Manila’s ‘last lung’
Known as the “last lung” of the city of Manila, the Arroceros Forest Park thrived under the stewardship of the environmental group Winner Foundation, and became a virtual oasis in the midst of a bustling city.
With its secondary growth forest of 61 different tree varieties and 8,000 ornamental plants providing a habitat for 10 different bird species, it literally provided a breath of fresh air to dispirited and weary urban dwellers.
Winner Foundation became the property’s caretaker when it entered into an agreement with then Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim to create and develop a forest park in the area. The 15-year development plan lapsed in 2008, and was extended until 2013.
Recently, the city government asked Winner to vacate the premises which, it said, it would use to build a gymnasium for students and faculty of the Universidad de Manila (UDM) nearby. The 30-day deadline given lapsed on Aug. 7.
Despite the demand letter and after meeting with Winner Foundation, Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada deferred the plan and allowed the group to stay on. But he also clarified that the city government was not abandoning its plan to recover the 21,428-square-meter land, which it bought from the Land Bank in 1993 “strictly for educational purposes.”
As envisioned by Estrada and the City School Board, the city government will construct a sports gymnasium in a small 2,000-sq-m portion of the property for the use of students and faculty of the city-run UDM which, a city official said, is a requirement for its accreditation with the Commission on Higher Education.
But though officials gave assurances that the city’s takeover of the park and its construction of the gymnasium won’t result in the destruction of thousands of trees and ornamental plants, people recall how the construction some years back of a nearby parking building — hardly used since — and a school building did just that.
Despite vehement protests from environmentalists, heritage conservationists and Winner Foundation, some 70 percent of the park’s trees were cut down and the archaeological site and artifacts dating back to the days of the Parian destroyed.
Given its excellent record in managing the forest park, Winner Foundation should renegotiate its contract to continue the group’s custodian role over it, mainly because the quality of life in this ever-loyal but decaying city depends on it.
Maintaining this spot of green in the midst of a concrete jungle is just what Manila needs for relief from the dank air and noxious fumes that has made it one of the most polluted cities in the world—ranking 17th out of 269 cities surveyed, according to 2017 data.
Pollution from particulate matter (including gases emitted from motor vehicles) that can find its way deep into lungs, is to blame for 3.2 million preventable deaths every year, according to the World Health Organization.
In an era threatened by global warming and climate change, trees such as those found in the forest park clean the very air we breathe, balancing the noxious gases released by the city’s industries with the oxygen they breathe out.
Thanks to its thick vegetation, the Arroceros Forest Park also protects people from air and noise pollution in Manila. The lush greenery serves as a convenient refuge from heat and stress brought about by the traffic, the teeming population and the congested streets.
Maintaining the park means preserving a piece of history as well. Historians say “Arroceros” or “rice dealers,” recalls the time when the park was a venue for rice traders in 16th and 17th century Manila. The property also became the site of Fabrica de Tabacos before it served as barracks during the American colonial period. In the 1960s, the Department of Education held office in the area.
For sure, ceding 2,000 sq m out of 21,000 sq m of property for a gym won’t totally shatter the serenity offered by the park, nor destroy the plants, trees and birds that make it such a peaceful sanctuary from the city’s cacophony.
That is, if its management remains with a civic-oriented group that understands how to maintain the park’s character and environment, and genuinely cares about nurturing nature in the midst of a rapidly changing city landscape and its mercenary demands.
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