Inspection of SM trees angers protesters

Natashya Gutierrez

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Environmentalists and protesters say SM did not earth-ball trees properly

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines – If SM mall thought it could assuage fears of protesters by permitting them to inspect the site of its expansion where trees were earth-balled, they were wrong.

A group of protesters and environmentalists trooped to SM grounds curious and hopeful but came out more livid and upset than ever.

Foresters say the procedure was done wrongly and that numerous violations were committed, extinguishing chances of the pine trees’ survival.

Met with outcry

The SM group, which has been under the spotlight for earth-balling trees in order to make room for their expansion, allowed for the first time media and protesters to visit the controversial site of the trees’ uprooting after the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) recommended that they do so.

Confident they had followed protocol, SM permitted a DILG-led tour of the grounds, as well as the location where the earth-balled trees were transplanted.

The group was immediately concerned however, after noticing specific violations.

Inspector and forestry expert Michael Bengwayan, upon seeing the first earth-balled pine tree, said the diameter around the roots of tree that had already been dug up was not wide enough. The correct method, he said, is that the diameter should be as wide as the crown of the tree.

“The roots of the trees are always as long as the branches,” he said. “The middle (only) serves as the anchor… All these trees are destined to die.”

BEYOND THE BOARDS. SM Baguio put up boards, blocking view of trees earth-balled for expansion. April 18, 2012. Natashya Gutierrez.

He said that the tree was too old to have been earth-balled and should not have been touched in the first place.

Moreover, he noted that before the procedure, a burlap with a nitrogen potassium and phosphorus solution should have been prepared, a method that he did not observe with the SM trees.

University of the Philippines Associate Professor of Zoology, Celia Austria also said that some pine needles of the earth-balled trees had started to droop, a sign they were slowly dying.

Low chance of survival

Because of a temporary environment protection order (TEPO) issued by the court, earth-balling of the trees have been halted, except for treatment of the roots sticking out from the already burlapped trees.

Their chances of survival however, according to the foresters present, are low.

Protesters told SM officials that if they do not want to put back the soil over the roots because they have to spend for manpower, they would volunteer to do it themselves.

But on Monday, April 17, SM said it received a permit to transfer the trees already burlapped.

INSPECTION. Environmentalists inspect the roots of the earth-balled trees. April 18, 2012. Natashya Gutierrez.

Protesters are unhappy. They say that while the 40 alnus trees that have already been transferred appear to be doing well, it is not certain that the pine trees will survive since alnus trees have higher rates of survival.

One pine tree has been transferred so far and it is currently under observation.

Austria told Rappler that the least SM can do is wait and see whether the transferred trees will survive before transplanting more.

Missing trees

Additionally, protesters said that while SM claims to have transferred 40 trees, there were only about a dozen trees on site. As of time of publication, volunteers had not yet come up with their official count.

Environmentalists also raised doubts about whether the alnus trees shown to them were not just placed there to appease them.

Karlo Altamonte, one of the head protesters, said they heard trees fall on the night of April 9. He wonders where they are.

“How sure are we that these trees even have roots?” he told Rappler.


Altamonte also questioned Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) authorities about their presence on the site the night of the earth-balling.

During the inspection, a couple of DENR representatives admitted having been there on April 10 at 6 p.m., but protesters claim having seen and heard falling trees on the night of April 9.

SM has said they had DENR representatives supervising the procedures on April 9, but the DENR official who was allegedly there was not present in today’s inspection.

NUMBERED. Trees that will be earth-balled for SM's expansions are numbered. April 18, 2012. Natashya Gutierrez.

When confronted, forester Mois Bai of DENR declined to answer yes or no if the earth-balling of the trees that his department supposedly supervised was done properly, and instead only said that the procedure was not yet finished since it had to be stopped due to the TEPO.

Given the many violations protesters observed in methodology of the earth-balling, Altamonte doubts there was even a DENR person present at all.

Bien Mateo, vice-president of SM Baguio, assured media that they will follow what the court dictates.

He said DENR allowed them to earth-ball trees so SM is trying its best to do the job.

Mateo also said that whether it completely stops the expansion or allows SM to continue, he said only the court has the power to decide.

“Being a publicly listed company, kami po ay sumusunod sa batas,” he said. “Batas po talaga [ang aming sinusundan] (We are really just following the court),” he said. –

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.