Home > Environment > The Greenwash Effect: The hypocrisy behind earthballing of full-grown trees.

The Greenwash Effect: The hypocrisy behind earthballing of full-grown trees.

by Czarina Gracia Carriaga and Justin Rev Ino Tamang   

“Baguio is Baguio not because of what we have built but because of what we have left untouched,” said Karlo Altomonte of Project Save 182, a movement against the planned expansion of SM City Baguio which will endanger 182 trees within the mall’s premises.

Gray and black colors have changed the once green scenery. Rosalio Goze, a retired forester and a Baguio City resident, said that a lot has changed in Baguio City.

Aside from the sudden population growth, where Goze added that the city has reached its carrying capacity, one noticeable change in Baguio is its fewer pine trees. It is ironic since Baguio City is really known for its pine trees; lowlanders even often connote pine trees to Baguio City.

Now, there are more buildings and concrete sceneries than pine needles, pine cones, and pine tree scents. The climate has also changed; jackets and coats are usually left inside cabinets because of the noticeable increase in the city’s temperature.

So many environmental issues have surfaced — the air pollution, the problem about proper waste disposal and the Baguio sanitary landfill. Some blame the sudden changes to the developers and corporations that have built structures and invested in the city.

The latest environmental issue that the city is facing now is the planned earthballing of 182 trees in Luneta Hill, where the Sy-owned mall stands. This issue has stirred not only different environmental groups, but also the Baguio community. The truth is it had been an old issue, only that today it involves a giant developer/corporation.

The big deal right now

Project Save 182 is a manifestation of Cordillera Ecological Center head Dr. Michael Bengwayan’s petition to stop the uprooting and balling of 43 Alnus japonica trees, 97 pine trees, and 42 saplings to pave the way for SM City Baguio’s redevelopment. The redevelopment is set to create another building in Luneta Hill. According to SM, the expansion is certified by the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).


Sentenced to death. Alnus japonica tree, one of the types of trees to be earthballed.

PHOTO COURTESY OF: http://www.pfaf.org


Equivalent to Baguio.  The trees that have distinguished Baguio from other cities are in danger.

PHOTO COURTESY OF: http://www.rgbstock.com

Bengwayan said in his petition that the mall’s plan is totally unacceptable and callously insensitive to the importance of trees to the environment and ecology. The same petition stated that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has not fully understood the contribution of the trees because they granted SM’s request.

To their defense, SM said that the trees will be balled. Some of the trees will be transferred within the premises of SM while the remaining trees will be handed over to the DENR compound in Pacdal. SM also promised to replace each tree that will be cut beyond what is stated in the law. Instead of 20 saplings per tree, SM said that they will replace each tree with 50 saplings.

Bengwayan opposed SM’s statement and dubbed it in an interview as “greenwashing” and “social engineering.” His main question was where would they be planting all the saplings they have promised if the land area of Baguio is just 129 square kilometers, most of which are residential? He believes that it’s just a scheme to cover up for something worse to come.


The Greenwasher. SM City Baguio’s model for its planned extension.

PHOTO COURTESY OF: http://smsupermalls.com/smsupermalls/smbg/

Information about the expansion spread like wildfire in social media and has triggered a mass street protest in which around 5,000 people from all parts of Baguio City’s demographic rainbow joined. As of March 6, 2012, the petition has had over 7,300 signatures and over 15,350 recommendations.

The mass protest has resulted in a series of public hearings about the issue. Until now, public hearings at the Baguio City Hall are still ongoing regarding the issue about SM’s redevelopment. It is funny and ironic though that during one public hearing, there were boxes of bottled water from none other than SM Supermalls just outside the session hall.

History might repeat itself

During the ’90s, around 500 grown pine trees were earthballed in Camp John Hay. News has it, however, that less than 20% of the trees survived and some show signs of deterioration until now.

Recently, in an interview, Dr. Bengwayan confirmed that only 17% of the trees survived. He said that he has staff members working there who check on the status of the trees. He also confirmed that many among these 17% show signs of deterioration while some have already died.

People who oppose the proposed expansion and redevelopment of SM City Baguio express fear that history might repeat itself, that the earthballing of the 182 trees might just be another Camp John Hay earthballing story. Bengwayan dubbed the planned redevelopment a “massacre” of trees that represent the culture and heritage of Baguio, the City of Pines.

It’s not all about the environment

In the public hearing last February 27, 2012 regarding the SM issue, Project Save 182 treasurer Marie Balangue spoke about the health risks that the loss of another forest patch in Baguio may incur, especially one that is in the central business district. She said that only 9% of the forest patches remain in the City of Pines, while 40% is needed to maintain clean air for the people in the area to stay healthy.

Balangue mentioned the microstress and microtrauma that lack of oxygen brings forth. Both pose a great risk for pregnant women as it increases the possibility that the newborn child has autism. Aside from the health risks that the loss of another forest cover may bring, Balangue also noted that “heritage counts.”

Many of the speakers in the public hearing defended that pine trees are part of Baguio City’s heritage; and as residents of Baguio, it is a must to protect these.

One of the speakers, Dion Fernandez, believes in what he calls “responsible capitalism.” For him, he believes that there is a third way — one that would benefit everyone without compromising too much. He points out that the trees can be used by SM to earn money and at the same time, preserve the heritage that is truly Baguio.

Mike Arvisu of the Kafagwayan, a movement that aims to preserve, rehabilitate, and develop Baguio’s cultural sites and public lands, said that Baguio people should “preserve what remains” of the forests in Baguio. He also questioned the legitimacy of SM’s claims such as the “experts” that would supervise the earthballing and their credentials, as well as the process through which they got the permit to ball that number of trees.

Arvisu said that the carbon dioxide absorption and the oxygen production levels that 182 trees provide are beyond what the green building with the sky garden could offer. He also said that the water reservoir planned in the expansion will hold just a fraction of what the entire Luneta Hill ground already absorbs.

The Kafagwayan member continued that SM is showing only what is above ground, but there are no details on what happens underground. He said that SM will be digging 3-6 stories underground. That said, where would all the soil go?

Veteran media man and environment advocate Ramon Dacawi said during the hearing that while from a legal perspective, SM has all the rights to go on with the project, there is no substitute to the natural. He points out that no “green” building with a sky garden could replace what 182 trees can give.

So, what about earthballing?

Earthballing, according to Rosalio Goze, is the method of transplanting trees.  In the Ecosystems Research and Development Service (ERDS) Research Digest, earthballing is defined as the process in which seedlings or saplings are lifted with earth around the root system. Before the balling is performed, there are five things that should be considered:

1.  Condition of the tree

2.  Condition of the soil

– From where will the tree be earthballed? To where will it be transplanted?

3.  The weather when it will be earthballed.

– It is ideal to do the earthballing process during the rainy season.

4.  Diameter of the tree.

– Research by the ERDS show that trees with trunk diameters that are below 20
cm have a higher survival rate when earthballed than trees with diameters of 20 cm above. Larger trees have a lower survival rate, and there could even be a chance that no tree will survive.

5. The care process after the earthball.

– There must be an assurance that the company or the group that requested for the
earthballing of the trees will take care of the trees and attend to the trees well. The tree,
especially its roots, are stressed because its roots have been moved. The trees need to be properly taken care of to ensure survival.

Oh wait, you need a permit to do that.

Earthballing cannot be done right away. According to Walter Aguirre, acting division chief of Forests and Watersheds Management Division (FWMD) of the City Environment and Parks Management Office (CEPMO), in the government, earthballing is treated the same way as tree cutting. That said, it requires a permit from the city government and the DENR before someone can legally earthball a tree and the process in getting the permit is just the same.

In CEPMO, there are charts showing how to get a permit to earthball or cut a tree. It’s a two-part process. The first part deals with CEPMO. One must submit a letter of request to the city mayor’s office along with some other required documents (photograph/s of the affected tree/s, certification from the barangay captain, and photocopies of documents regarding land ownership).

If approved, the CEPMO will begin inspection and evaluation of the land area then a report will be submitted for approval by the mayor. There are respective fees for the process of getting the permit so the last stop of the first part is the city treasurer’s office.

So now, it is time for step two: the DENR branch of the region. It is similar to the CEPMO procedure. The difference is that the chief of the Forest Management Service (FMS) will be the one assigned to approve the request. After that, a forest ranger will inspect and evaluate the area, another report will be done, then it will be approved by the FMS chief. After paying respective fees at the bill collector, a certificate of verification will be released. The certificate or permit is limited to the tree specified in the request. Violations beyond the agreement within the permit are subject to sanctions of the law.

The charts indicate that the entire process of getting the permit should take a total of 14 working hours.

CEPMO or the city government and DENR also differ when it comes to the payment of the earthballing process. CEPMO requires P300.00 for every cubic meter or any fraction thereof affected by the earthballing. Aside from this, a performance bond of P250.00 per tree to be cut. For DENR, a one-time payment of P100.00 for the permit fee must be done. Like the city government, they also charge for every cubic meter affected by the proposed earthballing. For the DENR, it is P715.00 per cubic meter affected plus a bond deposit of P250.00 for every tree to be cut.

According to DENR-CAR CENRO bill collector Virginia David, forestry charges and permit fees go to the National Treasury of the Philippines while bond deposits go the trust fund of the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO) of the Cordilleras. David cleared that bond deposits may be withdrawn and returned to the applicant of the earthballing.

‘It defies all the scientific rationality.’

According to Dr. Bengwayan, earthballing of full-grown trees defies all scientific rationality. He reasoned out three main points: (1) the trees that are being cut in Baguio are very sensitive, (2) the country does not have the proper technology yet, and (3) the trees that they target to ball have grown in the wild and not in specialized nurseries.

Dr. Bengwayan went very scientific with the interview for his first point. He said that the roots of the trees that SM plans to ball are very sensitive because they are all taproots. Taproots have roots that grow vertically downward, unlike other trees that spread their roots horizontally.

Case in point, it is very difficult to transplant such trees because the roots will most likely be damaged. To successfully transplant taproot trees, the entire taproot (which could have grown very deep) must be uprooted as well. If the roots are cut, the entire transportation system of nutrients for the tree will be disabled.

Once this happens, the cambium of the tree or the area inside the bark which stores all the saps and nutrients for the tree will dry up. Once the cambium dries up, the tree dies.


Behind the ‘barks.’ A diagram of the inside part of a pine tree. Includes the xylem and phloem that brings water and food  to the whole body of the tree. Both will not function if the roots are cut or damaged.

PHOTO COURTESY OF: http://www.pc.gc.ca

Bengwayan’s second point is about the equipment to be used in the earthballing process. In the Philippines, backhoes are used to uproot and transfer trees to other places. Bengwayan said that backhoes are not supposed to be used in such a delicate process. He even dubbed backhoes as “masters of disasters.” He also noted that a mud solution must be made when balling to simulate the soil from which the tree was balled to avoid transplant shock with the sudden change of the quality of the soil to which the tree was earthballed.

He connected the lack of proper equipment to his third point: the status of the tree that they plan to ball.

Bengwayan said that yes, modern countries perform earthballing, but that is because these countries have specialized nurseries for trees that will be balled. In these nurseries, interlink fences are set up in pits from where the trees will be balled. Then each pit will be filled with compost and soil before saplings are planted. After five years, a bulldozer will pull the interlink fence which will also include the soil, the tree, and all the roots of tree. Bengwayan said that this process does not harm the tree or its roots, thus, the tree survives. This is contrary to what is done in the Philippines where trees in their natural places are balled. He said that since these trees grew in the wild, these trees must not be earthballed.


If that’s the case, why is it allowed on full-grown trees?

Nobody has really answered this question yet. People from the DENR merely answered with their obscure smiles and smirks when asked why earthballing is allowed on full-grown trees even if it contradicts their own research that earthballing is only possible on young trees.

Goze even questioned why they still need to earthball the trees. They could just cut them since both processes will result in the death of the trees.

Paul Apilis of the DENR-CAR CENRO, however, hinted that it is because of the Executive Order 23 that President Benigno Aquino III signed. In E.O. 23, no tree shall be cut. But while cutting is prohibited in the order, earthballing is not.

When asked about his opinion on Karlo Altomonte’s statement at the public hearing that is “you (corporation and/or government) are doing this to earn more money,” Bengwayan answered with “there might be truth in it.”

He said that corporations are “now trying to own lands in developing countries” and they are also “slowly controlling the government.”

Dr. Bengwayan remains firm in his opposition of earthballing of full-grown trees because he said that it defies everything he has learned from other countries. He also said that, “You cannot recreate science even though you are a good engineer or scientist. We can create something but not something natural that is created by God.”

  1. Kimiyo Meadows
    March 13, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    informative and well-written. there are as many “environmental advocates” who rush into supporting the green movement arbitrarily as there are green movement haters who are simply looking for something to complain about. I think that all of them should read your article. good job, guys! congrats. 😀

  1. April 10, 2012 at 3:52 pm

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