LOOK: Arroceros Is Now Less a Forest and More an Urban Park

Several trees have been removed from Manila's last lung.

arroceros forest park
Arroceros Forest Park (as of November 12) 
PHOTO BY Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta

(SPOT.ph) If there's anything we learned from recent supertyphoons, uncontrollable flooding and landslides, and deadly storm surges, it's that—now, more than everwe need trees. It sounds simple and trivial, but studies show the great potential of restoring forested lands as a way to lessen the effects of the current climate crisis. Trees help reduce human-produced carbon emission, mitigate rising temperatures, and preserve our already dwindling ecosystems. So when Manila Mayor Isko Moreno signed Ordinance No. 8607, which declares the Arroceros Forest Park in Ermita a "permanent forest park," various groups heaved a sigh of relief. But it seems that the city hall and concerned citizens have different ideas of what a forest is. During a visit at the "last lung" of Manila on November 12, Save Arroceros Movement found several trees chopped down and replaced with ornamental plants, and grounds once thriving with life now paved over with cement paths.

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Also read: Saving the Last Lung of Manila

"It is no longer a forest. It is now just a park. A forest-themed park maybe," Winner Foundation president Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta said in a post.

Saving the Arroceros Forest Park

Winner Foundation is a civic organization that established the forest park in 1993. Back then, they collaborated with the local government of Manila to start a greening project. Former Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim and then first lady Amelita Ramos were immediately on board, securing for them a 2.2-hectare lot that was vacated by what was then the Department of Education, Culture, and Sports. The property belongs to the national government but its title is under the City of Manila.

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With its walkways surrounded by towering canopies of trees, it’s easy to think that you’re not actually in one of the busiest areas of Manila City. (Photo taken in August 2018)
PHOTO BY Jilson Tiu/SPOT.ph Archives
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Native trees such as the red balete, bagras, bitaog, narra, and molave can be found inside the park. (Photo taken in August 2018)
PHOTO BY Jilson Tiu/SPOT.ph Archives

After fundraising activities and herculean efforts by volunteers, the result was a fenced forest park with at least 60 indigenous tree varieties, 8,000 plants, and 10 bird species. Around 3,500 trees were planted in the area in addition to the 150 centuries-old trees, which were all idenfitied and labeled through the help of forestry experts. Most of the trees at the Arroceros Forest Park are endemic. Keeping them in the forest was part of the effort to ensure that some of our native flora and fauna thrive for as long as possible.

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After Lim's administration, succeeding Manila mayors continously threatened the existence of Arroceros. When former Mayor Lito Atienza took over, up to 3,000 trees were cut down to make way for buildings for the city school division and a teacher's dormitory. Former Mayor Joseph Estrada's administration proposed a school gymnasium for the University of Manila built in the area; fortunately, that plan was stopped.

When Moreno led the groundbreaking ceremony on September 8 for the redevelopment of the Arroceros Forest Park in September, concerned citizens had mixed feelings about it. The mayor said that the park will have amenities like play areas, kiosks, public toilets, elevated path walk, and water fountains.

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Construction of a fountain in the middle of a forest. 
PHOTO BY Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta
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arroceros forest park
Trees were cut down to make way for raised concrete walkways.
PHOTO BY Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta

"I appreciate their efforts in making more people interested in the park, and I like the plan of connecting it to the Met Theater and their assurance that no trees will be harmed but we are concerned at how accurate that is. See their tiled raised walkways they will put inside the forest. We were hoping they would be made of wood but they will be made with poured concrete. Well, good they are raised so as to leave the rest of the ground untouched but I'm a bit worried for the existing ecosystem and how much of the birds, snakes, and [fungi] will remain," Mabanta posted on September 13.

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Two months later, members of the Save Arroceros Movement found a completely different Arroceros Forest Park.

"They removed several trees without a permit from Department of Environment and Natural Resources and they are adding lots of ornamental/exotic plants. Definitely not a forest anymore. Sad there was no consultation with us, the stakeholders, and no Park Management Team was created (as was agreed on in the ordinance) or with any environmental experts. We are sad and angry," Mabanta posted on November 12.

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The full canopy of trees is gone.
PHOTO BY Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta
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Roots of this old tree has been turned into a dumpster.
PHOTO BY Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta
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Even a bench donated by National Artist for Sculpture Napoleon Abueva was not spared.
PHOTO BY Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta
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"Ang saya-saya namin when Isko won. [Moreno] was supported by the environmental groups because he promised not to touch the forest. Last Friday, November 12, we were shocked to see the main forest plastered with concrete. All our secondary trees, bushes, and ground cover were destroyed. To say we were heartbroken is an understatement. Shock sent the blood pressures of the elders soaring high. Incredulous! Incredible! Hindi kapanipaniwala. Does [Moreno] know what is going on? We all had high hopes when he was elected mayor, but now it is his administration that has caused the worst damage of all. They covered all the natural ponds with soil; and the Sanso garden, which was planted with trees brought over by the galleon trade with Mexico, was totally covered with cement. I didn't see a single bird that morning; when before, we had more than 24 species," posted Regina Paterno of Winner Foundation.

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You can just imagine the level of noise during the construction, driving the migrant birds and other wildlife away.
PHOTO BY Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta
arroceros forest park
PHOTO BY Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta
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PHOTO BY Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta
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Tree labels provided by Manila Doctors Hospital were just scattered on the ground.
PHOTO BY Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta
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arroceros forest park
Endemic trees were removed and replaced with ornamental plants. 
PHOTO BY Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta
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L: Boardwalk lined with trees along Pasig River in 2018; R: Viewdeck connected to the boardwalk as of November 2021
PHOTO BY L: Jilson Tiu/SPOT.ph Archives; R: Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta
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SPOT.ph has reached out to the mayor's office on November 13, Saturday; and November 16, Tuesday, but has yet to get a response.

The Save Arroceros Movement includes the Winner Foundation, Manila Doctors Hospital CSR Division, Pamanlahi, Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society, Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, Earth Island Institute, and more. To join their efforts, follow Save Arroceros Movement on Facebook.

All photos used with permission from Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta for SPOT.ph.

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