A couple of months back, I was among the few that was somewhat outraged by the planned balling and transplanting of a number of pine trees in Baguio City by the gargantuan Mall and Real Estate Corporation SM.
My outrage didn't stem from the tiny brained rants that abound among cave dwelling environmentalists, it had more to do with preserving the vestiges of the Baguio City of my youth. Although some say that Baguio City's decline has been happening for decades, I believe I still had a chance to see it during its better times in the early eighties.
Apart from the cold weather, what made visiting Baguio City a real treat for me was the vista on top of session road back then.
From the top of the steps leading to the Baguio Cathedral, one could see thousands of pine trees surrounding the city and that was what really justified the city's other moniker which is "the City of Pines".
Perhaps the value of the pines that are inside the city itself is perhaps more ornamental or aesthetic than ecologically functional. It filled up the open spaces which were in the design made by Daniel Burnham for the city and somewhat made the city feel more like a part of its surrounding wooded areas.
Now, over the decades, the wooded areas surrounding Baguio City gave way to the sprawl of houses and buildings. This happened in such an unplanned way that it destroyed the vistas that once made Baguio City really remarkable.
In 2003, I was with the DTI Secretary Mar Roxas when he had a "dialogue" with market vendors from the Baguio City Market at the foot of session road. Even then, there was opposition to the building of the SM mall on top of Session Road.
The market vendors then feared it would kill the historic Baguio City Market and appealed to Roxas for help in the matter.
I scarcely remember what commitments were made by Roxas (whose family still owns a large piece of property in front of Wright Park), but the former DTI Secretary advised the market vendors to come up with a plan to revitalize the market so that it can compete with the mall.
Remembering that meeting about ten years ago while visiting the Baguio City market in 2011, it seems none of the market vendors really worked on making plan to improve their market.
It's still as crummy, hard to navigate or walk through, and disorganized. People still report being victimized by pick-pockets or being harassed by "porters".
The shops and businesses lining up session road when I walked down session road from the recently restored historic hotel Casa Vallejo (which sits on the side opposite from SM Baguio) still seemed to have the rundown feel. It reminded me of those dingy places in Binondo or Ongpin where it seems no one really give a crap about making the front of their establishment less of an eyesore.
Sadly, the shop fronts that seemed to scream out of the general mess are those of KFC, McDonald's and 7-11's. It is sad because these gaudy frontages don't blend in and actually destroy the look of a grand avenue that in its prime reminds one of those charming small American towns.
Baguio, perhaps in a bid to embrace commercialism in a misguided way, completely forgot that what makes a place worth visiting is its distinctness.
If Vigan has its Spanish Period houses on a small stretch of road, Baguio City could have had something that perhaps could be look like an avenue during the 40's or 50's period. Or at least, manifest an attempt to make its look consistent with an over-arching aesthetic guide -- building on or reflecting its pedigree as a design of Daniel Burnham.
If you're saddened by the plight of Baguio's pine trees, a quick tour of areas just outside Baguio will bring you face to face with entire mountains converted into vegetable terraces or occupied by huge clusters of houses on stilts.
Clearly, the problem with Baguio City and its pines is not one of commercialism killing nature, but of a resistance to the implementation of a sound land use policy.
If you want to have a deeper and broader idea of what is happening in Baguio, you have to locate it within the city's struggle to tame its squatting problems.
In the sixties, squatting was already a problem in Baguio and it was perhaps exacerbated by the repeal of the anti-squatting law.
More recently, a position paper on revising Baguio City's charter makes a few points worth considering with regard to its land use problems.
From Bad to Worse
The proposed Baguio Charter through House Bill 2813 introduced by Hon. Mauricio Domogan in Congress contains questionable provisions, which are bound to turn the Baguio land situation from bad to worse.
The most salient features of the proposed Charter revisions can be found in Article II: Alienable and Disposable Public Lands of the Baguio Townsite Reservation. The gist of this article is the titling of all alienable and disposable public lands in the name of the City with the objective of boosting the city's revenue generation capacity.
The proposed Charter provides for the "Conduct of Massive Subdivision Survey, the issuance of Original Certificate of Title for all alienable and disposable public land in the name of the city, Awarding of lands based on the formula of DENR, Composition of Awards Committee, Moneys acquired through the sale of land, and the NCIP provisions on Ancestral lands in Baguio".
A subdivision survey is not enough to solve the gargantuan land problems besetting the city. The solution to the land problem should be based on a comprehensive study that would include land classification and usage, an updated land map and the resolution of conflicting land claims. Without this, there is a danger of manipulation that could lead to the encroachment of lands that are not included in the alienable and disposable public lands. This study should be treated as a pre-requisite to the charter revision, in order to make the Charter responsive to the actualities happening in the city.
Also, while the Charter revision states that those ancestral lands recognized under RA 8731 or the Indigenous Peoples' Rights Act (IPRA) are not covered by the titling, ancestral land claimants are currently under-going the tedious processes of land registration due to conflicting land laws as stated above, including the IPRA law. Even the landmark Carino Doctrine recognizing the indigenous peoples' claim to their ancestral lands has not been implemented.
Once passed, the Domogan bill would include these unsettled claims to ancestral lands among the public lands to be titled to whoever City Hall pleases. The Ibaloi ancestral land claimants would be subjected to further dispossession in clear violation of the indigenous peoples' inherent right to their ancestral land.
House Bill 2813 would also perpetuate the tedious and expensive Townsite Sales Application (TSA) as the primary mode of land acquisition in Baguio. Applicants would still be burdened with the public bidding requirement under the TSA which directly limits the opportunities for land acquisition to those who have the capacity to bid.
In addition, complications in the processes of land acquisition has inherently entrenched graft and corruption in such processes. According to its author, the Charter revision is aimed at curbing this problem. But giving the same powers to the city mayor without overhauling the process would only mean a transfer of corruption from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to the city government.
While it is not proper to pre-judge the integrity of whoever will sit in the said office, common sense would tell us that giving this power to a person with political interest would also politicize the process. There is a big possibility that the awarding of lands, through the revised Charter would be tainted with corruption and political favors.