Reprieve for a city’s lungs
Even as human lungs are under threat from a host of lethal invaders, the latest of which is the COVID-19, it comes as good news that the City of Manila has just saved its own “lungs”—the Arroceros Forest Park in Ermita.
The Manila City government, headed by Mayor Isko Moreno, recently signed Ordinance No. 8607 turning the patch of green into a “permanent forest park.” The declaration goes beyond words. In disclosing the news, the Mayor’s office also said it was allocating P1 million for the park’s continued operation and maintenance, a joint arrangement between the city government and a private foundation, known as Winner Foundation, which has served as the park’s instigator and guardian since its establishment.
Chiqui Mabanta, speaking for the Winner Foundation, said the site of Arroceros Forest Park used to be known as the “Parian de Arroceros,” a settlement for Chinese rice merchants, hence its name, the Spanish word for “rice.” The area remained largely abandoned through the years, especially after the destruction following the “Liberation” of Manila marking the end of World War II. The property was acquired by the City of Manila from the then Department of Education, Culture and Sports. But 25 years ago, the Winner Foundation convinced city officials to allow the establishment of a forest park in the empty lot, then an eyesore because of the ruins and debris that years of neglect had left behind.
“It started with debris. A lot of people think the park was always there, the forest was always there,” Mabanta told the Inquirer in an earlier report. “There were a few old trees around in the perimeter of the [park], but [Winner Foundation] planted 3,000 trees.”
Through the years, the Arroceros Forest Park has become a haven of green coolness in the heart of an otherwise sweltering and polluted city. Even in the middle of the day, so the report in this paper went, the towering trees provide both shelter and peace, while serving as a natural haven for many kinds of birds like brown shrikes, barn swallows, common sandpipers, and narcissus flycatchers. As well, the forest park is home to 150 species of plants, most notably narra and molave trees “which are now classified as vulnerable and endangered species, respectively.” And certainly, a rare sight in a highly urbanized locale is a colony of fireflies, increasingly rare even in provincial areas.
The Arroceros Forest Park itself has led a “vulnerable and endangered” existence, subjected to several attempts to convert it to other uses, from a parking building to commercial outlets. When now congressman Lito Atienza was mayor, he proposed to demolish the forest park to give way to the Department of Education’s Manila division office and a dormitory for women. Atienza managed to get his way despite the protests of the Winner Foundation and the public, the new office building resulting in the death of 200 trees or one-third of the tree population. “The dense mini-forest with a thick canopy was gone,” said the Inquirer report.
In 2018, it was announced that the city, then headed by former Mayor Erap Estrada, was planning to put up a gym for use of the University of Manila inside the forest park. The Winner Foundation once more mobilized public opinion, circulating a petition against Estrada’s plan. Originally, it had set a goal of 1,000 signatures, but more than 113,000 eventually signed up.
Today, “Yorme,” as Moreno is popularly called, has at least safeguarded the Arroceros Forest Park from further threats. The declaration he issued calls for the formation of the Arroceros Forest Park Governing Committee, which will develop and oversee plans for the forest park. “The use and enjoyment of the Arroceros Forest Park must be consistent with the principles of sustainable development and the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology,” the ordinance said.
Of course, no one is of the illusion that the Arroceros Forest Park will be safe from human greed and official shortsightedness in the years to come. But the declaration has at least underlined the importance and need for “green” spaces in urban areas, for maintaining the “lungs” of a city, and providing denizens space for stress-free leisure and appreciation of the gifts of nature granted us.
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