Olongapo SubicBay BatangGapo Newscenter

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Subic controversy

HIDDEN AGENDA By Mary Ann Ll. Reyes - PhilStar

Our country’s reputation has suffered another black eye, this time, because our kababayan, world renowned architect Jun Palafox, is being persecuted, not by foreigners but by some of his own countrymen.

After pulling out of an architectural design project in Subic, Palafox is reportedly at the receiving end of a smear campaign initiated by people who resent the noted architect’s criticisms about alleged violations of local laws by both the project proponent and the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA).

Palafox is no doubt one of the world’s best and most sought after architect and urban/environmental planner and definitely a pride of the Philippines. He has been credited for the masterplanning of Ayala Heights, Greenbelt, SM Malls, Robinson’s and Rockwell – including Clark and Subic., with over 10 billion square meters of building area developed by his firm. Inspite of this, some fellow Filipinos are out to punish him for speaking his mind out about the Subic controversy.

The controversy involves a Korean hotel and casino project inside the Freeport zone in Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority which is threatening the existence of about 366 trees, mostly a century old and 30 of which are classified as endangered.

Palafox, who was hired by developer Grand Utopia and Korean architectural firmYamasaki to put the final touches on the project’s design, decided to back out when he found out that management intended to cut the trees.

He says he thought all along that his firm can participate in the design but it turned out that the foreign architect was asked to design the project and that Palafox will just attach his name. He says there was simply no way to go about the project without uprooting these trees. Palafox said no to a $1-million architectural fee and this was when his nightmare began.

Concerned SBMA employees are saying that SBMA management and the Ecology Center are ante-dating reports to show that previous projects of Palafox in Subic, in particular the Lighthouse Marina Hotel and Resort and the Moonbay Marina, were built in areas classified as forest parks. But Palafox insists that the alleged violations are not true, claiming that these areas used to be dump sites and that these projects had all the government clearances.

There are also reports that SBMA has allowed the Korean casino developer, which has reportedly convinced another Filipino architect to stamp his seal of approval to the project, to uproot, ball, and transfer the more than 366 old trees. According to experts, this process has a high tree mortality rate. These century-old trees are part of our heritage, not to mention their huge environmental value.

The latest about the controversy is that a new report from the SBMA and Ecology Center has reduced the number of trees to be affected by the project from 366 to around 80 and that none of these are old and endangered. The people at Subic’s Ecology Center have a lot of explaining to do if such a report actually exists. How is it possible that 286 old trees can disappear just like that?


Quicksand of greed

Philippine Daily Inquirer Editorial

Administrator Armand Arreza of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority responded to urban planner Felino Palafox’s allegations of official extortion in the SBMA with the tried-and-tested lines so much favored by today’s government officials: Where is your proof? Bring it to the proper forum. Resorting to “technical legalism,” as Ferdinand Marcos liked to call it, is the favorite response of beleaguered officials from top to bottom to citizens harassed by, and outraged over, the locust-like hunger for money of politicians and bureaucrats.

As our nation sinks in a quicksand of un-moderated greed, the citizen who has had enough really has two choices, which are not choices at all. The first is to be subjected to an official inquisition in which the burden of proof falls on him—an unfair burden because everyone knows the corrupt reality of our government where the powerful will all gang up on the powerless citizen. The second is that even among the citizenry, apathy and defeatism have conspired to make many more adapt to the corrupt nature of our institutions instead of rejecting corruption and actively fighting it.

To be sure, Arreza had a point in asking Palafox, who informed Arreza of the 18 percent commission demanded by an unnamed official to permit Palafox’s firm to get on the short list of bidders for an updating of the SBMA’s master plan, to name the erring official, either privately or publicly. Palafox has declined, although in disclosing more details about the alleged extortion, he has exculpated Arreza himself. We cannot presume to figure out why Palafox would hold back such information, but we can surmise the troubling realities anyone in Palafox’s shoes would be facing under similar circumstances.

The problem is that corruption is so widespread that identifying one erring official would only subject the accuser to harassment by the legion of corrupt officials throughout the government. And it would subject all the employees of any firm that dares to blow the whistle to harassment as well. Meanwhile, as what passes for our justice system grinds slowly on the case, the whistleblower will be out of business, and be persecuted socially and politically, besides.

The amazing thing is that Palafox spoke out at all, never mind how long it took him to do so. In a sense he can do this because his firm is large and notable—and international in scope—enough for him to take such risks. But his allegations are only the tip of the iceberg so to speak, as anyone engaged in real estate development, including planning, is subjected to a horde of local and national extortion facilitated by red tape.

The string of technicalities that end up strangling any effort at reform can be seen in all sorts of things besides rigged bidding processes and problems arising from applications for permits as well as those related to policies. The SBMA itself has been hounded by the insanity of one of its prime assets—the healthy ecology of the area—slowly being eroded by new projects that are bungled, so that the environment is degraded and Filipino workers are treated so badly that hostility to investments is fostered.

Think of the trees cut down for corporate housing, or the more recent question of even more trees being felled for a Korean casino development. Think of Filipino workers dying due to hazardous working conditions. A more proactive, fairer and more genuinely discriminating bureaucracy in the SBMA or anywhere else could have avoided such problems from the start, by weeding out irresponsible investors and sticking to a plan that conserves the environment to begin with.

We are being told by officialdom to focus on the economy, particularly at a time of global crisis. Anything that questions business-as-usual among the extortionists in government is pronounced unpatriotic because it is destabilizing. But it is precisely because everyone wants good, long-lasting jobs, and development that lasts that more people should reveal in public what everyone seems to know in private. They should expose who the crooks are, and show how their crookedness is squandering our opportunities for growth.

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