AGUIO CITY -- SM City Baguio denied Wednesday statements of a group of environmentalists that it is cutting trees within its proposed expansion area, stressing it is “not hiding anything from the public.”
The mall management clarified that what protesters and members of the Save 182 Movement heard was not of trees being cut but the customary pruning of trees prior to earth-balling and transplanting.
Netizens on Tuesday took to the cyberspace their concern over the alleged cutting of the pine trees in Baguio City, making #SaveBaguioPineTrees a trending topic on micro-blogging site Twitter. Some said the trees were cut past midnight Monday.
But SM management said while it may be true that expansion activities started Monday, only the earth-balling of Alnus japonica and pine tree saplings was done in close coordination with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
It said earth-balling must be conducted in an ideal temperature from night time to dawn to prevent moisture loss of the trees and ensure their survival as per the advice of experts from the DENR.
Pruning removes obscure branches and is a common procedure used to remove dead branches, prevent crowding and rubbing of limbs and to eliminate hazards prior to the transplant process.
The earth-balled trees, according to the mall, will be transplanted within areas in the mall property unaffected by the expansion, stressing, “[We recognize] that these contribute to clean air, are a vital part of the city’s environs, and a legacy for Baguio’s future children.”
The management clarified that SM City Baguio will comply with the Temporary Environmental Restraining Order (Tepo) issued by Baguio City Regional Trial Court (RTC) branch 6 Judge Cleto Villacorta III stopping the cutting of 182 pine and alnus trees for the company’s expansion project.
The SM Investments Corporation confirmed that it received a copy of the Tepo at the Baguio City Hall of Justice Wednesday afternoon.
DENR-Forest Management Bureau Regional Technical Director Augusto Lagon said earth-balling at night is one of the technical recommendations of the agency to prevent moisture loss. He stressed pruning is important to ensure survival by removing branches to balance off the needs of the trees.
The agency also created a composite team to supervise and monitor earth-balling and transplanting operations of SM, with Lagon as the team leader.
This developed as the DENR issued Wednesday a directive to DENR-Cordillera Executive Director Clarence Baguilat for environment officials to implement the Tepo.
"As we talk, our DENR-CAR must have already served its directive enjoining the management of SM Baguio to strictly comply with the terms and conditions of the Tepo," Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said.
Paje welcomed the issuance of the Tepo, saying it was in accordance with the rules of procedure on environmental cases drawn by the Supreme Court.
Lagon, in response, assured that they are on-duty by teams.
He reported that as of the latest inventory, SM has earth-balled 40 alnus trees and one Benguet pine tree from Luneta Hill.
He said these trees were immediately replanted as these were the younger trees that are more likely to survive earth-balling while other mature trees will be earth-balled once the court gives SM the go signal to proceed with its expansion.
Transplanted trees will be given antibiotics, fungicide and coal-tar to prevent infections, Lagon said.
He said experts hired by the mall, including forestry professors from the University of the Philippines Los Baños and foreign environmentalists, are working closely with their agency.
SM, in a statement, said, “[The expansion] is the product of careful planning anchored on SM’s continuing commitment to become a responsible member of the communities it serves as a catalyst for employment and business opportunities, a top taxpayer, and key player for a sustainable environment.”
SM Prime Holdings Inc. said it envisions the expanded green mall as a prime tourist destination with the mall designed to receive a Leadership in Energy and Environmental design Gold Rating, which requires implementation and documentation of achievement of a minimum of 60 of the listed points, which will be subject to the review and approval of the US Green Building Rating.
The mall giant also renewed its commitment to plant 50,000 trees to replace the 182 earth-balled trees that the DENR claimed is above the requirements they set for the firm.
Lagon said the 50,000 saplings are equivalent to 50 hectares of new forest cover in the city. As to carbon credits, these younger trees, he said, are more efficient in absorbing carbon than mature trees.
The City Council, after being caught off guard by the commencement of the expansion activities, however, stressed its stand that a multi-sectoral monitoring committee must be formed to ensure SM adheres to the recommendations of the DENR.
But presently, the committee has yet to be activated.
A Catholic prelate, meantime, wants the public to boycott the mall as a sign of protest.
Baguio Bishop Carlito Cenzon urged local residents and tourists not to patronize the department store for the management's refusal to follow the decision of a local court to stop the cutting of trees there.
He noted that in defying the order, SM management only showed that they have a callous heart and lack of respect for the people and the authorities.
"I'm limiting it to SM Baguio but if other SM malls have a similar proposal (of cutting trees) I think the people should think twice before patronizing them," Cenzon said.
Youth groups joined by Kabataan party-list Representative Raymond Palatino trooped to the Quezon City office of the DENR and handed over an appeal letter to stop the cutting and earth-balling of Baguio's pine trees.
"(This is) a grave environmental injustice that favors SM's insatiable greed for profit at the expense of the environment and the safety of local communities," Palatino said.
With the permits and go signals granted by local and national governments, he said, "the cutting and balling of trees becomes a clear case of state-sponsored environmental massacre."
"In the interest of rescuing the trees and the people of Baguio, we appeal to Secretary Paje to set aside as null and void this license-to-kill at the soonest possible time," Palatino added.
Last January, Palatino has filed a resolution seeking a congressional investigation into SM Baguio's expansion project.
"Trees are invaluable assets of Baguio City which serve as a natural protection from floods, landslides, pollution and other threats of urban sprawl as they do add to the aesthetic quality of the city," the resolution reads.
On succeeding interviews, SM’s lead counsel lawyer Sigfrid Fortun said, “Inasmuch as the issue is currently subject of litigation, we are not inclined to give any statement in reference to the rule of sub judice.”