It was around a year ago when I wrote a commentary on Get Real Philippines entitled â€œBaguio City: Ruined by Pinoy Mentality.â€ It was a timely article, considering the ramifications of various events happening in the City where I currently live in. One of the Philippinesâ€™ largest commercial and real-estate institutions had plans to construct a mall annex, which included transplanting almost 200 pine trees from a forested area in their Luneta Hill property to another location also within their current premises. Various groups of different backgrounds protested the plans, and to their credit these protesters (who have named themselves Save 182), invoking various environmental appeals, have at most stalled the SM Corporationâ€™s plans to develop the site.
Many of Baguioâ€™s most vibrant personalities would not deny that I have a rather eccentric attitude towards a lot of views, including those of ecology, heritage preservation, and life in Baguio as a whole. When I authored a regular column entitled â€œUrban Revisionsâ€ in the now-defunct â€œSkyland Newsâ€ weekly, I often remarked about how Baguio has lost the ecological allure it had before the Great Earthquake of 1990, and how the City now needed to preserve not only its environmental patches but also whatever historical bastions it had left. The Baguio Heritage Petition I put forth in 2004, and which was acknowledged with wide acclaim, was my personal attempt to appeal to greater powers to find a way to stop the Cityâ€™s rapid urban decay, especially with the opening of SM City Baguio during that same year. As one who has lived in Baguio almost all my life, I know for a fact that despite current emphatic claims that they happened, there were no large scale protests for SMâ€™s primary construction back then.
I got wind of SMâ€™s expansion and earth-balling plans in early 2011, almost a full year before the Save 182 protests. Back then I was so furious at SM that I had to write my indignations in a letter to the Baguio Midland Courier. Why it took Baguio to react only after a year after the letterâ€™s publication is verily now a moot point, but nevertheless when all of these elements finally came into full collision on January 2012 I knew I had to say something. Siding initially with Save 182, at a City Council meeting soon after the protests I introduced the concept of â€œThe Third Way.â€ In this idea, both SM and Save 182 would really sit down face-to-face and talk to each other about the expansion plan. Idealistic, yes, but with emotions running high I chose to be more stoic. Back then I already knew that people would hate the idea (a Save 182 leader called it â€œunrealisticâ€), but I took the words of another Save 182 leader by heart: â€œJust keep speaking your mind, and someone would indeed listen.â€
Turns out, it was Get Real Philippines that helped me spread my message around, and for that I am truly grateful. The SM City Baguio expansion plan has already been tackled by a number of my co-writers here at GRP, and I generally agree with what they all have to say. In fact, in a way I envy them because they can take criticism better than me. I quickly learned how to look at both sides of the issue from a reasoned perspective, as a Baguioite who has seen family and friends be ideologically split over such a mess. As 2012 passed Save 182 and SM never had that “Third Way” personal talk which I wanted to seeâ€”only a deluge of lawyers and personal attacks on Facebook. There have been gains on both sides (Save 182 with pop artist Sting and SM with the 50,000-tree initiative), but there were definite losses as well (Save 182 with the â€œReaderâ€™s Digest environmental awardâ€ hoax and SM with its â€œconsultationâ€ statistics). Save 182 went to the courts, but SM eventually won by dent of legality; an appeal has then since been filed by Save 182.
Curiously the presiding judge of the case, Honorable Antonio Esteves, passed away in January 2013. Here are some lovely sentiments from those who wanted him to have had a different verdict:
Circumstances and evidences have made me rethink my allegiances. I was declared a â€œfence-sitterâ€ during the first waves of protests; I was shamed by both SM and Save 182 because I was accused of supporting the opposite side. In a tight-knit community like the Baguio middle class, it becomes really painful to be the target of personal attacks by people who I knew very well, to be called â€œbayaran,â€ â€œstupid,â€ â€œinsignificant,â€ to even be the recipient of a death threat on my mobile, all because I had a divergent view on things.
I believe that SM has failed Baguio. Yes, it has won, and I am now convinced (through evidence presented in and out of court) that the construction of its annex and the earth-balling of the remaining trees on its property are inevitable. I could just imagine faceless people in business suits, doing high-fives and opening champagne bottles when Judge Estevesâ€™s verdict was announced. By building a massive structure that has quite literally shaved the top off scenic Luneta Hill, SM City Baguio now dominates the Cityâ€™s mountainous skyline for miles. Its expansion plans are undoubtedly not only beautiful but ecologically functional as well: LED lighting, rainwater catch basins, smog-absorbing paint, balconies that eliminate the need for air conditioningâ€”these are things that Baguio really needs, and which I hope the City government would hopefully invest in. Still, by using the need to enhance Baguioâ€™s fragile ecology to continuously acquire more vast tracts of land and use them for their own ends, SM proves to be no better than the landed families who have dominated the Philippines with their expansive haciendas, BS Aquinoâ€™s clan included. The SM Corporation fails to see the bigger picture of putting up an expansion in a City that really doesnâ€™t need it. It is a question of ethics and image, of a giant consuming the limited resources that Baguio can supply. SM City Baguio is already the largest building in the City, and the last thing I want to see in the City of my birth is a skyline dominated by SMâ€™s blue logo, with competitors jostling for limited resources and consumers all for mindless profit.
SM really doesnâ€™t need to build an entirely new building to expand: the SM Fiesta Strip building, occupied by the struggling call center company Aegis, could easily be upgraded or even reconstructed to meet the Green Building standards that SM hopes to achieve, without the need for earth-balling.
I also believe that Save 182 has failed Baguio. They emphatically deny that they demonize SM, yet on their multiple pages on various social networks the term â€œSatan Mallâ€ often pops up. In particular, a Facebook page entitled â€œBoycott SM: Wall of Shameâ€ displays the identities of both public and private individuals who disagree with Save 182â€™s views, leaving them open to potential bullying and harassment. On Get Real Philippines alone, two other dissenters, Lisa Araneta and Grace Bandoy, have been branded as â€œwhoresâ€ by â€œVanessa,â€ who implies unwavering support for Save 182. The group furthermore claims to be â€œapolitical,â€ and yet Miguel Arvisu, one of their most vocal leaders, is running for congressman in Baguioâ€™s lone district in the 2013 midterm elections.
On April 11, 2012, members of Save 182 infiltrated SMâ€™s private property in the middle of the night to stop what they perceived was the cutting of trees despite a court-issued protection order. A few hours later, these same members caused an early morning ruckus by screaming and banging on the gates of the mayorâ€™s residence, calling on him to â€œsave the trees.â€ Though the legal ramifications of these two incidents have been downplayed, Save 182 actually set a dangerous precedent. If, for example, I decide to cut down the century-old pine tree in my own private garden, even with the necessary permits, they could unexpectedly come into my private property and stop me from doing so.
I also find it ironic that, for an environmental group, Save 182 barely presents environmental solutions to current environmental problems other than â€œplanting treesâ€ or the clichÃ©d â€œreduce, reuse, recycle.â€ Their activities are less functional and more aesthetic, a street crusade for â€œawarenessâ€ when in fact people are already more than aware. From what Iâ€™ve observed, their emphasis on emotions rather than reason has made Baguio even more apathetic to their calls to â€œBoycott SM.â€ Meanwhile, the giant mall on Luneta Hill is still crowded with shoppers, and is expected to turn in record profits for its 2012 report.
One year on and there is a stalemate in Baguio. It is quiet at the moment, but there is a sense of anticipation that Baguioites would once again be witness to another bitter fight between SM and Save 182. My own observations in the long months of 2012 however have led me to conclude that SM and Save 182 are no different from each other, primarily because they both think theyâ€™re â€œrightâ€ while everybody else who disagrees with them is â€œwrong.â€ Each believes that God is on “their side” while those who don’t agree are “evil,” “stupid” or “ignorant.” In the name of â€œunityâ€ they have both managed to split Baguio into ideological sides, where seemingly in their minds no gray area is supposed to exist, a â€œwith us or against usâ€ mentality that defeats the purpose of reasoned thinking. There is for me quite simply no difference between the two; in the Cityâ€™s vernacular, â€œpare-pareho da met laeng nga duwa.â€ In the end, both sides have conveniently downplayed the insidious possibility that the Baguio City government, in cahoots with BS Aquinoâ€™s national government, has played them both for its own political gain.
There surely is no need for me to detail what I have done for Baguioâ€™s failing environment; I surely did some, but unlike the two sides of Baguioâ€™s ongoing petty quarrel I choose not to brag about them or post about them on Facebook. Baguio can ultimately find its “eco-renaissance” not with slogans or affiliations, but with quiet individuals who make Baguio better without any sort of allegiance. I will surely, by this mere commentary, generate the ire of both SM and Save 182. Several of their more vocal proponents will think of me as a â€œpaid hack,â€ and a few more off-center fanatics would doubtless wish me the same â€œkarmaâ€ that they think befell Judge Antonio Esteves. Heck, my name might just appear in the “Wall of Shame.” But I stand by my words, because I am no longer afraid of the hypocrisy and the bullying from these two sides. Some have claimed I criticize too much, but coming from the same people who have told me to â€œspeak my mind,â€ this is the best recourse I have to voice my opinion, no matter how small it may be. I have nothing else to lose.
My name is Dion Fernandez. I am from Baguio, and I am no longer afraid.
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