THE TREE MURDERER : How Lito Atienza and the DENR are killing FIVE THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED FORTY TWO Century-Old Trees
By Tonette Orejas
Central Luzon Desk
Environmental Issues, Infrastructure
CITY OF SAN FERNANDO—
Artists in Pampanga province on Thursday started painting human figures on the trunks of more than 1,200 trees set to be cut because they stand in the way of a road expansion.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has allowed the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) to cut the trees so the MacArthur Highway could be expanded from Apalit all the way to this city.
As of Saturday, some 100 trees on the Telabastagan segment of the highway here going to Angeles City had been painted with the protest sign—a human body with arms stretched out and around the tree trunk.
But the artists had run out of paint. Members of the Alaya Chamber of the Arts were calling for donations, so artists could paint the protest symbol on more trees, according to Cecile Yumul, a local environmentalist who has asked the DENR and DPWH to stop cutting the trees.
“These trees served as temporary homes to evacuees who were running away from the eruptions of Mt. Pinatubo [in 1991]. The treetops became our guide when the route was dark and [covered] by sand [during the eruptions],” Yumul said.
Concert to save trees
The trees “breathe out” oxygen and serve as buffer against flooding by absorbing rainfall in their canopies and in the soil, which make them all the more important, she said.
“The government built a road on the FVR Megadike. We have the North Luzon Expressway (NLEx) [and] the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTex). With these new highways, the DPWH can leave MacArthur [Highway] alone and spare the trees,” Yumul said.
On Friday night, musical bands, performance artists and Kapampangan singer Ara Mina mounted a concert to gather support for the campaign to save the trees. The petition has so far gathered over 1,000 signatures.
5,442 trees sentenced
The April 22 permit given by Environment Secretary Lito Atienza would cover 5,446 trees in Apalit to San Fernando in Pampanga, and Bamban to Capas and Tarlac City to San Manuel, both in Tarlac.
In a memorandum attached to the permit, Atienza said the tree cutting could not be avoided with the expansion of the MacArthur Highway, also known as the Manila North Road.
At least 1,282 trees will be transferred by earth balling while 4,164 trees will be cut, according to Sofio Quintana, regional technical director for forestry of the DENR.
In San Fernando, at least 82 trees had been cut as of Friday.
Quintana said Atienza gave three conditions before the DPWH could start cutting trees:
The agency must put up billboards informing the public that the DENR had authorized the tree cutting and earth balling.
The DPWH must replace each cut tree with 30 seedlings, all of which will be given to the nursery of the DENR for its reforestation activities. The logs must also be turned over to the DENR.
The DPWH must make sure representatives of the DENR and local governments are present during the tree cutting and earth balling.
The permit is good for 120 days. When that period lapses, the DPWH will have to get a new permit before it can proceed with its clearing activities, according to Quintana.
He stressed that none of the trees were on the list of endangered species. Most are acacia and fruit trees, he said, citing results of a census.
The Pampanga and Tarlac engineering districts have proceeded slowly with the clearing to comply with the requirements prescribed by the DENR, said Alfredo Tolentino, public works regional director.
While the road widening project’s P700-million budget did not include provisions for the purchase of seedlings, the DPWH was able to scrape together funds from its savings, Tolentino said.
Once a dirt road
The 200-kilometer MacArthur Highway, which starts from the rotunda of Caloocan City to La Union, was originally a dirt road before the American colonial era.
Tolentino said the highway was being improved to provide an alternative route to motorists wanting to save on toll fees at the NLEx and the SCTex.
Tarlac City Mayor Genaro Mendoza said he had not received a letter from the DPWH about the tree cutting.
“They can do it for as long as they comply with the requirements of the DENR and if the project is truly beneficial to the people,” Mendoza said in a phone interview.
The Pampanga Chamber of Commerce and Industry lifted its protest and has since supported the project to improve traffic and hasten progress in the province.
Part of Pampanga heritage
Local environmentalist Yumul continues to oppose the project, saying traffic management is a matter of enforcement.
The DPWH, Land Transportation Office and local governments should ban trucks from using the MacArthur Highway and direct them all to the NLEx and the SCTEx, she said.
“Why should they sacrifice the trees if they fail to do their jobs?” Yumul said in Filipino.
The expansion of the highway removes a safety buffer between the communities and the road, said Lito Ocampo, president of homeowners associations in the city’s 100 subdivisions.
The Advocacy for the Development of Central Luzon said the trees should be saved as global warming had become a cause for concern.
The trees are part of Pampanga’s heritage, having been planted under the leadership of Eusebius Julius Halsema when he was district engineer of the province between 1914 and 1916, according to Maria Lourdes Carmela Jade Pangilinan, another green advocate.