WHEN Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella announced last July 7 the city would build a cemetery, he cited the "unusual number of deaths" caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as reason for the urgency of the project.
Labella was obviously in a rush on the project, saying he had already approved the ordinance, when it was still to be filed at the time, and the project was "underway," as almost 400 trees were already being cut as he spoke.
Guba site, tree-cutting
Two problems surfaced after his announcement:
 The wrong choice of the site in Sitio Cantives, Barangay Guba, since it turned out to be part of the city's watershed and Central Cebu's protected area. Quickly, opposition mounted among organizations who advocate protection of local water resources and environment.
 The cutting of 389 trees, which set off some furor among non-government groups who spoke before the City Council in its session Friday, July 17, expressing opposition to Guba as cemetery site and anger over the tree-cutting.
Even as resistance to the Guba site grew, City Hall -- notably, Mayor Labella and Councilor Dave Tumulak who authored the cemetery ordinance -- with DENR officials found another site, a two-hectare lot in Sitio Patayng Yuta, Barangay Sapangdaku. Labella announced on July 15 the decision on the new location.
And Paquito Melicor Jr., DENR-Central Visayas executive director, and Tumulak told the City Council in its virtual session Friday, July 17, that barangay officials and most of residents there agreed to "host" the cemetery provided safeguards are taken to protect their health. The vacant lot had no houses nearby, the barangay captain told them.
Thus, the Guba issue is mooted. Councilor Tumulak told SunStar the City Council in Friday's session unanimously authorized the mayor to apply for the required clearances and ask rental fees of the property.
Unlike in Guba, City Hall would not start development until the requirements are met. Vice Mayor Mike Rama, presiding officer, repeated the line twice, "Emergency does not justify impunity."
As to tree-cutting, DENR's Melicor said the persons responsible can be held administratively and criminally liable. Even if the mahogany trees cut are not considered endangered and are "alien" to the country, even "invasive" because they marginalize other trees? Yes, Melicor said.
Councilor Raymond Garcia cited a circular that exempts mahogany trees from requirement of a permit before cutting, a defense which Garcia hinted may be used by City Hall if charges are pushed through.
The whodunit on who killed the trees should be easy to solve but nobody from government has yet named anyone. Councilor Alvin Dizon told SunStar the City Council, in a resolution he filed, has asked DENR to investigate and prosecute the offenders.
For Covid only?
In his July 7 newsbreak about the cemetery, Mayor Labella said twice that the cemetery would be for all city residents, not just victims of Covid. He repeated that a day or two later when he said the project was urgent.
Yet in the July 17 resolution authorizing the mayor to take the initial steps on the project, the City Council said it "interposes no objection" to the cemetery project "for Covid victims" in Sitio Patayng Yuta, Barangay Sapangdaku.
That's not clear enough. It specifies Covid victims and does not use the limiting word "only" and yet it does not also expressly allow deceased residents who are not coronavirus victims.
Tumulak has not yet issued a modified version of his ordinance, given the change of cemetery location. And SunStar does not yet have a copy of the resolution of authority to the mayor.
Significantly though, DENR regional chief Melicor told the City Council that IATF wants the cemetery to be used exclusively for Covid patients.
Councilor Dizon said his party BOPK has no stand on the issue of exclusive use. When asked by SunStar, he said, "Building a cemetery for Covid victims, even during emergency...cannot be railroaded without undergoing the process as mandated by law." He said the processes are important for the "constitutionally enshrined right to a balanced and healthful ecology is protected." That didn't answer the question of limiting usage.
May be changed later
City Hall is not likely to push the issue of restricting beneficiaries to those who die from Covid. Like IATF, city officials want to rush the completion to meet an expected surge in number of casualties. And using Covid as sole purpose could help speed up the project.
It wouldn't bar the City Council from amending later on the provision on access to cemetery services. It wouldn't also stop the executive department, the facility manager, from expanding its clientele.