Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social development)
Philippine Star, 12 March 2014


I had intended to write about some important world international economic issues at this time. However, an event that happened some weeks ago lingered in my mind. The subject deserves commentary. It demonstrates an aspect of nation-building.

Killing trees along the highway. When I motored to Baguio just before the Christmas holidays, I was held up in traffic somewhere in Pangasinan.  Trees along the highway were being killed to make way for road widening. Many trees had already been cut and those still standing in the way were marked for death by chain saw.

Two weeks later, I read a story about the protest made by environmentalists and church groups to stop the killing of “1,829 trees that were marked for cutting or earthballing” in five towns and a city in Pangasinan – border to border from Tarlac and La Union.

I did not see any earth balling of young trees. I only saw the felling of large, standing trees, some of which were old, mature trees. In my teen years when I passed by the same road, these trees were already mature. Many of them are more than my age.

A narrow highway needs expansion and widening for the new times.  I put the killing of trees in proper context. It explained to me why Pangasinan was behind the other provinces in the widening of the MacArthur Highway. The province held up as long as possible to save the trees.

For the last half decade, MacArthur Highway has been on its final widening  into a four lane highway. The widening had been completed in Bulacan and in Pampanga, the latter, during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  And, during the years of the Noynoy Aquino presidency, the widening of the roads in Tarlac went on in earnest and is now completed.

The roads are now almost fully widened to the north up to the northern parts of Ilocos Norte. If the Pangasinan stretch were left behind in this project, then, that province would serve as the bottleneck in the north-south bound traffic. The road widening was justified, and along with it, regrettably, the execution of the trees.

The need for national gardening culture to grow trees. Few groups would complain if we had a “national gardening program.” This is a task for all – the Public Works and Transportation deparments, Environment department, and the concerned local governments. But is there one?

To line up our highways with trees appear to be a simple task. But who is doing it? We can begin with our limited expressways in the country. There is little activity on this front for years. There are wide gaps in distances where trees could be planted to break the views along these highways.

There seems to be no program that does this on a continuing basis. There is no one taking charge or we would see young trees being planted during the rainy season along the highway.

Above all, the presidency must be there to goad, to inspire and to translate plans into programs that are sustainable with public support. It should involve the private sector, local governments and the schools to work out on the plan. Arbor days – or tree planting days before the rains come – have largely been ignored because of national apathy.

Tree-lined highways are mainly a dream still. As a road traveller, I have often dreamt of highways lined with pleasant sights of trees providing landscape, contour, and seasonal grace, like when they flower in unison.

I dream of roads lined up with evidence of the varieties of native species of trees that we have plenty of. I dream of our forestry and agriculture schools instructing the nation on the care and propagation of native varieties of trees and to make our highways the display museums of our flora.

We seemed to have forgotten this part of the program. Planting trees requires encouraging nurseries, requires gardening club discussions, putting up of a literature that can be followed to tell us more about native varieties. This is a job not only for city planners and environmentalists, but mainly for our leaders – national and local to encourage.

Reforestation in the hills and roadsides. I have seen how other countries have rebuilt themselves through tree plantings. This is a determined effort where political will is part of the equation. Political will implies translating what the nation wants in terms of tangible outcomes.

Though trees can self-propagate in the wild, in our ordered world, the trees growing from time of planting toward maturity requires care and patience. At an early age, trees need nurturing and propagation, and there is where political will is important.

In 1966, I traveled across Israel on my way home from abroad. In that time I had the opportunity of traveling widely to kibbutz and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and talk with a lot of economic professionals. What impressed me then was the pleasant sight of many hills planted to rows of young trees across parts of the country.

Today, some of that desert country has become one transformed differently from other lands in the Middle East. There is a lot of greenery where once it was desert land. Though that land is not as blessed with rainfall, it is widely greened today.

I’ve seen the same scale of land improvements in South Korea and in Taiwan when I had the chance to travel also inland in those areas where these countries implemented major planting projects. Many of their barren hillsides are now forested, thanks to continuous efforts to build the forests.

Lining highways with trees in the past. There was a time when we planted more trees on the highways. But this activity appears to have ceased. In the late 1970s, there was massive tree plantings undertaken along the highways. The age of the trees in the NLEX and the SLEX is enough evidence of that.

Where is our present day effort?