Manila’s ‘last lung’ saved


Lifesaving ancient trees got a longer lease on life when Joseph “Erap” Estrada was given the boot in Manila. Frankly, giving a damn about the fate of the aging Estrada is a useless exercise, no matter how politically interesting it all is.

But with Estrada’s unceremonious political demise, thousands upon thousands get to console themselves that Manila’s “last lung,” the Arroceros Forest Park (AFP), stays once they know of it.

It is ironic thousands are unaware they had been given another boost at a better, healthier life now that the nearly 3,000 trees, including rare 150-year-old narra, molave and balete trees, thriving in the 2.2-hectare AFP remain untouched.

Admittedly, many Filipinos, too, particularly those living in the provincial cities of abundant trees, will hardly care, seeing that the perilous fate of the AFP had no significance to their immediate surroundings.

But it will be evident later why the case of AFP, if it had vanished, will show why tree parks and green spaces giving relief to urbanites all over the country are not at all safe from politics.

Anyway, Manila Mayor-elect Isko Moreno Domagoso has emphatically guaranteed AFP’s relief from oblivion. “Now that I am the mayor-elect, no, no, no. AFP is full of trees that help us breathe better in Lawton,” Moreno told a news website.

Lawton in Manila is where the unaware thousands of daily commuters, mostly university students, from other cities in the metropolis converge and pass through every day. All benefit from Arroceros’ fresh air.

What exactly is the AFP?

It is a small park, at just about 2.2 hectares. Located alongside the riverside of the polluted Pasig River, the park is a noticeable mystery of a cool green expanse in the otherwise dense, dingy world of Manila.

Arroceros is a combination of the words “arro” (rice) and “ceros” (pier). The late Manila raconteur Nick Joaquin writes that this old district in Ermita, Manila “was called Arroceros because on the wharves along its riverbank were unloaded the barges of rice shipped from the lake towns for sale in the city.”

Unlike Manila’s other major parks, Arroceros as it is now needs thorough grounds rehabilitation. But even as it awaits repair, the thousands of trees there breathing oxygen out and cleaning carbon dioxide pollution right in the heart of Manila, creating an “oasis of fresh air,” is already a wonder.

Few have visited the park as it has been closed off. Yet the park is home to three thousand trees of 61 varieties, 8,000 ornamental plants, six varied bird species and a colony of fireflies, a rarity in highly urbanized Manila.

A University of Santo Tomas study says the park’s mix of forest trees can remove 30 tons of pollutants every single year.

Fireflies are rarities enough but flitting from treetop to treetop are also the Philippine Pied Fantail and the Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, rare bird species which have made the forest park their habitat.

Despite the park’s ecological treasures and environmental importance, Estrada had other plans — he wanted to build a school gymnasium inside the park and it would have gone up had he won and in spite of the uproar from environmentalists.

In blocking the project, Moreno says he suspects the supposed gymnasium conveniently covered up another project, a cockpit.

Moreno has yet to say what he will exactly do to address the problems plaguing the park.
But his initial policy of not touching anything in the park points to its rehabilitation.

As for the park’s political backstory, the Education department had control of the park until the Manila government of Alfredo Lim purchased the park in 1993 and turned its management over to a non-government organization, the Winner Foundation (WF), which renamed it the AFP.

However, Lito Atienza, Lim’s successor, closed the park after a tiff with the WF. Atienza won the legal battle and uprooted 3,000 trees and opened one-third of its area for commercial construction.

Arroceros was again opened to the public when Atienza failed to hold on to his mandate and the Winner Foundation regained park management and replaced the uprooted trees.

Erap’s controversial plans, however, again placed the park’s existence in doubt. WF fought back and filed a case to declare the Arroceros Forest Park a “tree park,” anchoring their arguments on a law which mandates the preservation of permanent spaces, tree parks, and watersheds. Should they win the case, the Arroceros will be permanently protected and maintained by the city.

Interestingly, while Arroceros is the only park under the care of the Manila City government — Luneta is a national park — there is no city ordinance protecting it, making it vulnerable to pressures from business interests.

Arroceros’ legal troubles now bring us to the real issue bedeviling the existence of green spaces all over the country — the country does not have a national law requiring local governments to put up parks and open public green spaces that are proportionate to a city or town’s population.

With no law, environmental experts warn even existing tree parks and green spaces, whether in Manila or Cebu or Davao cities, are always subjected to political winds and naked business interests.

With no law, too, government is not obligated to provide future urban green environments for breathing, for nature grazing, for walking or jogging — all invisible but tangible benefits citizens shouldn’t even ask or demand from government during a time when the planet is warming. Think about it.