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Challenge 160: a protest walk to save Baguio’s pine trees

By Michael A. Bengwayan, VERA Files

Challenge 160 route

Baguio City---“No mountain is too high, no trouble too difficult to overcome...”

This saying might as well describe the  resumption of  series of protest actions to be  staged by environmentalists and residents against SM City Baguio’s plan to remove more than a hundred pine trees on Luneta Hill to make way for a parking lot and entertainment plaza.

On Sunday (Feb.17), about a hundred environmentalists will begin their 160-kilometer protest walk, dubbed “Challenge 160,”  from Sagada, Mountain Province up to Session Road in this city.  During the six-day walk, hikers are expected to trek mountains, some of which are more than 2,000 meters above sea level.

According to organizers,  Sagada was chosen as starting point “because it is a place where people love their trees and forests, and it is a known tourist haven because of its forests, which are being managed sustainably through an indigenous agroforestry practice called ‘lakon.’ ”

They decided to launch “Challenge 160”  after they failed to get a Permanent Environment Protection Order (PEPO) from the court last December that would have prevented SM Baguio from further removing 133 pine trees, some of which are more than 100 years old. They have appealed said unfavorable ruling of  Judge Antonio Estevez of Branch 15 of the Baguio Regional Trial Court to the Court of Appeals.

Occupy SM Baguio 2012The destruction of trees in this city has sparked a year-long protest and rallies that began on Jan. 8, 2012. Already, 49 trees on Luneta Hill have been destroyed by SM through wrong earth-balling (transplanting).

An on-line signature campaign to save Baguio’s pine trees has gathered almost 8,000 signatures worldwide.

Some protesters even wrote  President Benigno Aquino III, asking for his intervention, saying: “Mr. President, we, the undersigned, are appealing to your known sense of environmental justice, to please prevent this from happening. It is only you now who can stop the impending death of these priceless trees.”

While some local officials favor the removal of the trees, the protesters have gained the support of the Roman Catholic Church in the region led by Bishop Carlito Cenzon and the association of religious groups in the city.

SM Baguio plan in place of treesConsumers have been boycotting the mall to further advance their cause. Rock star Sting had been persuaded not to hold his December 2012 concert at the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena---one of the malls owned by SM, after learning about the planned removal of hundreds of pine trees in this city by the mall chain.

“The ecological, cultural, historical and aesthetic value of the trees are the dominant reasons why  the people of Baguio do not want their trees to be cut,” organizers of the protest walk said. “The trees help provide oxygen and absorb CO2 and other persistent greenhouse gasses in the city, which has been named by World Bank as already polluted.”

They announced the following six legs of the protest walk which, they added, are subject to change: first leg (Sagada to Mount Data); second leg (Mount Data to Natubleng); third leg (Natubleng to Sayangan); fourth leg (Sayangan to Caliking); fifth leg (Caliking to La Trinidad); and last leg (La Trinidad to Session Road in front of SM).

“There will be a ‘Salubungan’ with those who cannot make the march on the last day near the Church of the Resurrection, Magsaysay Avenue,” they added. “A prayer rally and concert will end the march in the afternoon at the Cathedral grounds.”

Organizers said supporters need not join the whole length of the 160-kilometer protest walk “if you can’t, for one reason or another.” They, however, urged people to join the last leg, especially upon entering the city up to SM.

They also reminded participants to bring their own gears and take care of their own provisions.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)


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