“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

This was the thought that occupied my mind as I sat in the bus on my way back to Manila, after spending two days in Baguio. I just finished reading a text message from a friend saying that they just finished doing their protest inside SM Megamall.

Onset

At the beginning of 2012 news came out that SM Mall Baguio intends to cut 43 trees and uproot another 139 (totalling 182 trees) at Luneta Hill to pave the way for the construction of a 7-floor parking building. This sparked a flurry of protests among environmentalists and residents of Baguio City which held a series of demonstrations inside the city.

Escalation

In the dead of night Baguio’s usually tranquil evening was awakened...

...probably by the sound of cracking pine, a tree collapsing on the ground where it had stood for generations.

 

It was a Monday evening when SM did the unthinkable. They proceeded in the midst of darkness to start their mall expansion project that entails the tearing down and balling of 182 trees in Luneta Hill.

It was a struggle that has been long fought by Baguio residents who believe that progress should not come at the expense of its trees which not only host the fragile organisms there, but also give the city its character as a staple of its cultural heritage.

Come Tuesday, the rest of the world was awakened by news that 10 trees have already fallen casualty to the expansion. Tuesday gave news to the world that indeed SM has already made the choice to pave paradise to put up their parking lot.

News of this incident from “the City of Pines” caused a weeklong maelstrom of protests in Facebook, Twitter and, most importantly, in SM Baguio where, by midweek, crowds picketing on the mall’s premises have swollen to thousands, fuelled by the indignation at SM’s refusal to accept a Temporary Environmental Protection Order (TEPO), which was served to SM on the afternoon of Tuesday.

 

Protests escalated to Manila as groups started to hold rallies at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) office in Quezon City.  By Friday, the protests became more widespread as another group was violently dispersed by SM North Edsa’s mall security when they picketed their entrance; in SM Megamall, a flash mob of more than a hundred caused a stir when mall security forcefully dispersed the silent crowd of activists that displayed messages printed on their t-shirts. Meanwhile, in Baguio, a group of students held a noise barrage in front of SM Baguio as they served the new TEPO from the Baguio City Regional Trial Court Branch 5, which extended the Temporary Environmental Protection Order until the case filed by concerned Baguio residents are resolved.

On hindsight

Personally, the whole experience of bearing witness to the unfolding events around the issue of SM’s expansion plans, as well as the privilege of being able to go and be in solidarity with the  community in their efforts not only to preserve their pine trees but also their heritage which is given character by their environment which in these recent times have been encroached by unsustainable development.’

Bearing witness to this grave injustice and violence towards helpless trees that are older than Baguio itself and has for generations sustained the life to countless organisms compels me to take action. For to bear witness and do nothing is to be a part of the indifference that allows such miscarriages of justice prevail.

I believe that trees play a vital role to the environment. It is unacceptable and irresponsible that a shopping mall expansion would be used as an excuse to destroy precious trees that are an integral part of our ecosystems. It is ironic that such organisms, which together act as heat sinks in urban settings that are increasingly choked by carbon dioxide, are being displaced and killed to make space for more carbon emitting objects.

In retrospect, the securing of a longer TEPO somehow teaches us that whenever a  small group of thoughtful people rise up against the status quo of profit and consumption that runs against the basic principle of environmental sustainability, then people do hear whenever a tree falls.  This is the lesson that the people who stood up against the giant that is SM teaches us. It challenges our long held assumptions about what is important and what makes sense, not only for people but for the benefit of all life on the planet.