Baguio folk vow to take SM to High Court over trees

Voltaire Tupaz
Although saddened by a legal setback, Baguio protesters are ready to bring their case all the way to the Supreme Court to stop the removal of trees on Luneta Hill

TREES ON DEATHROW? The earth-balling and cutting of 182 pine and alnus trees are likely to resume with court dismissal of environmental complaints

MANILA, Philippines – Baguio residents opposing the removal of pine and alnus trees to pave the way for SM’s expansion project are not giving up despite an environment court’s ruling against them.

Although “saddened” by the legal setback, the petitioners are “still upbeat, ready to bring their case all the way to the Supreme Court,” Karlo Altomonte, one of the leaders of the Save 182 movement and one of the petitioners, told Rappler.

“[We will] exhaust all other legal remedies available to us in our struggle to stand up and speak for the trees on Luneta Hill, which stand defenseless against a corporate entity’s apparent insatiable hunger for more money,” Altomonte vowed.

More than a hundred residents and groups from Baguio filed two environmental complaints on Feb 23, 2012 and April 13, 2012, respectively, and a contempt charge against SM Baguio on April 20, 2012.

TEPO lifted

Judge Antonio Estevez of Branch 15 of the Baguio Regional Trial Court, dismissed all petitions, saying that while he joins the sentiments of the complainants, he is bound by his duty to apply laws based on circumstances and evidence.

“The City of Baguio has been the residence of the undersigned for almost 20 years. Its people, the way of life in the City, and its environment, including its trees, have become a part of his life. However, the undersigned could not give priority to these factors,” Esteves explained in his decision.

The ruling, issued on December 3, lifted the temporary environmental protection order (TEPO) that stopped the removal of the trees on Luneta Hill.

The TEPO was released by Judge Cleto Villacorta in the absence of Esteves on April 10 in the wake of protests sparked by SM Baguio’s decision to start uprooting trees to construct a 4-story commercial building and a 5-story parking structure in the area.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reported that at least 40 Alnus and one Benguet pine tree were cut or earth-balled before the TEPO was complied with. 

Negative environmental effects?

In his ruling, Esteves pointed out that the complainants failed to establish the following:

  • Resorting to administrative procedure would cause great and irreparable damage
  • There was any violation of due process
  • Exhausting administrative remedies would be moot and academic
  • No other plain, speedy and adequate remedy was available
  • There was strong public interest to justify court intervention

Deciding on “the most significant issue raised” — whether the project will have an adverse environmental impact, Esteves sided with the respondents that included DENR Secretary Ramon Paje and the SM Investments Corporation.

“Several witnesses and the EPRMP (Environmental Performance Report and Management Plan) prove that the expansion project properly addresses potential negative consequences that may arise therefrom,” Esteves argued.

“While admitting that the cutting or earth-balling of said trees will indeed have a negative effect on the environment, the evidence adduced by the defendants would show that it will not result to irreparable injury to the environment and detrimental effects to the residents of Baguio,” Esteves stressed.

Unfair decision

Altomonte lamented that the court believed in the testimonies of the witnesses of the respondents.

“On the issue of the two admitted expert witnesses, the court chose to believe the testimony of Palijon, who admitted in court that he had no direct experience with pine trees or any reforestation efforts in Baguio, as compared to Bengwayan who has been reforesting various parts of Benguet with pine trees,” Altomonte said.

Armando Palijon, a UP Los Baños-trained arborist, was one of those who testified for the defendants while Dr Michael Bengyawan, Director of the Cordillera Ecological Cordi Eco-Center Pine Tree, served as one of the expert witnesses of the petitioners.

“While we respect the decision, we believe the court was not fair,” Altomonte asserted, adding that the decision was hastily written.

“We are amazed at the speed with which he penned this decision. Our final memorandum was submitted November 29. The decision was penned on December 3,” Altomonte said. – Rappler.com