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Paved paradise: SM Baguio and the logging ban

JP Alipio

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For wanting to preserve their green heritage, the residents of Baguio who shout loudly for more green spaces do have a basis in law as well as concerns over claims that SM Mall will be a sustainable building

JP ALIPIO. Cordillera Conservation Trust executive director“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

That’s in the lyrics of a Joni Mitchell song that talks about her experiences in Hawaii looking out at a spectacular vista, then looking down into a gray parking lot.

The citizens of Baguio city, once labelled as the city of Pines, have in the past week been up in arms about the plans of mall network SM to do just that – pave over an existing forest and turn it into a parking lot.

This news comes just a month after the devastation in Cagayan de Oro and the multiple floods that have prompted the current administration to declare a total log ban across the country in response to the multiple extreme climatic events that have devastated many parts of the region. Including the city of Baguio, which has experienced flooding, multiple landslides with loses of life, including just recently a trash slide in the city’s dumpsite in Irisan.

The City Mayor Mauricio Domogan’s response has been to pass the buck to the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) saying that his hands are tied and the necessary permits have been signed, although the building permits for the structure were still issued by the city engineering office under his administration.

DENR Regional Executive Clarence Baguilat confirms that the permits to cut the trees were given on October 27, 2011, or 10 days after Environment Secretary Ramon Paje cleared the tree cutting operation. This tree cutting permit was signed 8 months after the signing of Executive Order No. 23 (EO23) ordering a total logging ban in all national and residual forests.

The question for the people of Baguio is this: Is the area in question eligible under this ban on cutting of trees? Or will it befall the same faith as the song?

Defining forest

First, what can be considered as a forest?

According to the United Nations definition, a forest has “a minimum area of land of 0.05–1.0 hectare with tree crown cover (or equivalent stocking level) of more than 10% to 30% with trees with the potential to reach a minimum height of 2–5 metres at maturity in situ (in place). A forest may consist either of closed forest formations where trees of various storeys and undergrowth cover a high proportion of the ground or open forest.”

FOREST AND MALL. Baguio residents up in arms over city govt's nod on SM Mall's expansion plan. Photo by EV Espiritu“Young natural stands and all plantations which have yet to reach a crown density of 10–30 per cent or tree height of 2–5 metres are included under forest, as are areas normally forming part of the forest area which are temporarily unstocked as a result of human intervention such as harvesting or natural causes, but which are expected to revert to forest.”

The disputed area in Baguio measures 1,500 square meters and contains a total of 43 Alnus Trees, 97 Benguet Pine, and 42 Pine Saplings that cover more than 30% of the area of the site. Taking the definition of the United Nations, the area in question is considered as forest land. As such, it should be covered by the EO23.

Local vs national

On October 27, 2011 the DENR-regional office in CAR issued a cutting permit to allow SM development the operator of the mall to cut trees.

A section of the EO23 logging ban states that the DENR will implement a forest certification system in accordance with United Nations guidelines and standards making the above definition a legally binding definition for forest land. This goes against the orders of the national government.
Section 2 of EO23 specifies that “A moratorium on the cutting and harvesting of timber in the natural and residual forests of the entire country is hereby declared unless lifted after the effectivity of this Executive Order.”

This provision clearly specifies that a moratorium against cutting and harvesting of timber is applicable all over the entire country starting February 1, 2011, the day the EO was signed.

The tree cutting permit from the DENR’s Cordillera Administrative Region that favored SM Development was issued after the EO was signed, thus putting it in question.

THE SITE. Advocacy groups are protesting the permit given to SM Baguio to cut these trees for its expansion plans. Photo by JP Alipio

Road rights only

The EO23 likewise added a provision specifying that any cutting of trees should only be allowed in an area that will be used for right-of-way for road projects, among others.

Section 2.2. of EO23 prohibits the DENR “from issuing or renewing tree cutting permits in all natural and residual forests nationwide, except for clearing of road right of way by the DPWH, site preparation for tree plantations, silvicultural treatment and similar activities, provided that all logs derived from the said cutting permits shall be turned over to the DENR for proper disposal.”

This provision also allows tree cutting associated with cultural practices specified under the indigenous Peoples Right Act (IPRA Law) and under strict compliance with existing guidelines of the DENR.

The area in question does not fall under any road right of way of the DPWH which is the only allowable cutting of trees under the executive order. Therefore any permits given after February 1st are deemed null void by virtue of this order.

The gray area here is the issuance of tree balling permits for the 97 Benguet Pine trees. Although this is not considered as tree cutting per se, removing trees from their original locations, especially mature trees, is often considered as a death sentence as only less than 25% of trees that are earth-balled survive.


Baguio is also part of the Cordillera watershed area which feeds 3 major dams – Ambuklao, Binga, and San Roque.

These fall under special protection as the opening paragraphs of the EO23 clearly specifies that the watersheds and the river systems supporting existing or proposed hydroelectric power facilities, irrigation works or existing water facilities are in need of immediate protection and rehabilitation. 

In addition to EO23’s logging ban, DENR also issued memorandum order 2005-19 dated November 17, 2005 and signed by former environment secretary Michael T. Defensor. . This only allows for the issuance of permits for the cutting of 30 trees or less in one area. Since the area in question involves 192 trees, the city ordinance violated this memorandum.

The memorandum further specifies that under no circumstances should the cutting of trees be done inside forest land. 

Clearly the issuance of cutting permits for the forest area of SM Mall in Baguio contradicts existing national rules.

EXPANSION PLANS. This is the perspective of proposed building of SM Baguio.

‘Green’ building

SM has stressed that they are building a structure that complies with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), an international standard for ‘green’ building design. SM’s public relations manager Karen Nobres said the proposed building will include a rainwater catchment area, ‘green’ space on the roof, natural ventilation, and  led lighting to ensure low power consumption, among others.

Nobres also said SM is aiming for a gold standard certification which requires them to complete 60-79 points of the LEED criteria. This raises the question on how they plan to achieve this LEED status since what they are their building in Baguio will sit on a previously undeveloped site.

The very first key criteria for LEED certification stresses development of sustainable sites, in effect discouraging building on previously undeveloped sites. In the LEED’s project development checklist, certified projects must be on abandoned or underused areas in the city that were previously built upon, for the protection and restoration of habitats, and must maximize open space.

A LEED-certified building may not be actually environmentally friendly because of its ratings system, which has been criticized. Its ratings system scores buildings based on land, material, energy and water use over the building’s lifetime. This system then focuses the efforts of the developers that are seeking certification on achieving points on these areas. The developers may be remiss in other key areas, such as ensuring that the site is sustainable.

More often than not, this certification is based on projected use rather than actual performance over the period of its operation. The LEED certification being touted by SM is still a faulty process that does not ensure sustainability.  

For wanting to preserve their green heritage, the residents of Baguio who shout loudly for more green spaces do have a basis in law as well as concerns over the LEED certification.

There is ample reason not to pave over paradise and make it into a parking lot.

Note: The author is the director of the Cordillera Conversion Trust, which tackles environmental problems arising in the Cordillera region.

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