That anyone has to fight for the preservation of the last urban forest in these times of severe climate change, and in polluted Manila, is beyond me.
But the creator of the forest, the Winner Foundation, of which I am a member, soon after and between Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim’s two six-year, nonconsecutive terms, had to do exactly that—stave off one mayor after another’s efforts to do away with it.
In 1992, Lim asked us to create a forest on 1.3 hectares in the heart of the city, along historic Arroceros Street on one side and by the Pasig River on the opposite side, right where the prewar Chinese Parian used to be. Lim redeemed the mortgaged property from Land Bank for the city.
The first thing our foundation did was to seek the help of tree and landscape experts in drawing up a plan to be implemented in stages. Not one charged for their services. Seed money came from then First Lady Amelita Ramos and the rest from the generosity of artists—Raul Sunico, Chinggoy Alonso, Andion Fernandez and our cousin Josephine Roces, who put together a musical fund-raising show in Malacañang.
In time, through purchases and donations of trees and plants from friends and relatives, 8,000 various species of trees, mostly indigenous ones, would thrive alongside century-old trees.
After the war until the mid-’50s, the Department of Education had occupied the property and the Quonset huts left there by the US military. Abandoned afterward and reduced to rubble but for pre-existing grown trees, it gave rise to a forest.
To protect the young forest from vandals and squatters, we built a fence of rocks and river stones. For this, we hired Igorots, whose ancestors had built the rice terraces. To keep the Old Manila look, we replicated the black-painted wrought-iron gates common in the area.
Ironically, it was Lito Atienza, Lim’s vice mayor during the creation of the forest and an architect by profession, who did the forest the most harm when he became mayor. He cut off our water supply and tore down our fence to pressure us to give up the forest. We pointed to alternate places around, unused buildings that would require mere renovation.
Eventually, he chopped down 3,000 trees, among them endangered species, to clear a total of 1,200 sq m for an office building and amenities for the city schools. The natural canopy those trees had formed through the years thus disappeared.
Atienza cared neither about the forest nor that it was on sacred heritage grounds that also served as a watershed. He did not even allow archeologists to do preliminary work: Diggings by ground workers had indeed yielded shards from the Ching Dynasty.
We ran to the institutions whose mandates were to protect heritage sites and watersheds, but they were not prepared to take on City Hall. Some did try, but in the end succumbed. We found ourselves locked out of the forest, resorting sometimes to climbing the gate after storms just to check for damages.
Never the same
As soon as the building was up, the forest was never the same again. Walks meant for park activities became parking spaces for the new occupants’ cars or, worse, their junk. They tore away the forest’s natural ground cover and cemented parts of it. The temperature inside the forest, once five degrees lower than that outside, rose. Vendors who took naps and found momentary sanctuary among the trees and the cool air from pollution and noise have been deprived of it.
We lost control of the park, and the common folk lost the benefits the forest park had been intended to bestow on them.
What do we tell the Girl Scouts who came to adopt trees and tied their names around branches of young trees that are no longer there? Cancer patients from the Philippine General Hospital’s children’s wards brought there weekly for fresh air had been barred, too, until our return, along with street children and their volunteer teachers who conducted open-air theater and dance classes, and public school children who came regularly for their outdoor activities.
When Lim became mayor again, we were reinstated as park caretakers. Alas, he lost to Joseph Estrada.
Estrada hasn’t eyed the park until now, on his second term. He, too, has plans to take further from what’s left of the park to build a gym for Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila. We got a notice of eviction, but after a meeting with a delegation from our foundation he extended the deadline.
Is the end coming for Arroceros Park?
Every Easter Sunday, Fr. John Leydon celebrates Mass to usher in the Earth Day program at the park. Father John has seen up close the agony the park has gone through; yet every Easter it seems to rise again. Indeed, despite attempts to destroy it, it has somehow endured.
The ladies of the Winner Foundation have invested many years of loving care in the park, but special mention must be made of Ninit Paterno and Chiqui Mabanta, who have given much more than anyone else—their all, indeed. Because of them, the Catholic Women’s and the Manila Doctors’ groups have become our strong partners.
We are most grateful to the much younger Chiqui for having brought the park to the consciousness of her active crowd of young lovers of nature and the environment. But, individually, we have our own personal bonds with the park.
From my late mother’s garden, I replanted there a beautiful and prolific rosal shrub she loved. My late Tita Irene’s teak tree also made the forest its new home. Our grandchildren have themselves planted seedlings, now fully grown, there.
Whoever dares chop those trees will surely reap nature’s wrath.