Olongapo SubicBay BatangGapo Newscenter

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Palafox sheds light on SBMA controversy

By Neal Cruz, As I See It - Philippine Daily Inquirer
Last Dec. 8, we had Administrator Armand Arreza of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) at the Kapihan sa Manila media forum to shed light on the alleged extortion and plans to cut trees for a casino-hotel inside the Subic Bay Freeport. The light he shed was still hazy, so last Monday we had architect Felino Palafox Jr., the man who exposed the attempts at extortion and tree cutting, to shed more light.

Arreza had said that he asked Palafox for the name of the person who delivered the extortion message but that Palafox refused identify the person. As for the trees, Arreza said the SBMA had made an inventory of the trees on the project site and that there were 366 trees, most of which were small. There were only seven trees with girths beyond one meter, he said, adding that there could not be “centuries-old” trees as the area was reclaimed from swampland by the US Navy only in the 1950s and 1960s. He further said that the Palafox firm was not “disqualified” but lost in the bidding.

Last Monday, Palafox opened the discussion by showing an aerial photograph of the waterfront of the SBMA where the casino-hotel is to be located. The two-hectare site is the only spot with a thick grove of trees. The trees occupy about two-thirds of the site.

“Those are the trees that were planned to be removed,” Palafox said. As you can see, there are plenty of spaces elsewhere where the casino-hotel can be constructed, he said. The wonder is, why relocate the trees and not the project?

Meanwhile, Amethya D.L. Koval, manager of the SBMS Ecology Center, told Eric Park, manager of Grand Utopia, developer of the project site, to “save the trees and incorporate them in the development plan.” The Koreans, however, insist on digging up the place, Palafox said. The question is why. It is as if a treasure hoard is buried there somewhere and they want to dig it up. Is the Yamashita Treasure perchance buried there?

In the letter to Park, Koval said that there were 366 live trees and palms in the project site which used to be a mini-golf course and that the “densely-stocked area is already considered an urban forest.” Thirty-six of the trees were considered “critically endangered.”

In his own letter to Tae Sung Hong, chief executive officer of Yamasaki Korea, architects for the casino-hotel, Palafox called attention to the agreement that “we preserve and protect the trees on site per instructions of SBMA Administrator Arreza.” He also informed the Korean of what happened in Intramuros. “The administrator of Intramuros,” he said, “is being brought to court … for allowing trees to be cut.”

“If trees are to be cut, we may have to respectfully beg off from the above project,” Palafox wrote.

Furthermore, it was neither he nor Palafox Associates who started referring to the trees as “century-old trees,” Palafox said. The term came from “concerned SBMA employees who requested Palafox Associates to help protect the Urban Forest Park and the 366 trees including ‘century-old’ trees.”

In an open letter to the public, the SBMA employees said the SBMS board “should be careful in deciding what areas to be given out and what should be preserved. The board should also take into consideration the environmental and landmark worth of the land. Environmental study should first be done before it was awarded, like how much oxygen is generated by the 366 old-growth trees, the cost of air pollution control and peso worth of recycled water. Moreover, to keep the area intact as a park or picnic grounds that will be enjoyed by many….”

To Arreza’s credit, Palafox said that from September to October this year, the SBMA administrator “kept instructing me and Palafox Associates to preserve the trees on site especially the endangered species like the narra trees. He assured me every now and then that he would return the down payment of the Koreans if they do not follow my recommendations.”

But Palafox denied that his firm was “removed” from the project. “We were the ones who chose to drop the project,” he said. “I am not exposing the trees issue because we gave up a $1-million fee or lost in the bidding….”

He disclosed text messages from Arreza to him regarding the trees. One said: “Achitect, as I understand, Palafox was appointed by Yamasaki as environmental consultant. Can you please look at the possibility of saving narra trees in and around the site? Thanks.”

In another text message to Secretary Cerge Remonde which the latter forwarded to Palafox, Arreza said: “Sec, I have a meeting with the chairman of the group this morning to resolve the matter. We will not compromise our stand in preserving the trees as Arch. Palafox indicated in his text. We have proposed to allow them to realign the surrounding roads to accommodate their development plan. Failing that, we will refund their down payment and look for an alternative site.”

Palafox said, however, that “we found out that Arreza has been lying to us and the Filipino people. While he was instructing me and Palafox Associates to preserve the trees on site, he already agreed and assured the Koreans that they can uproot, ball, and transfer the trees elsewhere.”

He added: “It appears that after Palafox Associates gave up the project, Arreza changed his instructions to preserve the trees on site. 286 trees disappeared from the August 2008 inventory of trees by SBMA Ecology Center… Arreza instead became a champion for the Grand Utopia Casino Hotel project, and at the expense of the Urban Forest, Arreza abandoned his earlier instructions to Palafox Associates to preserve the trees on site.”

The extortion attempt next . . .

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