Thursday, January 12, 2012

Over-Development in the City of Pines

Another battle is raging between protesters and the mall giant SM over the remaining wooded area at the Luneta Park. The permit to cut or transfer the trees was signed by no other than Environment Secretary Ramon Paje while the sale of the questioned property was signed by President Benigno Aquino III himself.

Baguio is becoming more and more cramped with residential and business establishments. Even the streets are cramping with vendors that are not there until the late nineties. Our parks are overflowing with stalls and there are only limited resting areas left.

But who’s at fault in the first place? Looking back at Baguio’s history, it used to be a tourist magnet and it still is. But being in the travel business in the past, I’ve heard people complaining of the changes that they have witnessed through the years of visiting Baguio. Baguio has lost many of its attractions. One of them is the Crystal Cave which has, like horseback riding, became synonymous to the City. Crystal Cave was supposed to be a protected area but now overrun by residential buildings.

We have elected officials to make sure that the protected areas will be protected and yet, they are being sold and awarded to informal settlers. And some of those who lobby for their awarding are the very officials we have elected as guardians. Now a prime attraction of Baguio is no more.

But can it really be helped with the growing population of the City? And do we really have to accommodate them all and give up our remaining protected and forested areas for residential and business establishments? So is “less is more” not a useful phrase in developing our City? Is expanding further in the far flung vicinities not a good idea for expansion instead of drooling over our last wooded areas? Should we remove all the greens in our City and change them all into concrete? Do we really need additional malls?

When SM bought the portion where their building presently stands, there were also protests but the deals were fast tracked and the people don't remember any public consultation before that public property was sold. Eventually they were allowed to build with several conditions and that it should be an added attraction with different design deviating from their usual buildings representing a shoe box. So SM Resort was created and it became one of the most visited areas in Baguio and the most popular landmark. But with the creation of this big mall, it affected many small business in the City, many went bankrupt and closed.

Still after their victory in acquiring Baguio’s prime lot, they wanted to acquire the other remaining forested area like the wooded area fronting Convention Center and now the one surrounding Luneta Hill.

Baguio was not popular because of these malls. Baguio looked better with lesser buildings and more trees being called the City of Pines. How long will it take before these corporate giants occupy all of our remaining forested areas in Baguio? If the politicians we have selected chose to ignore the abuses of these moguls and continue to give way to the influx of informal settlers, it won’t be long and we will end up breathing poisonous gasses in a supposedly pine scented City. Only 18 percent of Baguio now is forested.

They say creating the green mall will give more jobs to hundreds. That is a noble cause but the bottom line is of course more money for the moguls. But why is money always the main concern nowadays? How about the minutes slowly taken away from our lives because we have fewer trees to absorb the pollution in the air we inhale?

Our local officials don’t want to move against these tycoons because they say the higher ups are the ones responsible for the approval of the developments. Some people say our officials received grease money that’s why they don’t want to join the people’s protests.

Whatever their reasons, without their political will, our chance of winning these battles are slim. These business tycoons will keep coming back until they win unless our politicians establish policies that will protect our remaining breathing spaces.

Wouldn’t it be a sight if our very officials are the ones leading these protests against over-development in the City? In the first place SM Resort is still not paying its taxes in the City. I believe it is also a responsibility of these big businesses to pay their taxes where it’s due.

I wonder why not help develop the surrounding areas instead, give them better livelihood in the BLIST areas. The business tycoons can expand and invest in a different manner by supporting the livelihood of the people in those areas; give them training to make better productions for the supplies needed by the City and the malls.

Will it be less profitable? Probably at first for the malls, but in the long run, I think it will give more improvement to all of the businesses in general. Give those people in the BLIST areas buying power and they will come to spend it in Baguio, like buying of supplies or for recreation. They will become tourists in their own City with enough money to spend. In the end, Baguio and its businesses, including the malls will be the main beneficiary.

With enough money being spent, it will create more jobs, and not only hundreds but thousands will be employed, and it’s not confined to that 76,000 square meters expansion area in question but can spread out in the entire region.

Let’s hope these tycoons and politicians will change their concept that when it comes to progress, it is always infrastructures. Progress can come in many ways and leaving the trees and protected areas behind is responsible development. With responsible development, we can avoid losing more of Baguio's attractions like pine scented breezes and pine tree covered hills.

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