After allaying fears that the planned Pasig River Expressway might affect Arroceros Park, it seems Manila’s “last lung” is still under threat from human development.
A visit from Save Arroceros Movement (SAM) on Nov. 12 revealed that the 2.2-hectare forest park in Ermita is being developed into a man-made park. The ground in Arroceros appeared to be covered partially by elevated cemented platforms, barely missing the base of some trees, as seen in photos from Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta, SAM member and the president of Winner Foundation, which serves as the park’s guardian.
Mabanta added the city government “removed” several trees without a permit from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). In lieu of the usual plant residents of the park, the contractors are adding exotic non-native decorative plants. “It is no longer a forest. It is now just a park—a forest-themed park maybe,” she said in her post. Flights of stairs can also be seen being constructed to create a multi-level structure. Some of the work currently being done on the site appears to have damaged the park’s existing structures, including a bench by National Artist for Sculpture Napoleon Abueva.
Towards the edge of the forest park facing the Pasig River, a viewing deck is also being constructed. This is under the Department of Public Works and Highways’ supervision, according to Mabanta.
The rest of the “beautification” work is a project of the City of Manila.
The Arroceros Urban Forest Park redevelopment project, which broke ground in September, is a beautification project by the Manila local government unit (LGU) that aims to create a green space in the middle of the city.
“Nothing will be taken away from it,” the Manila mayor had promised.
According to its plans, the “urban forest park” will have amenities like adult’s and children’s play areas, kiosks, and public toilets. The elevated path walks that welcomed SAM is also part of the project along with landscaping, a special lighting system, and water fountains.
These planned structures, according to Mark Louie Aquino of Earth Island Institute, which surveyed the project together with SAM, did not undergo a thorough stakeholder assessment and consultation. Environmental groups are calling for a dialogue with Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso, and his office has since agreed to it, according to an update from Mabanta.
Part of the appeal of the groups is for the Manila LGU to implement City Ordinance No. 8607 or the Arroceros Forest Park Ordinance and urgently release its implementing rules and regulations. The ordinance states that cutting trees, dumping waste, and any form of excavation within the forest park are not allowed.
Domagoso signed the ordinance in February 2020, declaring the Arroceros Park a permanent forest park with P1 million funding for its protection and maintenance. This has been the mayor’s agenda since assuming office in 2017. During his early years, he swore that he would not follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Joseph Estrada who nearly let the forest park become a gymnasium in 2018. (However, it was not the first time the area was threatened. Under the leadership of then Manila Mayor Lito Atienza in 2003, a school development cut down a third of the park’s tree population to make space.)
“We will develop Arroceros Park because that’s the only breathing space for Lawton in Manila,” he said in an interview in 2019.
The park was established in 1993 through a memorandum agreement between the City of Manila and Winner Foundation. Throughout the years, the area which used to be part of the Chinese trading settlement during the Spanish colonial era was repopulated with thousands of trees to join its original residents: century-old trees.
It is now home to over 60 types of trees, more than 8,000 plant species, and 10 species of birds.