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Realizing initiatives for Baguio City’s grand rehabilitation
by Hanna Lacsamana

It all began with trees, the pine trees that thrived almost exclusively in an area originally designed for 25,000 people.

Through the years, every pine needle that fell and accumulated in many of its blessed grounds has spawned a story or two for somebody who has experienced Baguio City, either as a resident, a tourist, as someone finding oneself, or maybe one who was just passing by. When in Baguio, pine trees are such a focal point, that stories and experiences with pine trees as their backdrop are often shared in gatherings, or immortalized in poetry books, newspapers, and now via the Internet.

One hundred and 10 years after, the pine trees that have lent credence to Baguio’s signature as the country’s pine capital continue to maintain its status as a vital symbol for Baguio, an endangered species representing all of the people’s efforts to save what is left of the city.

Among all the protests made every time a pine tree is cut, threatened, or deliberately killed, it took an observation from the Environment secretary recently about the dwindling number and missing scent of pines for the city to admit that its environment problem is deeply rooted, reason why a total overhaul of its processes and practices – from the pine needle beds to the city’s waste and septic tank management – has become a persistent rallying call.

At the dawn of a new era in Baguio’s leadership after the May 2019 midterm elections, the hope of the citizens and the will of local leaders are at its all time high: that is for the “grand rehabilitation” of Baguio’s environment, which is among the top priorities listed in the 15-point executive-legislative agenda for the next three years, will really be fulfilled this time, not to become another broken promise to exploit in the next campaign season.

STRIKING A BALANCE -- In an attempt to cure Baguio City’ decaying environment, the current administration acknowledges that the city has reached its carrying capacity and is hopeful that Pres. Rodrigo Duterte would heed its appeal to suspend for at least a year the cutting of trees and building of structures in the city through an executive order. -- Harley F. Palangchao



State of Baguio’s environment: Land, air, and water

While triggered by the widely reported closure of Boracay, one of the country’s most popular tourist and commercial hubs, due to its unkempt state which Pres. Rodrigo Duterte likened to a cesspool, the decaying state of Baguio’ s environment is old news to its people.

It is no use for anyone to keep the illusion that the city is doing okay, despite its booming economy and retained magnet for tourists and people who wanted to stay on. These are the very reason Baguio is already saturated, according to Department of Environment and Natural Resources Regional Executive Director Ralph Pablo, confirming what majority of its inhabitants have been thinking and complaining of for many years now.

Matagal na nitong na-reach ang maximum carrying capacity. Kung tao ‘yan, nabibigatan na o hindi na makatayo dahil nadadaganan na,” Pablo said during the dialogue arranged by the DENR-CAR with multi-sectoral groups and city officials led by Mayor Benjamin Magalong last July 29 in the hope of reaching a united stand on what to do to address the city’s current environment concerns.

From 25,000 people for which it is originally designed, Pablo said the city’s population dynamics now varies, though in an increasing fashion: it is high on weekends, increasing during long weekends, and enormous during special occasions.

“Therefore, it is a problem. If we know we have so much population, of course the waste generated also increases. We are averaging 12,500 cubic meters of sewage generated daily, while the city’s sewerage treatment plant’s capacity is only 8,000 cubic meters. So saan mapupunta ‘yung excess? Naturally these will go to the natural bodies of water,” he said.

That does not count those directly discharging into the water bodies like piggery wastes and other residents who are not connected to the STP.

Engr. Salvador Royeca, Baguio Water District general manager, has been long been requesting concerned officials that they really need to slow down the development in the city, particularly the construction of high-rise structures.

It is very obvious, he said, that it has exceeded its carrying capacity, and its water supply has its limitations.

While BWD is trying to manage the demand and non-revenue water, the artificial growth of the city especially during long weekends and holidays is giving a big toll to the operation of BWD right now.

Royeca said BWD is in the thick of construction projects, which include several water harvesting facilities as part of its umbrella program to boost the city’s water supply and improve its services.

But they could only do so much without local government support.

While Baguio’s air quality remains very good based on the June 11 particulate matter reading at Burnham Park, the new mayor also ordered food business establishments to stop using charcoal in grilling as this contributes to air pollution.

In his inspection of Burnham Park and Marcos Highway, Magalong has advised business stall owners to use alternative means of cooking that will not harm the city’s air quality and gave them three months to comply.

He also initiated the experimental pedestrianization of Session Road, which closes the part of the busy road going up to vehicles every Sunday for a period, allowing pedestrians to experience Session Road, at least a part of it, in all its purest glory.

This is one of the plans that never took off then but is being realized now, albeit under study.

It was last year under former mayor Mauricio Domogan when backyard piggery owners in the city were ordered to stop their operations pursuant to the provisions of the Environment Code of Baguio and the clean air and water acts.

The activity was identified as one of the main polluters of water bodies, particularly those that did not have septic tanks and are directly discharging their piggery waste into the water system and the city’s potable water aquifers. With that, fecal coliform levels at the Balili and Bued Rivers are at alarming proportions.

It was then when former regional director Reynaldo Digamo of the Environment Management Bureau-CAR said, “Matagal nang binaboy ng mga mambababoy ang mga ilog at ang Baguio.”

Killing of pine trees leveled up

Just this August, the city is introduced to the grim, leveled up way of easing out trees purposely to render it dead and therefore may be subject to cutting due to imminent danger to life and property.

A cluster of more than 40 pine trees, found in a private property in a commercial lot along Legarda Road, were first noticed for having brown leaves. Upon site inspection, City Environment and Parks Management Office personnel found holes done through boring at the trunk of 45 trees and colorless liquid were also seen leaking out from the holes. In the chemical analysis done by the EMB, calcium carbide was used to poison the trees.

Pablo, during the July 29 dialogue, said such deliberate killing of trees is the new modus operandi, saying that since people might already know the nitty gritty of asking for a tree cutting permit, they thought killing them would simplify the process.

“Before, girdling ang ginagawa, ‘yung tinatanggal ang bark sa pinakababa ng puno para magwi-wither ‘yung kahoy, para mamatay. Ngayon, leveled up na to lethal injection, parang tao na rin,” Pablo said.

Together with the city government, which filed a complaint against lot owner Gateluck Corp. for violation of the city’s Environment Code, Pablo assured they are not letting these violators have their way.

Possibility of a local moratorium on tree cutting and high-rise structures

Barely a month in office, among the first moves of the newly elected city mayor for Baguio’s “grand rehabilitation,” which raised hopes for a lot of people in the city, is to work on an appeal asking Pres. Rodrigo Duterte to issue a one-year moratorium or suspension on the cutting of trees and construction of high-rise structures in Baguio through an executive order.

It is one of the new administration’s moves to actualize one of the points in Magalong’s original 10, now 15-point agenda to revitalize (Baguio’s) environment as he vowed to preserve, increase if possible, the city’s remaining forest cover.

If the President signs it, this shall be imposed alongside a ban on high-rise building constructions, also for at least a year.

Magalong has prepared and consulted the draft plan of the combined tree cutting and building moratorium together with the DENR-CAR directorial staff, with whom he has already been in talks with even before he took his oath office in July.

The mayor said the proposed moratorium encompasses everything: no exemptions but for those trees that pose imminent danger to life and property.

Hagip nito lahat. Anyway, one year lang naman, subject to extension,” he said.

On the pipeline, he revealed, are a number of letters to his office expressing intentions to build new structures such as malls and hotels.

Kaya binibilisan natin ang (pagpasa ng) moratorium na ito para hindi hindi nila maihabol. Mabuti na lang may mga puno sa lugar nila soI leave it to the DENR to delay,” Magalong said.

The proposed twin moratorium is an offshoot of what Magalong said is the unabated depletion of the city’s watersheds, now down to four from the original eight due to squatting throughout the decades.

To date, Busol, the biggest source of the city’s water supply, remains threatened with 40 percent of the Baguio side of the shed already squatted. While there was a plan to demolish ongoing constructions inside the watershed, the mayor recalled the initial plan and went for a win-win solution with the informal settlers, who claimed to be ancestral land claimants who have long been staying at Busol.

Putting on hold their removal, however, should redound to an assurance that no more new settlers or new extensions to existing structures will be allowed inside the watershed.

The DENR reported that only 30 percent of the city’s land cover is pine forests, and these are mainly found in government-owned areas such as parks and reservations.

Giving the city a breather from development

Magalong said the one-year moratorium would allow the city a breather, a respite from overdevelopment and to put in place its rehabilitation measures that may be hampered if constructions and issuance of permits to cut trees continue.

The order, if approved, would include the cost of the city’s rehabilitation that the mayor verbally stipulated to concerned government officials, amounting to P365 million, which should cover works from the city’s sewerage system repairs up to the preservation of the remaining pine trees.

Magalong said DENR Sec. Roy Cimatu and Interior and Local Government Sec. Eduardo Año also gave inputs on the draft order and fully support it, along with Executive Sec. Salvador Medialdea.

“It is now in the works, and they are now sourcing out funds for it,” he said also during the dialogue.

Magalong said he is also planning to revisit the city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan Ordinance, which, although for him is a good and very strict ordinance, requires more coverage and should not defeat its purpose by allowing exemptions on its provisions.

He said they will also study the possibility of removing the Zoning Board that is in charge of tackling applications for exemptions. The plan has to be run through the city council and have to consider its implications on the operation of telecommunication towers in the city, a prime facility that falls under the exemptions on building height limit.

Sectoral and environment representatives invited to the forum welcomed the plans, while some of them were disappointed when a condominium developer was allowed to cut 49 trees that got in the way of their building project within its property. While they proposed inputs that will make the existing process of applying for and issuance of tree cutting permit and environment compliance certificates stiffer and prevent massive cutting, they welcomed the proposed moratorium as a refreshing and promising development for Baguio’s environment.

Pablo added that Baguio’s saturated state is the reason the Cordillera Regional Development Council wants stakeholders to spread the development by make the most of the BLISTT (Baguio, La Trinidad, Itogon, Sablan, Tuba, Tublay, and Sablan) area. “RDC wants that development should be scattered to the other towns, designating each town their development excellence, so that notevery piece of land here in Baguio City will be developed into condominiums or hotels. Later on kasi baka singilin tayon ng kalikasan,” Pablo said.

On the right track to a nature-based city

Among those who attended the public forum were former city councilors Edilberto Tenefrancia and Erdolfo Balajadia, the latter being the one who filed and among those closely guarding the implementation of the Environment Code of the City of Baguio.

In an interview, Tenefrancia said the current leadership is shaking up things that have not been done correctly in the city, and it should be done.

He observed many of the city’s ordinances concerning the environment are already good – they just lack implementation.

“There’s even no need to change these ordinances; they just have to be enforced, because they are not enforced,” Tenefrancia said.

He said he also welcomes the move of tapping experts on rehabilitation, because “we don’t know everything.”

We have them already in Baguio in fact, he said. It is just that a lot of them are not doing their job, citing for example the millions-worth facilities at the former Irisan dumpsite that have been reported being operated by people who are not qualified for the job.

Balajadia, now representing the Baguio Regreening Movement, is one of the voi-ces that continues agitating citizens and local officials to help in protecting what is left of the city, keeping hopes high that these would not fall on deaf ears.

Aside from being active in the preservation of Busol and other watersheds, the former councilor is trying to ensure that the Environment Code of Baguio he first authored is followed to the letter, being the bible for all environment concerns of the city.

Until now, he gives suggestions and does persistent clamors for concerned officials to do their job and for the public to comply with rules, especially those on environment, which he reminded as the most valuable asset of the city and the country as well. Without which, he said, all these developments around will be useless.

In the eyes of Baguio’s first City Architect, Joseph Alabanza, who has been watching his home city’s deterioration through the years, the city should learn to think not only of itself if it wants all its affairs and resources sustained.

His consistent call is for the city to think beyond its borders and realize that its nearby areas – the LISTT – should be considered in all its planning because the city cannot have it all.

All it takes, Alabanza advised, is to have strong citizen participation, for the city government to let its people know and include them in all its planned actions, and open the lines of cooperation with its neighbors.

He said it is our obligation to the future generation.

“What we do without regard to the environment have its implications. Shall we leave our future generations with empty mountains, without vegetation, and all buildings? Is that the kind of legacy that we will leave our children? We owe it to the future generation to leave a nature-based city,” he said.

With the commitments recently made, the challenge is now greater for the officials, who are expected to come up with viable solutions through enactment and enforcement of laws once and for all, and be able to rally citizens in joining in the crusade to achieve a Baguio not exactly how it was, but a city that is able to strike a balance between preservation of resources and development.

The forest covers of Camp John Hay and Baguio Country Club with Quirino Hill in the background. -- Harley F. Palangchao

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Philippine National Police – Police Regional Office – CAR
R.A Gapuz Review Center

Baguio Central University
Baguio Country Club
Benguet Electric Cooperative Inc.
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Data Center of the Philippines of Baguio City, Inc.
Department of Health – CAR
Kings’ College of the Philippines
Mayor Benjamin B. Magalong
Pines City Colleges
Sangguniang Panlungsod
SiTEL
SM City Baguio
Social Security System
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Albergo Hotel and Residences
Baguio Center Mall
Baguio Water District
C & Triple A Supermart
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Curamed Pharmacy
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Ganza & Solibao Restaurants
GMS Technology
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John Hay Management Corporation
Mayor Romeo K. Salda
MMS Development Training Center Corporatino
Mother Earth Deli Basket
Philipppine Science High School
Regional Development Council – CAR
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