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Talk about the trees

Many column-inches and broadcast minutes—not to mention righteous anger and public ire—have been expended on the issue of the pine trees being earth-balled on the grounds of SM Baguio.

Right now, after a Tepo (or temporary environmental protection order) was issued against SM, the earth-balling has been stopped, and the 41 balled trees are being maintained so that they don’t shrivel up and die. But perhaps this is the best time to talk about the case and the fate of the trees, now that emotions have presumably cooled down and everyone would be able to sit down and talk peaceably and reasonably.

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Guesting at the Bulong-Pulongan sa Sofitel last Tuesday were SM officials Annie Garcia, president of SM Supermalls, and Bien Mateo, vice president for operations. SM Baguio began its operations in 2003, they said, on the property where the old Pines Hotel once stood. But by 2005, stones on the rip-rap retaining wall had started falling off. Another episode took place in 2010, and this time, said Garcia, they decided a “more permanent” solution needed to be found. After all, the weakened wall constituted a threat to public safety.

The solution hit on was to build a sturdier retaining wall and to reinforce it and perhaps maximize the space, a seven-story parking structure and “Sky Garden” would be built alongside it. The trouble was that, to make room for the proposed wall and structure, a total of 182 pine trees and “Japonica alnus” trees would have to be removed.

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The SM officials made clear that they secured the necessary permits from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the local government. The decision was to “earth-ball” the trees that would be removed, and transplant them elsewhere on the SM Baguio property and on a nearby DENR reservation. In addition, SM promised to plant about 300 trees on the planned Sky Garden and another 20,000 trees in Baguio and environs.

But protests against the planned removal of trees built up, with “Save 182,” a multisectoral “protest movement,” organizing and holding almost-daily marches and vigils at SM Baguio.

What bemuses the SM officials is that only 182 out of more than 1,300 trees on the SM premises will be transplanted (not cut down). Even more puzzling is that thousands of pine and other trees have been cut down in previous years in Baguio to make room for malls and new structures, including in Camp John Hay which is supposed to be a “protected area.”

There are many theories suggested for why the protests have been so vehement, and why SM Baguio seems to have been singled out. But what remains clear is that if our hearts bleed for trees, let them bleed for trees everywhere, and not just for trees being cleared by a retail giant.

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Whatdo Shamcey Supsup, Leo Valdez, Antonio Meloto, Art Valdez, and Dr. Manuel Canlas have in common? They were American Field Service (AFS) scholars who either studied in a Japanese secondary school (in the case of Supsup) or who lived with American families and studied in US high schools for a year.

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Supsup graduated summa cum laude from UP and topped the architecture board exam and was a Miss Universe second runner-up, while Leo Valdez is a famous singer who has garnered honors here and abroad.

Meloto is a 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and the founder of the multiawarded Gawad Kalinga Community Development Foundation. Art Valdez was the leader of the 2006 Philippine Mt. Everest Expedition, while Dr. Canlas is a renowned allergologist and immunologist and a 1984 TOYM awardee for medicine.

All of them also became the recipients of the First Mabuhay AFS Awards (MAA) during the AFS’ 50th anniversary celebration in August 2007.

The AFS Returnees’ Foundation of the Philippines (ARFP) has announced its search for nominees for its second MAA in August. The nominees should be AFS alumni who are 35 years and older and who have made outstanding contributions to society in any of the following fields—culture and arts, science and technology, health, education, politics and governance, business, environment, media, sports, and community development. The nominees may be based in the Philippines or abroad. For more information and to obtain nomination forms, contact ARFP president Ed Dames (e-mail:  [email protected]) or Dr. Pilar Ramos-Jimenez, MAA committee chair (e-mail: [email protected]).

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The AFS is an international, voluntary, nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that started in 1914 as a volunteer ambulance corps which was later transformed into “the world’s most experienced international student exchange organization with programs in over 50 countries and over 100,000 volunteers.”

From 1957 to 1979, AFS sent 1,047 Filipino teenagers to the United States to live with American foster families and to study in American high schools for one year. During this period, the Philippines also accepted 609 American adolescents who lived and studied here.

After a 20-year hiatus, the AFS was revived in 2001 by the ARFP with the implementation of the Asean high school exchange program with AFS Japan, where 41 Japanese and 20 Filipino exchange students participated. The yearlong study program in the United States was resumed in 2004 under the auspices of AFS Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program, with scholars also sent to other partner countries in Europe, Asia, and South America.

Those interested to study under the AFS Intercultural Program and Filipino families who are interested to welcome foreign students to their homes may access information from its website (www.afs.ph/).

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