their operation’s effects are more felt? Would they be willing to sponsor serious and carefully-planed urban re-greening efforts in the CBD?

Mr. Mateo, representing SM in that meeting, said yes to all of the above. Lastly, we informed Mr. Mateo and Mr. Pe that this would have nothing to do with the ongoing appeal of the case we filed, currently pending with the Court of Appeals. We reiterated that the case will still be pursued.

SM’s re-design of the expansion plan came as a surprise for after the dismissal of the case by the lower court and despite the appeal filed, the Temporary Environmental Protection Order (TEPO) issued against them has been deemed lifted and there was no legal impediment anymore that would SM from going ahead with the execution of their original expansion plan.

The numbers, in a nutshell are these: there were originally 182 trees, a mix of alnus and pine. SM was able to earthball 49 in April, 2012 prior to their acknowledgment of the TEPO issued, all of these were alnus trees except for one pine tree, leaving a total of 133 still standing on the expansion site. Based on their re-designed plan, out of those remaining 133 around 120 trees, mostly pine, will be left untouched, or only 13 would be affected. There will be much earth space left that can accommodate a number of new plantings that can bring back the number to 182, or even go beyond it.

The re-designed plan was presented to a number of members of the protest movement and so far the reactions have been varied. While some welcomed the prospect of being able to save more than a hundred trees, others rejected the new design outright.

I, personally, after all those late nights with volunteers helping the legal team prepare for the marathon hearings that lasted six months, all the rallies, concerts, symposia, dialogues, confrontations over a period of more than a year, having been threatened with physical harm, having been betrayed by officials in all three branches of the government, having seen how politics reared its ugly head in the struggle to save our city’s environment, how vested interests compromised the integrity of both sides, how trapos and other miscreants tried to appropriate the protest movement for their selfish intentions, I welcome the prospect of saving more than a hundred trees, than losing every single one of them. I welcome the prospect of looking up Luneta Hill today, tomorrow and decades from now, to see a canopy of green instead of a huge soulless chunk of concrete.

The original design of SM City Baguio's expansion plan

Top view of the new design as presented by Mr. Bien Mateo,
Vice President for Operations of SM Supermalls. The  blue shaded area shows the
building footprint of the original design, while the red shaded area shows
the footprint of the new design.
I, personally, joined the protest movement to do what I can to save as much of Baguio’s trees from being needlessly felled. 182 on Luneta Hill. Hundreds more along Marcos Highway being threatened by Moldex. And thousands more inside Camp John Hay and within the Forbes Park forest reservation.

Every tree saved is a victory for the people of Baguio and the environment. More than a hundred trees saved sends the message that we, the people of Baguio, care not only about our own interests today but also that of our children's tomorrow and the heritage that was handed down to us by those who came before us, and that we’re ready to put ourselves on the line to defend all that.

And while one Honorable Mauricio Domogan will always be remembered as the Mayor who said “I cannot do anything” when the people turned to him to save the trees, the Save 182 Movement will always be remembered as that group of individuals from all walks of life who shared one thing in common: they cared, and despite all the odds against them, was able to save more than a hundred trees on Luneta Hill.

Now, let's see if SM will keep its word. And borrowing from Sting, who moved his concert last year from SM-MOA to Smart-Araneta in support of the protest, "we'll be watching you."

Saturday, September 7, 2013

More questions instead of answers: a letter from the Baguio City Engineer’s Office

In June, we started a petition to question certain proposals forwarded by Mayor Mauricio G. Domogan with regards to the development of Burnham Park. We voiced out our opposition to three major issues: the mayor’s proposal to concretize portions of the Melvin Jones Grounds to accommodate the night market currently held along a stretch of Harrison Road; his proposal to install iron gates at the major entrances to the park and the planned privatization of the Baguio Athletic Bowl along with the ongoing commercialization of the park.

We kept the Mayor’s Office and the City Council updated about the petition – the first letter we sent informed them of the online signature gathering effort and the second one gave them an update of the number of signatures we’ve gathered – which included DILG Sec. Mar Roxas’.

We received a letter from the City Council informing us that our petition, including the sentiments expressed therein, has been “noted.” I had no idea what that really meant.

Then I received a letter from the City Engineer’s Office dated August 13, 2013, informing the petitioners of their reply to Mayor Domogan’s letter. Apparently, the mayor forwarded our petition to their office and directed them to address the issues we raised. Odd, for when the aforementioned proposed projects first came out in local newspapers, I don’t remember seeing City Engineer’s Leo C. Bernardez, Jr.’s name. But I guess that’s how it goes at the mayor’s office these days: projects, whether proposed, ongoing or completed, will be announced by the mayor himself to make sure we give the credit where or to whom they want the credit to be given. But when it’s met with opposition, the buck’s passed to another office. Take for example the proposed expansion project of SM City Baguio that put 182 trees on Luneta Hill on death row. Initially, the mayor came out lauding the project as it will, according to both SM and the mayor, and echoed by the local traffic management czar, help ease the traffic in the central business district. But when the opposition to the expansion project came out, all we heard from the mayor was “I cannot do anything” and that his office had nothing to do with the project. That, despite the admission of DENR that the mayor’s office’s endorsement of the expansion project was a key factor in the granting of a tree-cutting, or make that tree-mass murder, permit.

The letter from Engr. Bernardez answered the issues we raised thus:

1. In the construction of a “walkway” along the perimeter of the Melvin Jones Grounds, there will be no “concrete works except for the edges of the walkway to hold the “palo-palo” pavers in place.” They’re now calling it a “walkway,” but we must not forget that this is being done to turn the grounds into a nightly tiangge when the night market is moved to that concretized, okay, “palo-palo” laden “walkway.” In an earlier letter from the City Council, we were reminded that there is in fact an existing ordinance prohibiting the holding of trade fairs inside the park. Let’s not be fooled by semantics: walkways, “palo-palo,” night market, etc. Look at how much earth space we lost when they “renovated” the Rose Garden. And really, what part of “beyond the commerce of man” don’t they understand?

2. In a meeting they had to tackle the putting up of gates around the park, Engr. Bernardez informed us in his letter that said “road entrance/exits,” mind that they’re not calling it “gates,” “shall remain opened at anytime.” His letter further said that it “also recommended the possibility of realigning it from steel gates to steel arches.” I’ve heard this before: there is money available for a project, and even if the project is useless or just plain inane, officials will push through with the project otherwise the money would be returned to the national treasury or the city coffers if they don’t spend it. And what’s wrong with that? That’s still better than spending it on a useless project. They said that the money for the gating proposal will be sourced from the surplus from the government counterpart funding provided for the fencing of Burnham Park. The money’s there, and they’re itching to spend it. What’s the use of putting up gates if they’ll remain open at all times anyway? And now, a proposal to instead spend it on steel arches. They just have to spend it, don’t they? The attitude’s got “Napoles” stamped all over it.

3. And lastly, Engr. Bernardez said that “The Athletic Bowl shall remain under the City’s management. The proposed development of the Athletic Bowl will not be under any private person/entity.” So what are the terms of reference passed by the city council for that set the guidelines in the bidding process? How can we say that the City itself will undertake the development project when at the same time City Hall has in its hands proposals from a Korean-led corporation and two other private engineering firms?

Thank you very much for your letter, Engr. Bernardez, but I must say that in your effort to provide answers, the letter seems to have raised more questions.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

For every centavo they stole

As expected, soon after her surrender, Janet Lim-Napoles got on a wheelchair, and her doctors confirmed that she's suffering from diabetes and needs to be jailed under much better conditions - air-conditioning is a must, so is a refrigerator where she needs to store her medication. That's how it's been since the time of Arroyo's arrest - you see these accused hopping from one media interview or another without any apparent sign of discomfort at all and when the time is right, they suddenly fall ill.

So don't tell us, Mr. President and Mr. Secretary of DILG, that Napoles is not being treated differently from common criminals. If she has to be treated differently, then that treatment would be justified only if it's worse. How many other inmates in Muntinlupa or any of the city jails all over the country are suffering from diabetes or any other debilitating disease? And how many of them can go to the court and say, "I need an air-conditioner in my cell and a refrigerator and if it's not too much to ask, can I be transferred to a much comfortable facility like the Veterans Memorial Hospital or at least Fort Sto. Domingo."

Besides, she and her cohorts in government, after all, did something much worse than what a murderer of one or two committed. In fact, she and her cohorts in government, I believe, did something much worse than what the Ampatuans did. Napoles' misdeeds caused millions of Filipinos to not be able to put food on the table, provide proper health care and education for their children, or any hope at all that they can rise above poverty and live their lives with dignity. Napoles and her cohorts in government spat on the graves of Rizal, Bonifacio and all the other who dedicated their lives for this country and doomed this Bayang Magiliw to generations more of poverty and despair.

For every centavo stolen from the nation's coffers, is a centavo that will not go farm to market roads that can help uplift the lives of our farmers; that's one less centavo so that 80 pupils will not have to be crammed into one tiny classroom in most of our public schools; one less centavo so that we don't need to privatize our public hospitals that would make it even harder for most of us to afford even the most basic health care services; one less centavo so that the government can provide millions of Filipinos with housing so they would not have to suffer the indignity of being referred to as squatters and periodically chased away by armed men and bulldozers.

But we're not talking in centavos here, we're talking about 10 billion pesos. That's only so far what the Commission on Audit knows of. That's only Janet Lim-Napoles, and there's more than one of her kind in our country. If you were to investigate and do research on those two Environmental Recycling System machines in Irisan, you will most certainly discover that they can be had for much less than the 120 million that the city government of Baguio paid for. Now multiply that with every questionable road construction project done all over the country, or every needless concrete structure erected in Baguio's public parks such as the commercial and parking facility at the Botanical Garden and the concreting of much of Rose Garden at Burnham Park. Let's not forget the despicable and very insulting concrete pine tree that once stood at the top of Session Road.

Amusing, but not entirely surprisingly, that both our Mayor, on his second term in his second string of terms, and our newly elected Congressman, despite all the evil that's been uncovered related to the pork barrel, continue to defend it.

While I'm all for the abolition of the pork barrel, I believe that a system should be in place where government money can be spread to every congressional district in the country. Otherwise, Manila imperialism will rear its ugly head. As it is now, the whole country is paying for the comfortable commute of MRT passengers in Metro Manila by way of government subsidies. The pork barrel system is flawed for it gives the power to decide where it goes to one person. Perhaps our congressman, with the support of our mayor, can instead bat for a much higher Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA). While it serves the purpose of spreading the money all voer the country, at least there would be a city council to oversee the way it's spent, or in the case of provinces, a provincial board. This would not totally eradicate corruption, but it would certainly make it harder for the Napoleses of this country to get their hands on it.

But, as long as our leaders see their positions as that of power instead of responsibility and a public trust, as long as contractors agree to the SOP of having a huge portion of the budget for a project go to the pocket of those in power, as long as members of the so-called fourth estate, the media, continue to spread the their lies and receive their envelopes from these politicians in return, as long as most of us continue to receive our own envelopes in exchange for our votes, this country is definitely going nowhere else but further down. See, those corrupt members of our society, those who empower the corrupt, those who benefit from the corrupt system, they may not have stolen as much as Janet, but make no mistake - they too are Napoleses.

Baguio in the time of Napoles

The country’s at a crossroads at the moment: do we finally really go down that “Daang Matuwid” or do we continue on that road much travelled. One Janet Lim-Napoles is now in custody on a kidnapping charge.

The victim is one Benhur Luy who alleged that Napoles and her brother, Reynald Lim, detained him against his will. He’s one of several whistle-blowers that brought the alleged misuse of public funds amounting to about ten billion pesos out in the open. “Misuse” is such a kind word in this case, but let’s go with that. Napoles allegedly masterminded the scam in cahoots with senators and congressmen. Now that’s not news.

While I keep an eye out on the Napoles saga, I keep the other one on the goings-on in my own community – Baguio, the city of pines. They’re not totally unrelated. In fact, the issue of squandering public funds, the people’s money, is at the center of both the Napoles saga and struggle to stop the ongoing rape of Baguio.

Baguio has had its share of battles in it’s a bit over a century-old history as a city. I would have probably joined the clamor of members of the Philippine Assembly to scrap the then planned establishment of this highland R&R destination at the turn of the 20th century. So much money being spent for the benefit of mainly the privileged, the elite, mostly Americans who wanted a respite from the heat of the lowlands particularly during the summer months. The colonial government responded to the opposition by declaring Baguio as the official Summer Capital of the Philippine Islands in 1903, and that made the expenditure official, and therefore, necessary.

The Americans envisioned a city, and needed a visionary to turn that vision into an actual blueprint. Daniel Burnham was given the job to create the Plan of Baguio, which he completed in 1905. The plan included a warning to all of us against the “misdirected initiative of energetic lumbermen” that may “cause the destruction of this beautiful scenery.”

The much revered George Malcolm drafted the city’s charter, that, according to Robert R. Reed in his book, City of Pines: The Origins of Baguio as a Colonial Hill Station and Regional Capital, envisioned a city free from petty politics. In 1909, Baguio officially became a city.

Just a few hours after bombing Pearl Harbor, next on Japan’s scopes was Baguio City. In the morning of December 8, 1941, Philippine time, Japanese planes dropped bombs on Camp John Hay. Before that year ended, Japanese ground troops entered the city and Baguio, along with the rest of the country, was officially under Japanese rule. For the next four years, the city’s residents endured the ruthlessness of Japanese soldiers. Ms. Fe Muller recalled how as a young elementary pupil all of them would be herded to the general area where the Dangwa bus station behind the Baguio Centermall is today to watch the execution of suspected guerrillas and their sympathizers. The gruesome spectacle served as a warning to everyone that a similar fate awaited those who would be found guilty of resisting Japan’s power.

Liberation came on March 15, 1945, but freedom came with a price: the almost complete destruction of the city in the hands of its liberators. The Americans carpet-bombed the city that killed countless innocent civilians including Baguio’s former mayor, Eusebius Halsema. Yet Baguio got back on its feet, and soon regained its status as the country’s top tourist destination.

Such were Baguio’s battles through the years, and Baguio rose to the occasion every single time. In 1990, a lot of people then have given up Baguio for dead after the devastating earthquake on July 16, some even abandoning their homes and leaving the city for good. But thanks to its people, the city was soon brimming with life once again, and was even heralded as the country’s cleanest and greenest city.

Today’s Baguio faces a new battle, this time against the exact same thing that Daniel Burnham warned us about: misdirected initiatives. Baguio’s leaders seem to be determined to turn Baguio, once naturally beautiful known for its healthful climate, into what it’s not: a smog-covered concrete jungle. They’ve cemented much of a rose garden and placed a gate and fences around it, and they want to put up more gates around the park. They want to cement portions of the Melvin Jones grounds to accommodate a permanent tiangge. The Baguio Athletic Bowl is now being handed over to a capitalist for “development.” Several trees stand dead at the Botanical Garden because they encased it inside a concrete parking and commercial building. Equipment costing 120 million pesos hardly made a dent in solving the city’s garbage disposal problem.

All that money, people’s money, being poured into initiatives that would render the city unsustainable. The very taxes that we pay empower them to disregard the sentiments of a community and the future of this city. And the more money there is, the more power our leaders believe they wield. Its pine trees, its heritage and source of pride, beauty and life, are seen merely as a hindrance to development and more concrete structures. 182 of them are on deathrow for being in the way of a parking and commercial building and our mayor says, “I cannot do anything.”

Meanwhile, Janet Lim Napoles surrendered to no less than the president himself. She was then whisked to Camp Crame to be “processed” away from media cameras, transferred the next day to an airconditioned room at the Makati City Jail, then later in the day the court ordered her transfer to a detention facility in Sta. Rosa, Laguna. The “cell” looks more like a furnished apartment amid lush greenery. Pnoy now has the one in a presidential term opportunity to leave a legacy that would be celebrated and honored for generations to come – this is his Bagumbayan moment, his Cry of Balintawak, moment at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport.

And we, citizens of Baguio City, are also at a point of no return. We have two options: we can either sit idly by and watch our city being raped because the rapists believe that with a passive majority, they can easily get away with anything, or we can all stand up and put a stop to this heinous crime, work hard to bring back Baguio's natural beauty, defend its dignity and leave a Baguio that our children’s children can be proud of.

This is our moment, our very own 1904, or 1909, or 1945, or 1990. Only this time, we're not at war against another nation, but against a rotten political system. Only this time, it's not a natural disaster that's causing the destruction of our city but corrupt politicians with a misguided sense of progress and development.