So it’s 182 trees versus SM. We’ve seen it in the news and we’ve hashtagged our way through Twitter and Facebook to get so “involved” in the whole thing. If you’ve been living under a rock (warning, SM might build something there too if you’re not careful), all trees at SM Baguio’s land are going to be to “balled” or uprooted and planted elsewhere to make space for a parking lot. This is progress, at least, as compared to the original 142 while the other forty were supposed to be cut. SM is not going to bring down the trees anymore. Environmental activists, however, are saying that they’re doing something worse.
Tree-balling or earthballing involves digging around a tree, creating a ball of soil, and roots under it so it can be replanted. The procedure is used a lot in gardens and forestry so trees can be “saved” and transferred instead of cut down. This seems to be the compromise DENR resorted to after the numerous protests, with Jesse Robredo, the Secretary of Interior and Local Government, saying to Inquirer that “there are no absolutes” in recognizing the rights of both the landowner and the environmentalists.
This should have been the end of it, but the environmentalists didn’t buy it all. In fact, they’ve decried it more than the cutting. Cutting would at least end it all quickly for the trees while tree-balling might as well be a crueler death sentence, slowly dying from poor soil quality or infections. In fact, after around 500 of trees were earthballed and transplanted in the 1990’s by the Camp John Hay Corporation, only around 20 % survived.
Many people got involved into this “Save 182 Trees” campaign, from independent tree huggers to international organizations like Greenpeace. It was trending in Twitter for quite a while, along with The Voice, Jessica Sanchez’s save in AI and Justin Beiber’s rumored pregnancy.
I’m not really that much of a “green warrior” (though I do segregate my rubbish), so I’m not going to talk about how important trees are to the environment. We already know that they are. Even SM knows this. But then, why is it killing trees? Well because they can and they think they should. As much as the environment is a prevailing factor in the whole thing, it’s more than that—it’s a balancing act of rights and interests.
The government is at the unfortunate fulcrum in this moral balance with trees, capitalism, and a whole lot of public indignation. We’re civilized after all, so we formally lobby for our interests along with the activism in the streets and our very strongly worded tweets. If we didn’t have government, SM would have been blown up by now and planted with rows of saplings, with the assumption that environmental anarchy would actually prevail.
On a moral and legal platform, it is an issue of protecting SM’s corporate and private rights while respecting the environmental rights of the public at the same time. It’s also an issue of scale. If SM were simply a man living in Baguio and he wanted to cut down a tree in his yard, then we’d probably leave him alone. But we’re talking about almost 200 trees, a huge area that people see and even love, that it doesn’t matter anymore that SM has the rights to do whatever the hell it wants with its property. And yeah, we’re talking about SM, a commercial powerhouse that seems a whole lot bigger than any of us, the little people who go into their malls.
When I’m in Manila, I actually like SM because it’s a convenient place to shop. As much as I find it rather daunting that there is an SM practically in every major city, I do understand that they provide a service. It’s a market, following the most fundamental economics definition. People go there to buy stuff, retailers have a venue to sell, and these malls actually do have a role in encouraging investors, because there is no better ornament for urban capitalism than a mall.
Corporate rights versus environmental rights have always been an issue when large physical structures are involved. Aside from Baguio, other destinations that have issues with big moneymaking companies include Palawan, with their issues on mining, and the Agusan Marsh, with major damming projects threatening the wetland’s rich avian biodiversity, where many of the country’s endemic bird species can be found.
Simply characterizing progress with the presence of a mall is something that has annoyed me ever since I was a kid. I come from a small town where people hope that one day, we will have our very own SM, marking that we “have made it”. Though that may be true, I think the first step to real progress is knowing what kind of progress we really want and the costs of this kind of progress. I wouldn’t really mind SM building a mall here, in tiny Bangued Abra, as long as they don’t bring along the urban waste that comes with irresponsible commercial trade. And also, I wouldn’t mind it one bit as long as small and medium-scale enterprises don’t die out because the giant mall eats up all of the market pie. Which is kinda what happened when SM Baguio was built.
Sari-sari stores and tiny shops went out of business because there was a hipper place to shop, even if you were just buying a piece of gum. Sure, I have no doubt that the consumers and consumer spending in Baguio increased. But in this perfunctory association with economic growth, whose economics are we actually improving? When we serve the interests of SM Baguio, do we automatically serve the interests of the city itself and its people? (Forget the taxes it pays, for the lump sum is sucked into a number of mysterious black holes in government.) Though these interests are not mutually exclusive and I could probably make a colorful Venn diagram as to where they intersect, killing off smaller industries is itself an undesirable economic path, especially in a space whose people thrive in a sense of character.
People used to go to Baguio because it was an escape to a city without the usual fripperies and heat of other more urban hubs like Manila. As a destination, Baguio had character with all the pine trees, the American influenced city planning, the jars of strawberry jam and Good Shepherd Ube, and most of all, the cool climate in an otherwise baking tropical country.
The tourism industry can probably work with whatever it has on its plate, as far as Baguio is concerned. But as an industry built out of linked industries, tourism’s perspective on interests has a wider scope than simply making Henry Sy richer than he already is. True, SM has been making efforts to help the environment, actually promising to plant over 60,000 trees in the next three years. SM plastic bags are now also supposedly biodegradable. But as much as SM can adequately perform its corporate social responsibilities, it should still assess its position in removing the trees to build its parking lot. Would it really improve their market share? I doubt it.
Even if there is a wider space to park, an SM Mall is not the primary reason why I’d go to Baguio. There are already so many SM malls in the Philippines! And they all basically sell the same things. Because it’s a mall, its profit makers are the retailers, franchisers, and investors who take advantage of the location. One scenario is that the market becomes so irate that they won’t go to SM at all, hurting the business. But the sad thing about this is that first, the market’s refusal to spend is highly unlikely; and second, the parking lot will already be built and the trees forever gone, whether or not people hate SM.
Ultimately, I think the perspective that should be the lens of this issue is one that considers costs and benefits in terms that go beyond financial statements and corporate growth. I think having character makes more sense. It’s primarily image marketing, but it’s more than that. It’s about having direction. Yes, character is a subjective and a rather sentimental basis of costs and benefits, and it’s a difficult thing to grasp automatically. However, if a place knows what it has to work with and has a great idea of what kind of destination it ought to be, then it’s worth going to.
Administrative, private and public choices now come into play. If only the trees had a say as well…