AS ORDINARY folk are unwittingly led by pseudo-environmentalists to protest SM Baguio, the real fire is raging at a new popular tourist site called Sitio La Presa.
La Presa is a make-believe place in the peak of Mt. Sto. Tomas in Sitio Pungayan, Tuba, Benguet, the highest point overlooking Baguio and is seen from practically any point of the summer capital, especially with its humungous communications antennae jutting out like Mickey Mouse ears. It was named Sitio La Presa as the setting for ABS-CBN’s current primetime soap opera entitled Forevermore. (Think Falcon Crest as that Napa Valley vineyard or Southfork as the Dallas estate.)
Because of the telenovela’s popularity, Sitio Pungayan has become a Mecca for the television loving masses from all over the country. Tourists by the busload make their way up Sto. Tomas to see the vegetable and strawberry plantations integrated as part of the Forevermore story. They amass selfies by the legendary cliffs and hope to buy the lead character’s strawberry jam which, they discover, is just a myth.
Though steep and winding, the road is fully cemented. The local government has issued an ordinance to collect a P25 environmental fee per person for each vehicle going up, except for the driver, and throughout the area small tarpaulin signs remind tourists to keep the place clean.
But amid the tourism frenzy a fire is burning. You can see that much of the virgin pine has been removed from a big portion of the mountain slope to make way for terraces of vegetable plantations. Yes, thousands of trees have been cut for these plantations. In one plantation alone owned and operated by Baguio congressman Nicasio Aliping as much as 761 trees were felled just for its access road and initial phase. Criminal charges have, in fact, been filed against him. In our visit recently he was there with his pick up truck heavy with hollow blocks. Expansion plans are on the way, we were told, what with the popularity of La Presa building up business for his planned resort.
Mt. Sto. Tomas has been declared as a National Forest Reserve. This means nobody can and should touch it. There has been a case filed by real environmental groups in the Supreme Court which has issued a Temporary Environmental Protection Order (TEPO) against such activities in the area while the case is being heard. The mountain is a true watershed as the trees on it trap and keep into the ground rainwater which scientists have determined supply some 30 percent of Benguet’s (and Baguio City’s) water supply. The thousands of trees filter the air, making a significant impact on the absorption of carbon dioxide and air toxins and putting forth massive amounts of life-giving oxygen.
So why has all this been allowed, at least despite the TEPO? Barangay officials we asked could just raise their shoulders. The police do not know how to enforce a TEPO. The congressman tells people that if they are removed, then the communications antennae and the few cell sites that dot the mountain must also be removed.
This comes as a stark contrast to SM Baguio, which recently implemented its final balling and cutting of 60 pine and alnus trees cleared by the Court of Appeals (CA) which affirmed the Regional trial Court’s findings that it the act no impact on the environment. (Check out my previous blog post) A ragtag team led by an artist named Karlo Altamonte today (February 3, 2015) called for a press conference to launch a protest planned protest march in Luisa’s restaurant on Session Road.
That their attention is misplaced is an understatement. Why waste so much time and energy and people’s goodwill in this action against SM Baguio which has been clearly established to be in the right while right under their noses a real environmental disaster is ongoing in Mt. Sto. Tomas?
Is it because the SM brand and location are such easy targets against Mt. Sto. Tomas?
Is it because Baguio congressman Aliping’s business interests in the La Presa area will be greatly affected?
Is it because Luisa’s, the restaurant where the SM protester’s presscon was held, is also an owner and operator of Sky Café in the La Presa area and is currently carving and constructing a hotel there?
Is it because the local office of ABS-CBN News has been giving these protesters full attention and coverage to protect their Forevermore/ La Presa franchise?
Whatever it is, the rape of Mt. Sto. Tomas continues. According to Sitio Pungayan locals Forevermore is scheduled to keep the La Presa set and film there until April 2015. They have been paying P32,000 per day to the so-called land owner. You do the math.
They likewise said that television Networks TV5 and GMA have applied for permits to film their own projects in the area.
The usual Baguio stalls and kiosks – present in all popular tourist destinations in the city like the Public Market, Minesview and even the Strawberry Fields of Trinidad Benguet – have set up in the Sto. Tomas area, all exploiting the La Presa branding. There stand the St. Bernard dog and pink haired pony, ready to pose for pictures so long as you pay P10 per shot. There are the knit bonnets, wooden barrel men and phallus ash trays all branded with the La Presa logo. And of course, the souvenir tees and veggies, not planted there but brought from the other areas.
All these stalls and kiosks are not just placed on the ground. They had to carve the mountain to have level ground. And the stall owners said they pay rent for the space. They fork over the money to somebody who collects. They don’t know who, and the locals say these collectors aren’t locals. Whoever these rent collectors are, the shop keepers don’t seem too concerned for they project good business. Some of them paid three years in advance.
So, SM Baguio’s pine tree huggers: maybe you can train your guns instead to Mt. Sto. Tomas where the real war against the environment is raging. Or haven’t you noticed?