I love Baguio; I was born here, I grew up here, and if circumstances dictate I might probably die here as well. I’m pretty much happy that I live in a City where the air is cool, the food is cheap and the people are still friendly. Ultimately, its allure as a mountain city would still attract people for generations to come.
The immediate concern, however, is the fact that Baguio is a city whose allure is on the brink of destruction from all fronts. I don’t want to go all nostalgic about Baguio’s past, nor would I talk about how Baguio has become worse; nothing would come out of such, and there are countless blogs, guestbooks and petitions out there that would do all those things for me.
Baguio is undoubtedly unique in the Philippines, because of its climate and its history. It is the Americans’ most tangible gift to the country, a City built on top of the mountains that served as a home away from home. Instead of engaging the local Kankana-ey and Ibaloi tribes through war as the Spanish did for hundreds of years, the Americans used diplomacy and commerce. I’m not saying all of what the Americans did for Baguio was good (consider the ongoing dispute between them and the Carino clan for Camp John Hay’s title), but the Americans nevertheless created Baguio as a model built from scratch for future urban developments in the Philippines.
Sadly, as history has shown, “development” took a completely different meaning for Filipinos after the Americans left. As a Baguioite, I know that my city is a mess. Originally planned by the famed American architect Daniel Burnham as a government center of 30,000 people, the city is now home to 300,000, many of whom have no legal claim to residence, and many of who are students with no sense of history and no will to learn history.
Baguio is I believe a microcosm of what the Philippines is today, because of a variety of factors.
1 – A DISTORTED SENSE OF ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS. It’s thankfully gone now, but as late as four years ago there stood atop Session Road an artifical pine tree crafted out of concrete, a hideous structure that cost taxpayers millions of pesos to create, maintain and ultimately destroy. At the bottom of this structure was a giant plaque that read “Plant Me and Protect Me.” The fake tree and its giant plaque for a time served as Baguio’s centerpiece and laughing stock, a visual monstrosity that ironically warbled about the environment but was crafted out of something that wasn’t.
The concrete tree may be gone, but the shame of artificiality remains. Baguio’s claim to be the “Cleanest and Greenest City” in the Philippines, as local politicians parade it, is a flat-out lie. Many people in Baguio have been led to believe that the only way to save the City’s ecology is to “plant trees at the Busol Watershed.” As such, people plant thousands upon thousands of Benguet pine trees not knowing that there are specific scientific methods to planting such. In effect, many of the seedlings planted just die anyway within the first year, totally wasting the time and effort invested by those who planted them.
Politics also comes into the picture of Baguio’s imploding ecology. Baguio has no tangible long-term plan to create a sustainable waste disposal system. A trash segregation policy is widely ignored, while nearly a hundred million pesos is spent annually to haul garbage out of Baguio to Capas, Tarlac–money literally thrown away. Meanwhile, Baguioites are now forgetting the fact that a massive landslide of garbage at the Irisan subdivision in 2011 killed ten or so people.
The Filipino love of cars is also contributing to Baguio’s decaying air quality; for a small city it could not handle too much private transport. The city has a potentially efficient mass transit system that exists in its taxi services, as well as proposals from previous local administrations to set up tram and cable car systems. Sadly, due once again to politics, any attempt to invest in improving Baguio’s transit system is shot down in favor of more profits.
As I write this, a well-known Philippine mall chain is mulling the destruction of 100 or so mature trees standing in the middle of Baguio’s Central Business District, in order to extend their already massive retail monopoly. The mall operators say the trees “won’t be cut,” but would be “transplanted.” The mayor apparently “could not do anything” because the tree-cutting permit was approved by the DENR. This however clearly shows the mall chain’s ignorance of ecology–Benguet pine trees more than three years of age have a 75% death rate after transplanting. Meanwhile, the mayor apparently “could not do anything” because the tree-cutting permit was approved on a national level by the DENR. If this is true, then it only presents two facts: the mayor simply doesn’t care about Baguio’s environment and only looks to the profits the mall can generate, or he simply is too incompetent to manage Baguio City. On a national level, this sounds strikingly familiar with the dangerous direction this country is headed towards.
2 – MISMANAGED CIVIL DEVELOPMENT. The city planners who created Baguio were aware that the Spanish setup in urban planning was not appropriate, where the Church was always at the center of things. The Americans however created an urban plan for Baguio that put government and recreation at the focus of city life, hence Burnham Park. The “Pinoy” mentality, however, has successfully wiped away the legacy of the Americans, turning portions of Burnham Park into endless “tiangges,” despite local ordinances that prohibit the existence of such. A “masterplan” has been thought out to rejuvenate Burnham Park, but the project itself is in need of funds. Though skyscrapers have thankfully not yet been put up in the City, the current mayor has still assured moneyed investors that there is no height limit to buildings in Baguio–a potentially dangerous declaration, considering that a number of large geological fault lines worm beneath Baguio, and no amount of “soil testing” could assure the structural integrity of buildings once a disaster hits. Have people here forgotten about the Great Earthquake of 1990, when the largest buildings were toppled down?
There also is the problem of increasing demand for hillside housing, which results in urban sprawl. People would rather have their own house and lot (often in precarious locations like cliffs or the bottom of valleys) rather than live with others in residential condos, resulting in the further degredation of the environment despite the limited land area that Baguio possesses. The condos could always be well within a certain height limit, and be modeled with that of Singapore’s residential districts, but this has so far been overlooked. Coupled with the lax enforcement of building and zoning ordinances, this sprawl reflects the frustratingly lazy Pinoy attitude of “bahala na;” leave it to God.
3 – POOR EDUCATIONAL STANDARDS. Baguio is the largest educational center north of Manila, with four big universities and scores of smaller colleges. However, many educators are now aware that many of these Baguio-based educational institutions rely on what is popularly known as “diploma mill” mentality. Simply put, a school cares little if you learned something or not, for as long as that school has more students, and thus more profits. A person’s potential thinking, reasoning and living skills are effectively compromised just to attain a diploma through dubious educational practices. Dozens of Korean schools claiming to be “centers of excellence” in English language development have sprouted all over Baguio, ignoring the fact that many of these schools are not registered through the proper government channels such as the Commission on Higher Education.
Of course, more students means cheaper housing, but as I already mentioned earlier there is no assurance that building ordinances could keep these students safe; virtually all of these so-called “boarding houses,” especially around Baguio’s big universities, are fire hazards.
4 – AN EMERGING FEUDAL POLITICAL SYSTEM. I can still remember that there was a time not long ago that Baguio was managed by competent local leaders who cared less about the about the money that lined their pockets and more about the welfare of the City they grew up in. That time has since ended, and now the local city council is made up of traditional politicians who care more about increasing their vote count and lengthening their stay in office. Twice in the past decade, the position of mayor and congressman were filled up by the same two people who just switched seats. It seems that they plan to rule over Baguio in perpetuity due to a legal loophole in term limits.
Unlike many provinces in Luzon, which I believe are ruled by a succession of people who technically belong to the same clans, Baguio (and Benguet for that matter) was once free of these petty feudal systems. The 2010 elections, which were heralded nationally as a “time for change,” became a springboard for the return of a feudal system that mainly cares about personal profit. A flyover project was hotly disputed some time around 2006, simply because it was unnecessary. The project went through anyway, at an initial cost of PhP88 million. However, for some reason, the project ballooned to a total coast of PhP280 million, perhaps even more–no one dared to check for the transparency of the project. Given Filipino politics, the kickbacks gained by local officials for such a project could be large indeed.
An underpass and yet another flyover are in the works for this administration, and it seems that the politics of the day would prevail given the current zeitgeist. The mayor and the congressman are often seen together, playing golf within the exclusive grounds of the Baguio Country Club. They claim to love and represent Baguio, but they aren’t even from here to begin with.
5 – GENERAL APATHY. I know for a fact that Baguio’s residents won’t hesitate to speak to a stranger, no matter how rude that stranger may be. This kindness however, has given way to a collective lucid apathy. In the years since the 1990 Earthquake, Baguioites (including myself) have fallen into a collective “I-don’t-care” attitude about the City they live in. For instance, only a few people nowadays are aware that the annual “Panagbenga” festival isn’t a celebration of Baguio’s floral culture–it’s an artificial festival originally designed in 1996 to keep people away from the commercial development going on inside Camp John Hay at the time. Panagbenga is now a cash funnel, celebrating a time of “flowering” in February (when flowers in Baguio actually bloom in November), totally ignoring the pollution that compounds Baguio’s urban maladies. And through it all, we Baguioites seem to just don’t care. “I have more important things to think about.” “What can I do? I’m just one person!” “It’ll be better, just leave it alone.”
As a Baguio person, it’s my fault as well that the City has emerged into this, a small yet powerful reflection of what the Philippines is today. The idea that Baguio (and thus the Philippines) can be better is of course an attainable vision, but to go along with the status quo is one thing that I simply cannot do. I do not want to bash the City I was born in and grew up in nearly all my life, however I find no harm in stating the facts as they are. It’s a cliche I have to live with, but t the very least I started the change by writing this.
[Photo courtesy Grace Bandoy]