MANILA, Philippines [UPDATED] - Judge Cleto Villacorta of Branch 6 of the Baguio Regional Trial Court has issued a temporary environmental protection order (TEPO) stopping the cutting of trees on Luneta Hill in Baguio City.
It's a temporary victory for protesters who held vigil and went online to denounce the move of SM Mall in Baguio to transplant 182 trees on Luneta Hill, where it intends to build a parking lot and an entertainment plaza.
In the absence of Judge Antonio Estevis, presiding judge of the environmental court of the Baguio RTC, Villacorta heard the urgent motion for TEPO filed by the National Union of People's Lawyers (NUPL). (Read SM-Baguio's official statement here.)
In an interview with Rappler, lead counsel Cheryl Daytec Yangot revealed that the order will be served Tuesday afternoon, April 10, and will take effect for only 72 hours.
According to Daytec-Yangot, the counsels told the court that "the damage that the people of Baguio will suffer will be irreparable as the trees cannot be revived or resurrected back to life once cut or balled."
"The danger is imminent and actual because they witnessed how nearly 12 trees fell one after the other in the dead of the night," Daytec-Yangot added.
The NUPL motion was a reiteration of a complaint it filed last February 23 on behalf of the Cordillera Global Network, Cordillera Peoples Alliance, Cordillera Indigenous Peoples Legal Center, Cordillera Ecological Pine Center and other concerned citizens of Baguio.
It also asked the environment court for an injunction with prayer for TEPO, naming Environment Secretrary Ramon Paje, Director Juan Miguel T. Cuna of the Environmental Management Bureau, Public Works and Highways Secretary Rogelio Singzon, and SM Investments Corp (SMIC) as defendants.
The motion urged the court to:
a. To set aside as null and void the permit granted by Secretary Paje to SMIC;
b. To set aside as null and void the building permit issued by the City Building and Architecture Office in favor of SMIC;
c. To permanently enjoin SMIC from cutting and/or earthballing the 182 pine and alnus trees, and make the Temporary Environmental Protection Order permanent.
But according to Daytec-Yangot, instead of issuing a TEPO, Judge Estevis urged the parties to uphold a "gentlemen-gentleladies agreement" that maintains the status quo while the case was being heard.
On the the night of April 9, however, SM Baguio violated the agreement when it started earthballing trees, prompting protesters to file an urgent motion, Daytec-Yangot asserted.
On Wednesday, April 11, NUPL will file a motion for the extension of the TEPO that will expire on Friday, April 13.
Meanwhile, SM CIty Pubic Relations manager Karen Nobres assured the protesters that there was nothing sinister in earthballing the trees at night.
"It was done to prevent moisture loss in trees. It's part of the proper methodology being implemented," Nobres explained.
In a statement, the SM management said that "close consultations between SM’s technical, engineering, and design department and the Department of Environment and Natural resources as well as other environmental experts have preceded the earth balling of trees."
"This aims to ensure the high survival of the affected trees, along with the commitment that more trees will be planted in Baguio as part of SM’s corporate social responsibility commitment." it said.