If President Aquino continues to protect the traditional power structures, none of the problems of weak democracy, hardened poverty, and poor governance can be solved
MANILA, Philippines - Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo played referee on Monday, April 16, in a dialogue among parties fighting over the cutting and earth-balling of trees to make way for an expansion project of SM Baguio.
No less than Hans Sy, SM Prime Holdings president, attended the dialogue to rebut the accusations hurled at his company. Hans Sy is a son of the Philippines's richest man and SM group patriarch, Henry Sy.
"It's a pity SM is being portrayed as unfriendly to environment, inconsiderate, greedy and even evil," Sy lamented.
But Robredo failed to break the stalemate during the 4-hour meeting at Camp Crame, though he managed to persuade SM to give in to the demand of protesters to conduct an ocular inspection of the site where permission to transplant 182 trees was granted.
The inspection will be conducted by a multisectoral committee on Wednesday, April 18. It will be composed of the local government unit (LGU), the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), SM Baguio, and 6 representatives from the protesters.
Robredo hailed the agreement, saying that "it will make compliance more transparent and enable both parties to understand each other better."
Did SM cut trees or not?
Protesters insisted during the dialogue that SM Baguio defied the temporary environment protection order (TEPO) issued on April 11.
Karlo Altomonte of Project Save 182 claimed that his group witnessed the cutting of trees even if the TEPO was in effect. He also questioned the expertise of non-local foresters hired by SM to monitor the earth-balling of trees as they were supposedly not familiar with Benguet pine trees.
"At the end of 2 nights (of earth-moving actviities), 40 alnus trees and a pine tree were balled out," said Dr Jose Sargento, a forester from the University of the Philippines Los Banos who monitored the earth-moving activities for SM Baguio.
DENR-Cordillera Administrative Region executive director Clarence Baguilat said his agency sent 4 representatives to monitor SM's earth-balling activities.
"It's shocking to know that DENR supervised the activities of SM as it was defying the TEPO," said lawyer Cheryl Daytec-Yangot of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL).
DENR complied with the TEPO on April 12, a day before it expired.
On April 13, the NUPL filed a petition to cite SM for indirect contempt "on account of its blatant defiance of the TEPO," lawyer Jansen T Nacar said. According to Nacar, they will amend the petition to include the DENR regional office in light of Baguilat's admission.
Will SM expansion benefit Baguio City?
Sy explained how the redevelopment of SM Baguio can be a benchmark for all future development projects in Baguio City.
"It started when we encountered an erosion problem in 2005. We repaired and fixed it. In 2010, we noticed the movement again, so we decided to make a permanent solution," Sy said.
According to Sy, the construction of a retaining wall was recommended but would have still affected 182 trees, so they came up with the expansion project that would be environmentally sustainable.
"We might as well do something that will be good for the city of Baguio and have the people appreciate us," Sy said.
Did SM secure necessary permits?
DENR Environment Secretary Ramon Paje Jr, joined by Baguilat, traced back the process by which necessary permits were secured by SM Baguio for its expansion project.
The environment officials summarized the process as follows:
1. SM Baguio came up with an expansion project
2. Formal approval for the sale of the property that will be used for the expansion was given by the national government
3. Through an en banc resolution (consultation was conducted; there was an agreement to cut trees), the barangay issued an endorsement
4. The city mayor endorsed the project addressed to the DENR Secretary
5. An inventory report of trees to be affected was submitted
6. DENR/Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) assessed the project
7. Project was referred to the national DENR office for guidance in light of the moratorium on the cutting of trees declared by Malacañang
8. An Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) was issued by the national office, with clearance from the secretary
9. DENR issued the earth-balling and cutting permit
Baguio Mayor Mauricio Domogan, accompanied by Rep Bernardo Vergara of the lone district of Baguio, also stressed that the building permit was issued by the City Building Office as it conformed with the Land Use Plan and Zoning Ordinance of the city.
Environment or investment?
But Daytec-Yangot argued that SM doesn't have an ECC, saying that what the DENR issued is merely an amendment of the 2001 ECC issued to another entity -- SMIC -- which covered the construction of the existing mall.
"It was now amended to favor another identity, SM Prime Holdings. It is irregular because there is a new structure," Daytec-Yangot added, referring to the expansion project.
Meanwhile, Paje said that it is the LGU's responsibility to determine "social acceptability" based on the amended DENR policy on securing ECCs.
"Ang social acceptability ay nagpapatagal ng ECC namin (Social acceptability delays the issuance of ECC). We are being pressured by the investor. ECC takes time. Investment is being delayed," Paje said.
The environment secretary stressed how he had to "balance investment and environment" in a sustainable manner.
Were the people consulted?
Protesters maintained that no consultations were conducted, arguing that the city council should have been consulted.
"We question Domogan's act of endorsing SM's expansion plan, usurping the city council's prerogative," Daytec-Yangot added.
While the dialogue was being conducted in Quezon City, the Baguio City Council deliberated on the redevelopment plan.
Kabataan Partylist representative Raymond Palatino, who addressed the body, tweeted that the city council did not endorse the controversial project.
In a blog post, Palatino reported what transpired during his meeting with the local solons:
1. Baguio Vice Mayor Daniel Fariñas clarified that the council had not yet issued a final decision on the matter and that it was only Barangay Session Road which endorsed the application of SM.
2. Council members agreed that the DENR failed to conduct a public consultation prior to the issuance of a permit to SM.
3. A councilor cited a certain Public Perception Survey done by SM involving 38 respondents.
Palatino filed a House resolution directing the House committee on natural resources and ecology to conduct an inquiry on the legality and propriety of the permit granted by DENR to SM Baguio. - Rappler.com
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