Is cutting trees the only way? | Inquirer Opinion

Is cutting trees the only way?

/ 05:15 AM May 26, 2024

The campaign of a group of Cebuanos from a small island town to save more than 700 trees, including those that are half a century old, reminds us again of the need to maintain a judicious balance between infrastructure development and environmental protection. Both are crucial to the progress of any nation but it does not have to be one or the other—if the government wills it, it can do both.

The case in Poro, Camotes Island, is not the first and certainly will not be the last in the Philippines’ quest to be a developed country. The residents have already gathered at least 1,674 signatures to oppose the plan of the Cebu government to cut down the trees to give way to a road widening project. The trees—acacia, “lomboy” (java plum fruit), and bangkal (Leichhardt pine) from 60 to 70 years old, a few even a century old—line the 14-kilometer road that is up for widening. The residents said they support infrastructure improvements but these should not be done at the peril of the environment.

Cebu’s provincial officials have met this week with the residents and clergy of Poro, whose parish priest is leading the petition. Before the dialogue, Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia said she would “listen to all sides and look for a possible middle ground.” She also urged the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to speak up on the issue “including the decision on how progress should go with the environment.” She would later explain to the petitioners that cutting down the trees was necessary for public safety and that not all the trees would be cut down.

Tree-planting campaign

There have been many previous attempts to stop the government from cutting trees for road widening projects. In 2012, for example, the Save the Trees Coalition (STC) filed a civil case in a bid to save 486 trees that were up for cutting to widen the Manila North Road in Angeles and Mabalacat cities. The case did not prosper because the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) scrapped the plan anyway. In 2020, STC filed another case to stop the cutting of 259 trees for a road widening project leading to Clark Freeport. It did manage to obtain a temporary environmental protection order that saved the trees for a year, but the said order was eventually dissolved by an Angeles City court in 2021, paving the way for the trees to be eventually felled.


Last year, reports said 8,766 trees were cut down for the road widening of the South Luzon Expressway. These trees including the Palawan cherry, ironically, were part of the DENR’s tree-planting campaign in 2012. The DENR said previously that it does not want to cut trees unless “absolutely necessary for public safety.” It said these trees along road-widening projects could result in accidents and endanger the lives of motorists and residents.

Endemic trees

But is cutting trees the only way to implement infrastructure projects, particularly road widening? Advocates like urban planner and architect Felino Palafox Jr. have long suggested alternative solutions such as creating diversion roads or containing existing trees within an island to save, instead of killing, them. He cited countries like Singapore, Japan, and the Netherlands where trees and greenery are part of urban planning.

Trees shouldn’t be considered a hindrance to infrastructure development. They beautify the environment and fit right into the modern world’s obsession with aesthetics—and beyond that, they serve a practical value that contributes to the livability of a place: they provide shade to pedestrians and motorists, absorb air pollution, and help bring down temperature especially in cities and concrete jungles, as well as prevent flooding. The Philippines also has so many beautiful endemic trees that can be showcased on our roads and green spaces just like what Japan has done with its sakura trees that can be found even in the middle of cities.

Shortsighted plans

Inquirer columnist Joel Ruiz Butuyan wrote in 2021 that roads should be jointly managed by the DPWH with other agencies, particularly DENR, to ensure that features like greenery, pedestrian access, and leisure spaces would be incorporated into urban plans. Butuyan noted that while the DENR has a say in the cutting of roadside trees and issuing environmental permits for road construction, its role remains “passive” and readily gives whatever the DPWH wants. “The DPWH and the DENR should have long-term blueprints for our roads, and not the kind of ad hoc and shortsighted plans that the DPWH has long been used to that periodically results in the massacre of trees and demolition of pedestrian spaces,” he wrote.

As the government agency whose mandate is to protect, conserve, and manage the environment and natural resources for present and future generations, the DENR should actively champion the planting of trees and help communities protect them from chainsaws. Our roads, as Butuyan said, have been designed around vehicles it’s time they are “redesigned and repurposed” to create a more livable environment.

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