Crossroads (Towards Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 2 January 2012


The UP (University of the Philippines) Carillon Tower between the University Theater and the tennis courts has a new neighbor – the Washington SyCip Garden of Native Trees. Situated behind these recognizable edifices, the garden is in a plot of land of less than 1,000 square meters. The Carillon Tower has the bells to tell the hour on campus. After decades of silence, it tolls again, thanks to its recent rehabilitation.

For the moment, this garden is only made up of native young tree plants, not more than two years old each, some only as tall as you and me. Come 10 years time and beyond when many cohorts of graduates have finished their course works, a mini-forest will mark time and grow along with a cherished symbol, the Carillon Tower.

Actually, UP a park of trees. The UP campus in Diliman is one of the few places in Metro Manila where trees of different species thrive in great profusion. A distinctive aspect of this unintended arboretum is that of huge acacia trees which line the streets and define the academic oval where the main educational buildings are situated.

Many of the acacias are nearing a century old, much older than these buildings. UP moved to this area only after 1949 and when I entered as a freshman in 1953, these acacias were at least two to three decades old. Every time a typhoon fells down any of these ancients, silenced grieving happens within the community.

The trees are a legacy of an old US military camp. Few will remember that the UP in Quezon City used to be the headquarters of the US Signal Corps before it was transformed into the Diliman campus.

The US military wanted huge shade trees to shield them from the tropical heat and the wide-crowned acacias fitted the bill. Another military camp, Fort McKinley (renamed later after independence as Fort Bonifacio), also had an acacia grove. The acacia-lined Mckinley Road was the best of that shady grove. Today, this road connects Makati to the Bonifacio Global City (Taguig) and to C-5 and passes by Forbes Park, the  millionaire’s row.

For the same reason, Camp Aguinaldo, another military camp, has also a good stretch of woods. And those of us who drive to Angeles, Pampanga on MacArthur Highway also will pass by a small stretch of the highway the huge acacias as we pass the vicinity of Clark Export Zone. (This was formerly Fort Stotsenberg and renamed in the postwar period as Clark Airbase.)

A little patch of mini forest. The SyCip garden of native trees reminds me of a little personal history. Way back in the early 1970s, I served as a member of the UP Board of Regents concurrent with my position in the Cabinet at the helm of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).

This period coincided with the national effort to undertake tree plantings along the highways of the country from the Ilocos in the north to Zamboanga in the south. The good job accomplished then by the local provincial and rural executives is attested by the trees that can be observed in parts of the country’s highway system. Perhaps this note will help remind us when and how they came to be.

They were the result of conscious effort to plant trees as a national effort, a tradition perhaps long gone from national practice. (As a student, I once participated in an Arbor Day at UP, and I recall the exact huge tree that now stands behind the UP Main Library Building where it still grows proudly.)

I asked UP president OD Corpuz to allot a small plot of land for the NEDA as our share in the tree planting. He gave us a small tract – an island of grass that was sandwiched by one-way roads for entrance to and exit from UP. The patch of trees would give a rustic character to the gateway that led to the beautiful palm groves that President Carlos P. Romulo had built in the 1960s to mark the avenue leading to the main entrance to UP.

I asked my NEDA deputy, Nicanor Fuentes, to secure a good mix of about 40 young trees from the UP College of Forestry at Los Baños. One weekend morning, NEDA officers and I, and our families, had a grand time planting those trees.

Today, that patch of trees is almost gone, with only a memory of a few trees. Urbanization took care of eliminating them. The residents and informal settlers that surrounded the BLISS housing project (of the First Lady, Mrs. Marcos) that was built soon after that time helped to diminish some of the trees.

By early 2000s, the national road engineers widened and re-designed Commonwealth Avenue. They bulldozed most of that island of trees so that only a few trees remain. This was the cost of easing traffic along the route from Batasan complex and Manila and the UP area!

Trees in the midst of an urban jungle. My project was a minor mishap. The UP campus remains a land of trees in the urban jungle that is Metro Manila. Environmentalists and city planners have occasionally commented that the UP campus is an oasis of trees in a wide treeless landscape of roads, buildings, and houses.

The amount of bird species (though not that many) have inhabited the UP area and is uniquely large enough to attract commentary from bird-watchers. Some say there is a surprising rarity of the bird species that they do not often find around anymore. Perhaps nature is being preserved if not being reclaimed.

Manila was a beautiful city before the war, highly decorated with avenues that had trees growing for shade along main roads. War destruction, high population growth and most of all in-migration and low employment creation have all helped to diminish that beauty. The rural migrant poor that flocked into the cities have penetrated the public spaces, appropriating much of the free spaces to become squatter shanties and hovels.

This deterioration was not helped by the lack of focus of various city administrators. One of the beautiful sites of Manila used to be the botanical garden between City Hall and the Post Office area. That area had never recovered from the defacement that had happened from the war, and that was seven decades ago!

Parks, common environments and public goods. Major cities of the world have public spaces preserved into charming parks of trees. Often, a sizable park cum botanical garden graces along with a city zoo. Such combinations we find among modern cities, provide a common joy for the residents and raise their standards of living better.

A nation that provides for the care of its citizens should include the use of public resources to pay for their protection and their improvement, maintenance and upkeep. These are important public goods, just like the provision of basic educational opportunities.