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The Artist Abroad

Cutting down trees is an SM act

/ 04:53 PM April 25, 2012

NEW YORK—Environmentalists in Baguio achieved a victory of sorts when the courts issued a temporary restraining order that forced the SM group (owner and operator of the SM malls that have sprouted like toadstools over much of the country) to cease cutting down 182 trees on Luneta Hill, so as to expand the current mall—itself erected in place of the much loved Pines Hotel—and construct a parking lot. Concrete over the smell of pine, automobiles in place of pine trees: If SM had its way, the whole hill station—no, the whole archipelago—would be converted into a maze of malls and we would all be mall rats, scurrying about in airconditioned boxes. Hong Kong on a gargantuan scale, sans the parks and wilderness areas that that tiny enclave possesses.

Not only is the SM Group architecturally challenged, it is supremely indifferent to the  environment, among its many other faults. At any rate, it is a reminder, if anyone needed reminding, of how crucial trees are to the long-term health and wealth of the islands. Here is a short essay I wrote, for an anthology, soon to be released, Philippine Trees 101, that makes a cogent argument not just for the planting of trees, but of making sure the trees selected are indigenous to the country. And by the way the Baguio pine is indeed native to the Cordilleras, and not an import from New England!

Return of the Native

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I believed in the potency of the tree. I who had grappled with the forces of evil also believed in its power. Perhaps it was because I wanted to live so urgently that I ascribed a mystical power to the tree, and in this urgent need to live, I worshipped it like a pagan.

—From America Is in the Heart, by Carlos Bulosan

I was sure that they were learning—

Till one tree spoke, speaking in dolor,

To ask why I never changed color.

—From “Pedagogic,” by Cirilo Bautista

I too am a devotee of trees and reverence them as a pagan would. We can learn from them, to, as it were, change color. For trees are life-givers; as forests they make up the lungs of the world. Trees loom large, no pun intended, in the universal imagination, whether in folklore or literature. J.R. Tolkien, in his classic Lord of the Rings, makes trees wary of men, but protective of those fighting the dark forces. Genesis tells the story of how the tree of knowledge bloomed In the Garden of Eden, from which Eve, seduced by the serpent, plucks the forbidden fruit, eats of it, then offers the same to Adam—one of the earliest instances of cherchez la femme! To atone for that original sin, and for all of humanity’s sins thereafter, Christ is nailed to a tree. For the Celtic race, the holly king and the oak king symbolized the division of the year into six months: winter solstice signals the birth of the sun and so the oak reigns supreme until the summer solstice which then heralds the turn towards the dark, and the reign of the holly—the forces of light and dark, the eternal dance of yin and yang. And in a pre-Hispanic Philippine creation myth, man and woman emerge independently from the bamboo, both fully formed, the Malakas and Maganda of legend—a view of the sexes decidedly more egalitarian than the Bible’s, and of the patriarchal, sexist Spaniards.

As a boy growing up in Manila my exposure to trees was limited. Those I was familiar with I always assumed were indigenous to the islands. As it turns out, many originated from elsewhere, such as the fire or flame tree, the kamachile, the kaimito, the guava, makopa, papaya, guyabano, and chico. I cannot imagine the landscape of my childhood without these trees. Once upon a time, they may have been “immigrant” trees but having long taken root, literally, they now belong to the islands.

The flame tree, for instance, originally hailed from Madagascar. Its fiery blooms signaled the start of the headhunting season. At least, that was one tale among many in the arsenal of grow-ups to frighten kids into behaving. (“If you’re not home by supper, I cannot guarantee your safety, now that the trees are all red.”)

And what about the acacia? As it turns out, the trees I had long thought to be acacias in fact aren’t. What they are, are rain trees (Samanea saman). But these faux acacias were a welcome presence on the playgrounds of the now vanished Ateneo Grade School on Padre Faura as well on the other side of the wall, where Assumptionistas frolicked and where I served mass as a pimply teenager during Holy Week. These wide-limbed trees provided shade, acting as our benign sentinels, friendlier than the stern-faced Jesuits always on the lookout for mischief, real or imagined.

What about the mango and the guava? Hard to believe but these too came from elsewhere: the mango—that golden, perfect fruit whose Philippine version is unmatched for its tart and silky smooth sweetness—first made its appearance in South Asia and spread to Southeast Asia by the fifth century BCE. The guava (or bayabas in Tagalog) for its part originated in Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America. My neighborhood playmates and I favored climbing the guava, as this wasn’t difficult to do. Once a-straddle the guava, what do boys with dreams and stars in their eyes do but carve their secrets into the wood? The guava as with all trees, bore our indiscretions—both harmless and fatal—with stoicism. I recall being told that the guava lent itself readily to slingshot making, soft enough to sculpt and tough enough to topple imaginary Goliaths. Its leaves were said to make an excellent poultice for newly circumcised boys.

A tree familiar to all Filipinos and a true indigene is the coconut. Pigafetta, Magellan’s chronicler, was so enchanted by the diverse uses the Cebuanos had for the coconut that he deemed it the near-perfect food, and claimed in his journal that two trees could sustain a family of ten for a hundred years! Coincidentally, the archipelago is the world’s most prolific producer of coconuts. In 2009, the country harvested close to 20 million tons, with Indonesia, the largest archipelago on the planet, coming second at 16 million tons.

Indigenous or non-native? Similar questions have of course been applied to human migrations, from the earliest out of Africa—in that sense, we are all Africans—to the settling of the Americas by the Europeans, from English convicts shipped to Australia to the Chinese Diaspora in Southeast Asia. At times, the impact of human migrations is more immediate and can, sadly, be destructive. On their voyage across the Atlantic to the so-called New World, the Europeans’ baggage included an unshakeable assumption of superiority, for which the Native American nations paid a terrible price. In the case of the Philippines, at least two movements of people spread throughout the archipelago—one from the south via Borneo and Indonesia, and one from the north, via southern China and Taiwan.

When it comes to trees, everyone concerned with the environment agrees that the more of them there are, the better. The floods and the subsequent deaths in Mindanao from a ferocious typhoon in late 2011 unsurprisingly resulted from long-time illegal logging, tragically illustrating, yet again, that the Philippines has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. In 2011, only seven million hectares remained of our forests, one of the most biologically diverse globally: Seven million might seem a lot, but in 1900 forest cover was between 70 to 80 percent, or approximately 40 million hectares. Some deforestation is inevitable given population growth, but it has been exacerbated by unscrupulous politicians who work hand in hand with those who only see profits in felling trees, and aren’t bothered by the deaths and environmental disaster they cause.

The question arises: what trees do we plant? This is a matter more crucial than I originally thought. In fact, reforestation efforts need to focus on species indigenous to our soil and climate—we have 3,600 native tree species, with 67 percent found nowhere else. In the preface to this book, Angelina Galang, president of Green Convergence for Safe Food, Healthy Environment, and Sustainable Economy, points out that “Native trees blend naturally with the local environment—the soil, other organisms and microbial life. As such, they withstand adversities of nature better and with their resiliency come continued services and pleasure.” She ends with an admonition to “make sure we plant native trees. Ecologically, environmentally, culturally, they are best for our beloved country.”

If we wish to wax lyrical about, and not mourn for, the archipelago’s future as a hospitable environment we should all work for the return of the native.

Copyright L.H. Francia 2012

TAGS: environmental issues, Forest, SM, Trees
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