Earth Day musings | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

REGINA “Ninit” Paterno and Gigi Carlos at the Arroceros Forest Park on a Saturday
REGINA “Ninit” Paterno and Gigi Carlos at the Arroceros Forest Park on a Saturday

After 25 years, Rio Tuba will have been all mined out.


All efforts for its rehabilitation would have been exhausted.


What’s an environmentalist doing in a mine, and coming away, if not necessarily converted, reasonably impressed?


A four-hour road ride from Puerto Princesa, Palawan, the Rio Tuba nickel concession presents a reality I’d have disbelieved unseen. Not all holes and mounds of dug-up red earth as presented in theoretical and pictorial presentations, it reveals instead ponds and greenery where it has been mined out, the result of rehabilitation undertaken for a mere five years.


I’m a tree lover from The Winner Foundation. All these 23 years we’ve been taking care of the only forest in Manila, one we built ourselves, the Arroceros Forest Park.


Admittedly, it was largely from that perspective that I formed my prejudice against mining as possibly the most methodical, cruel and irremediable exploitation of nature, a crime that victimizes generations. But conceding that prejudices usually come from ignorance, I went to see for myself.


Palawan is not really new frontier for me. It was in the early 1950s. That was where we spent summers, hosted by relatives on my grandmother’s side. In fact, in a primitive way, our family was involved in mining, too, principally manganese. We would sail to Coron on the General Malvar and watch playful dolphins come close to the ship. Palawan was paradise.


Now, decades later, I’m back, motoring on roads well-paved (except for short gravel intervals) and flanked by trees, meadows, and farms that stretch on one side toward ranges. Communities were sparse. Bright-colored flowers on plants and trees that appear to have sprouted on their own were something to marvel at. Varieties of narra, flame tree, and mahogany, their branches sometimes sleeved by leafy moss, impose an awesome, majestic and somewhat mysterious presence.


The century-old trees of Arroceros exude the same air, but they’re much fewer now, decimated by the combined attrition of natural disasters, like typhoon and floods, as well as manmade ones. The most notorious of the latter involved the obsessive and dubious determination of a mayor to destroy the little forest, the brainchild of his predecessor, a political rival. It sits on precious real estate, which gives one a reasonable idea why.


Alternate sites


Against all laws on environmental protection and cultural and heritage conservation, or even against logic, the mayor managed to get a building for the education department planted on a third of the forest, a designated watershed, thus destroying the natural canopy provided by trees that took years to grow.


A number of alternate sites were offered for his building, but he only wanted the forest. For their part, environmental agencies looked the other way.


I somehow understand the hard stance taken by environmentalists against mining. As happens, an anti-mining group from Belgium shares the bus that takes us around for a close inspection of Rio Tuba.


No black smoke emanates from the chimneys, only white clouds of steam; tilapia thrives in the ponds that collect filtered water from the mine before it flows into the river and out to sea. Fish, fruits and vegetables harvested from the rehabilitated soil are tested at the laboratories of the nation’s preeminent agriculture and fisheries school, University of the Philippines in Los Baños, before clearing them for human consumption.


As if mounting a show for the visitors, birds fly above in formation. Bees and dragonflies add to the validation of a restored ecological balance. A resident forester with a doctorate degree presides over the rehabilitation.


A hospital with a budget of P100 million a year takes care of Rio Tuba’s sick, and a school supervised by the La Salle brothers and equipped with 51 desktop Macs, and an equal number of iPads, takes care of its children’s education. For the katutubo, the natives, jobs, Gawad Kalinga housing, and medical and social security are provided.


The Belgians themselves look impressed as the forester engages them. At one point, my husband, who has a hair-trigger spoiler’s habit, whispers to me, “Should we remind these Belgians of what they did in Africa?”


Anyway, it seems remarkable enough that the company has welcomed the inspectors. I’m told that some of our own environmentalists have yet to accept the invitations to see things for themselves.


It may just be the mining company’s luck that they happen to be compared with the mayor.


Vergel, himself the inveterate skeptic, was not displeased to be disproved. For one thing, he didn’t miss the three tennis courts and the promising youngsters playing.


After 25 years, Rio Tuba, geographically closer to Malaysia than Manila, will have been all mined out. All efforts for its rehabilitation, to make it as close as possible to its original state, would have been exhausted. But it will never be the same.


The existing infrastructure should, however, provide a head start from which to move on. Unfortunately, the tradeoffs don’t include sharing of technology. But hopefully, the Filipino worker would take with him enough gainful industrial skills and know-how.


After the onslaught, Arroceros itself has not been the same. And it would have been worse off if not for the efforts of one particular indefatigable spirit, Regina Paterno, president of The Winner Foundation from the start until she stepped down this year.


With bosom friend Gigi Carlos and other foundation members, Ninit has been visiting the park every Saturday without fail. President or no president, she’s not about to fail now; she just happens to be that sort of spirit.


Chiqui Mabanta, a young (in fact our youngest member), fierce, uncompromising environmentalist, carries on from her.


An invitation to the public


On Saturday, April 26, as a tradition of 20 years, we will be celebrating Earth Day at Arroceros Forest Park in Manila from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Drinks (donated by Coca-Cola) and light meals (from Jollibee) and rubber slippers (from Catholic Women’s Club) will be distributed to street children.


Booths will sell food, natural products, and plants (courtesy of Makati Garden Club, which has been providing the foundation logistical and technical assistance, apart from plants).


At 11 a.m., cash prizes donated by the Rufino family will be awarded the winners of the Earth Day Poster Contest; its theme: “Greening of the Earth.” The contest, conducted among the college students of De La Salle and St. Benilde, will be decided by a panel composed of painters Phyllis Zaballero and Marivic Rufino and art connoisseur Deanna Ongpin-Recto.


Mass will be said at 2 p.m. by Fr. John Leydon, a Columban Missionary of Malate Church, another longtime friend of the foundation and the park.





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