Olongapo SubicBay BatangGapo Newscenter

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Senate to probe Subic tree-cutting

The Senate is poised to investigate the plan to cut down trees in a thickly-forested area at the Subic Bay Freeport.

Senator Pia Cayetano said Friday that the committee on environment has agreed with her to initiate an investigation into the $120 million casino-hotel project of a Korean firm inside the free port administered by the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority.

Cayetano said this after obtaining the commitment of the Senator Ma. Ana Consuelo Madrigal to look into the plan to destroy 161 “diseased” trees, including those that would not survive balling and relocation, to clear the way for the construction of the Ocean 9 Casino Resort and Hotel project of Grand Utopia, Inc.

Cayetano said Senator Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, chair of the committee on labor, has also given his consent to join the inquiry.

Madrigal and Estrada will initiate a joint investigation into their respective issues when the Senate resumes sessions on January 19 after a month-long Christmas break, she said.

On Tuesday, Cayetano delivered a privilege speech assailing the casino project which was exposed by architect and urban planner Felino Palafox Jr.

Palafox Jr. had said that more than 300 trees would be cut for the project. The SBMA ecology center counted 366 trees at the two-hectare project site in August.

The senator noted that this tree-cutting spree was promptly denied by SBMA, claiming that a no-tree-cutting policy was being enforced in the former American military base.

Cayetano, former chair of the Senate committee on environment, conducted an on-site hearing in April in Subic Bay, but on a separate issue. She wanted to ascertain possible environmental violations in the construction of two high-rise buildings by Hanjin Heavy Industries in the middle of the Subic forest.

"In the draft committee report, we found that SBMA was negligent in ensuring that the environment is preserved and that our laws are observed. By virtue of a memorandum of agreement, those responsibilities were relegated to SBMA by DENR," said Cayetano.

On Wednesday, a team that conducted an environmental survey of the area confirmed that at least 161 trees will have to be cut at the site.

Pastor Malabrigo of Kanlungan Development Association of Innovators said most of the trees were diseased and his firm had recommended to Grand Utopia Inc. that it reforest eight hectares in a forest preserve in place of the trees that would be cut.

He said their assessment showed that 161 trees at the site had butt-basal and center rot, and these were no longer normal. He said there were only 282 trees at the site.

Kanlungan was hired by Grand Utopia to conduct the initial environmental examination, a requirement before an environmental compliance certificate for the casino-hotel project can be secured.

“Inasmuch as we want to save all the trees in the area, relocation will eventually cause the death of most of the trees which are diseased. Replacement and reforestation is therefore the better option,” Malabrigo said.

He said Kanlungan proposed that for every tree cut at the project site, 50 saplings be planted in the reforestation area, for a total of 8,050 new trees.

“Most of the [sick trees] are mature trees, saplings and poles. These are very common species. The primary basis of our recommendation is the health of the individual [trees]. Balling is very expensive and the survival rate of unhealthy trees is very low,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. also supported the joint committee inquiry, but he suggested slashing the budget and subsidies being provided by the national government to the SBMA.

This will force the SBMA “to be more aware of its responsibilities in overseeing labor standards and environmental laws within its jurisdiction,” he said. By Michael Lim Ubac - Philippine Daily Inquirer

Subic Proxy War

“Not all Filipinos are for sale,” said one of our sources, describing the decision of Palafox and Associates—owned by renowned architect and urban planner Jun Palafox—to turn down $1 million in fees that was offered to it by a Korean client.

The scuttled deal called for the architecture and planning firm to recommended the “clearing” of a two-hectare urban forest in the Subic Bay Freeport, a former American naval base northwest of Manila, to allow its client to build a casino resort. That would have called for the cutting down of 366 trees, including 37 that were over a hundred years old, according to the pro-Palafox camp, which added that the deal supposedly has the backing of “powerful officials” within the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) and the government casino franchise firm Pagcor.

Not so, says SBMA chief Armand Arreza, who believes that the latest controversy to hit the free port is yet another iteration of the lingering and festering fight between Senator Dick Gordon, a former SBMA chairman, and his successor and longtime nemesis Tong Payumo.

Palafox, Arreza said, has allowed himself to be used in a “local political fight” between the two rivals.

In addition, Arreza (who, like his ally Gordon, is a product of the Ateneo de Manila University) said there was no way the trees in question could be “centuries-old,” as they are planted on land reclaimed by Americans from the sea after the Korean War.

If this is, indeed, a proxy war between the Gordons and the Payumos, expect it to turn nastier in the coming weeks. Daxim L. Lucas - BIZ BUZZ - Philippine Daily Inquirer


Renowned architect is a Payumo lackey?
by FELICITO C. PAYUMO - Philippine Daily Inquirer

Daxim Lucas quoted Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) Administrator Armand Arreza as saying that the latest controversy involving the cutting of 366 trees for a hotel-casino complex in the Subic Bay Freeport and a demand by an SBMA official for an 18-percent commission in another SBMA development master plan project is nothing but an “iteration of the lingering and festering fight between Sen. Dick Gordon and longtime nemesis Tong Payumo.” (Big Buzz, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 12/3/08)

I don’t know what Arreza is to Gordon, but Jun Palafox is certainly no lackey to me. Say things at my bidding? Why, the guy has more international stature than I have. That’s an insult for which he can sue for libel.

Levity aside, I learned from Palafox that Arreza threatens to file legal action if Palafox does not identify the person whom the Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial called an “official extortionist.” Then Palafox can demand that Arreza poise the same threat as well at SBMA chairman Fil Salonga who should also be asked to name the SBMA official or officials in an earlier extortion attempt that was reported to him by the representative of Win’s Way, an investor in an oil depot project. (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 12/6/08; read story)

Why Palafox made this exposé, he alone can answer. He was the guest speaker at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Manila and he talked of the new trend in urban planning — away from the sprawling model typified by wide boulevards and by the residents’ need to commute daily to work to a “bikable” and “walkable” neighborhood where “people live upstairs and go downstairs where they shop, take coffee, browse in bookstores and sit in parks, etc.” It was then that he talked of the threat to the only tree park in the CBD (commercial business district) of the Subic Freeport. No one prodded him to talk about it.

Arreza claims that there are no century-old trees on the site. Maybe he is correct. The term “century-old” has been loosely used for old growth, mature trees. But will it matter if the trees are 80-, 60-, or even 50-year-old? He says that they will not be cut but balled and transferred elsewhere. Palafox seriously doubts if this is possible to do with full-grown trees. But the more important question is, why relocate the trees and not the project? There are other areas in the CBD. Why take out the only tree park described by the Ecology Center as “urban forest” because the site is densely stocked?

Palafox enjoys a high reputation for his integrity. The Rotary Club of Manila is supportive of this one Rotarian who was thrust into a controversy but in a positive light. Rather than affix his name to a project that would cut or remove 366 trees, including 37 endangered species listed by the SBMA Ecology Center, he declined a $1-million architectural engagement enough to pay his payroll for six months. Now, his reputation is under savage attack for blowing the whistle not only on the threat to the tree park but also on an extort attempt in a different project. Will Salonga be subjected to the same attack?

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