Thursday, July 23, 2009

Save those trees

Have you tried driving from Apalit, the first town of Pampanga, to Mabalacat, it’s farthest going north, using the MacArthur Highway? I have been doing that for several years in the 80’s, breaking the NLEX into Guiguinto, then to my lola’s hometown of Malolos, and into Calumpit, the northernmost town of Bulacan. I used to time it in such a way that I would be in Calumpit by noon. Lunch would invariably be at Highway Café, just before the bridge that demarcates Calumpit from Apalit, Bulacan from Pampanga. I would phone in earlier to order sinigang na ulang, even then almost a rarity. I would pair that off with any of three choices: adobong kanduro (snipes cooked in garlic and vinegar), or lechong kawali, or Cabanatuan-style longaniza, fried crisp. And, hold your breath, newly harvested milagrosa rice.

The ulang used to be plentiful in the rivers of Bulacan and Pampanga, its huge head brimming with orange fat that tasted almost like taba ng alimasag, its stubby flesh succulently firm, tastier than any prawn could ever get. The old ladies who ran Highway Café in between taking care of their grandchildren whose father was studying then at the PMA, bought only the best ulang caught in the then un-polluted Apalit River. They would prepare a broth of hugas bigas (rice washing), sour the same with kamias and sampalok, then throw in the ulang, later malunggay leaves and freshly quartered native tomatoes. I asked them once why they did not use other pang-sigang vegetables, such as labanos and mustasa or kangkong, preferring only the lowly malunggay, and the answer was logical --- “matatalo ang linamnam ng ulang” (the other vegetables would over-power the succulence of the fresh-water shrimps). Their lechong kawali was always crisp, like the Ilocos bagnet, but the flesh was juicy still. Their adobong kanduro was a delicacy particular to these parts, where snipes were a regular hunt. I love their home-made longanisa, which I would order for taking home. I disdain sweet longanisa and its cloying taste, then and to this day. The Pampango variety leaves me absolutely cold. Which is why, before I discovered the wonders of Northern cuisine (the Batac, Ilocos Norte and Alaminos, Pangasinan, Tuguegarao and Vigan, Cabanatuan varieties, and not to forget Tuvera’s in Baguio, along with Lukban longanisa’s are the best in the country --- strong and redolent with native garlic, mildly spiced, and hardly any sugar), Calumpit’s old ladies supplied our breakfast cravings with occasional feasts.

But this article is about trees. Forgive my digression into ambrosial cravings. In any case, don’t go to Highway Café. It has closed, partly because the old ladies no longer cook, partly because the waters of Apalit River have been polluted, and worse, Jollibee’s and McDonald’s have likewise polluted the tastes of our younger generations. Out of product and out of a market, how does goodness survive?

To Baguio or the Lingayen Gulf via Calumpit, I would motor through MacArthur on lazy days when I was not in such a hurry, in order to marvel at the canopy of old acacia and occasional narra that hugged both sides of the highway. Sometimes an eucalyptus or a kapok would mar the canopy of branches and leaves meeting each other in a clasp at the middle of the thoroughfare, but that was alright. In an early afternoon, the trees would blanket the searing heat of the sun, a pleasure to behold and feel. Those who now travel between Angeles City and Mabalacat would know what I describe. That short distance of perhaps two kilometres, minus the city proper where bedlam and traffic choke, still has rows of these majestic trees, its small flowers of yellow or light pink clustered amid a carpet of green. Replicate this in portions of Camiling in Tarlac, on the way to western Pangasinan, and along the stretch that leads from Camiling eastward to Paniqui, and you marvel at these hardy creatures that have withstood the elements and the traffic.

With these in mind, and similar patches of green along San Fernando and Carcar in Cebu, in Nueva Vizcaya and Isabela, in Bukidnon, in Agusan del Sur leading to Davao del Norte, and in Oroquieta leading to Dapitan in Western Mindanao, I conceptualized a project when I was head of the Philippine Tourism Authority for two years and a half. We called it “Colour the Philippines”, a project that would plant flowering trees along the national highways, and flowering shrubs to complement areas where already mature non-flowering trees abound. We would sponsor a contest among local communities along the nation’s highways, suggesting the kind of species to plant, and prizes given each year after measurable success has been achieved. Communities would be rated not only according to the number and health of the trees and shrubs, but also according to the degree of citizen or community participation in the care of these trees. In our dream, we could see areas with rows of yellow golden showers, towering acacias with pink crowns, flaming orange fire trees, violet banaba, clusters of orange tulips in towering branches of the African tulip tree, even pink and white clusters adorning branches of the Santa Elena in rather barren patches. Bougainvillas, heliconias, gumamelas and adelfas all over. Imagine the colours. It would be a celebration of tropical life, itself a tourist attraction.

To fund the project, we established a foundation headed by then Jaycee president JV Ejercito, also the son of the president, who was quite enthusiastic over our fund-raising sponsorship of the Philippine presentation of the world-acclaimed Cameron McIntosh production of “Ms. Saigon”. Things were going well, both in support of private corporate sponsors (particularly San Miguel Corporation, through the kindness of Ambassador Cojuangco) as well as advance ticket sales. (I stress “private” because not a single centavo of public funds went to the project, neither PTA’s nor any of the GOCC’s, even if JV and I probably could source from these). But a week after Ms. Saigon opened at the Cultural Center whose stage was re-done for the automatic-motion sets required by the British producer, Chavit Singson blew his bombshell against Pres. Estrada. A month later, after gruelling Blue Ribbon Committee hearings initiated by Sen. Nene Pimentel, Speaker Manuel Villar impeached Erap, and sent the articles of impeachment straight to the Senate. By December, the Senate trial started, televised live, and it hogged primetime, the same time Ms. Saigon was being shown at the Cultural Center. The project became a financial failure, not because Lea Salonga or Carla Guevarra missed their high C’s, but because everyone was glued to television, watching Sergio Apostol address his witness as “Madam Wetness”, or Joker Arroyo showing power point presentations of Jose Velarde checks. By the third week of January, Erap was out of office, and so were we all.

These memories flashed back when I read about the plan of the DPWH to widen MacArthur Highway and in the process, cut down some 5,000 acacia and other trees dotting the scenery from Apalit to Mabalacat. The next phase, I would surmise, involves Bamban to Moncada, even beyond.

Now why should the DPWH widen MacArthur, when there is a parallel NLEX that runs through the same provinces of Bulacan to Tarlac? Why, pray ask further, should we continue to cluster our townships and poblaciones beside busy thoroughfares, when modern planning should tell our local government officials to build new town centers, far from the madding crowd? Why not spend our monies and our loans in expanding the NLEX northward, beyond Tarlac and into Pangasinan, later through the Ilocos provinces, thus cutting a new highway instead of beating the old MacArthur to perdition? Why ever cut those majestic trees planted by our forefathers, that have withstood the elements and unkindness of three generations and even beyond. Surely “progress” and “modernization” and “motorist convenience” can find alternatives other than widening and cutting down.

Try driving from Reno in Nevada down to Bakersfield and Los Angeles to the west or Las Vegas to the east, and soak in the charm of those quaint small towns with the postcard pretty houses and giant trees in yard or wayside, like Glenbrook and Genoa and past Mt. Montgomery, and understand what I mean, when California and Nevada planners carved interstate and state highways through wheat fields and corn fields instead of beside old townships and cities. See how the “old towns” and “vieux villes” of Britain or Europe are decidedly shielded from the motorist-convenient superhighways and autobahns, from whose interchanges flow and feed the old roads and highways where majestic trees still stand.

Why must “modernization” clash with beauty? Why must “progress” be made to happen at the expense of the environment?

Spare those trees, Jun Ebdane, and build a parallel road elsewhere. Rescind the permit to cut, Tukayo Lito Atienza. And to all those local government officials whose towns and communities own those trees --- fight for your heritage, do not allow the national government to cut these. Storm your cabalen who wants to be congressperson of your 2nd district with your entreaties to save those trees. And have the foresight to re-plan your communities for future generations to reward you with gratitude, that you had the prescience to provide them a better environment.

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