DENR probes Philam Homes after residents complain of tree cutting

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 12 2019 09:53 PM | Updated as of Aug 13 2019 10:40 AM

Residents of Philam Homes use umbrellas against the heat of the sun as trees are left almost bare after they were "pruned." Photo by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN

Martina Berba Aguinaldo and her friends could still remember the time when the village park was teeming with trees.

Her family has lived in Philam Homes since 1955 and after living abroad for a while, she returned to their family home in 2014 to retire. 

“Seeing the change was really something,” she said. “There are now a lot of concrete structures here in Philam.”

Her friend Elsie Castrence, who is also a resident and retiree, said the park used to have a lot of forest cover, which people were able to enjoy after a vigorous jog or walk. “Because of the concrete structures it’s still warm here event at night,” she said.

Radie Ferraz, another friend and resident, recalled how Philam Homes used to be considered as the only “forest subdivision” in Quezon City.

“That’s no longer the case. They’ve been putting up basketball courts. The football field where the kids used to play, one fourth of it has been turned into a parking lot,” Ferraz said.

On a rainy afternoon last Friday, the group gathered in Aguinaldo’s home to talk about the recent “pruning” of trees at the Philam Park that left around 30 trees without branches and leaves.

“We need the trees, especially since there are a lot of concrete structures in Philam. So it’s really troubling and we got to DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) to get help and see if they can help us so it does not happen again,” Aguinaldo said.

‘MUTILATED’ TREES

In their letter e-mailed to DENR, the group wrote, “A permit to prune is visibly displayed but what can be seen is beyond pruning and more of a mutilation.”

At the Philam Homes park, three large trees have been cut near the trunk, looking like deformed hands gesturing to the skies.

Around the football field, several trees have been thoroughly trimmed.

A large tree at Philam Homes is left with no leaves. Photo by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN

Ferraz said this is not the first time that it happened. Several years ago, they also reported their barangay captain to the DENR.

Simplicio Hermogenes, Brgy. Philam village chief, admitted that he was fined by the DENR when he first had the park trees cut without a permit. That was in 2012 when he was still president of the homeowners association.

“Ang puno at ang buhok ng tao parehas lang. Pag pinanganak ka at hindi ka nagpagupit ang sama ng itsura mo. Pero pag ikaw nagpapa-parlor every month or every quarter maganda ang buhok mo,” Hermogenes claimed.

(Trees and hair are just the same. When you are born and you don’t have a haircut, you won’t look good. But if you go to the parlor every month or every quarter, your hair will look nice.)

Hermogenes said the previous village officials left the trees alone, allowing seedlings to grow without proper management. “But this is a park. This is not a forest. I learned that if you are president or village chief you have the prerogative to cut the trees for aesthetic reasons or safety. So I did it,” he said.

But Hermogenes did not know at that time that he needed a permit from the DENR. Residents took photos of the trees and he ended up paying a fine, which he said was 100 seedlings per cut tree.

He said he applied for permits the next time he had the trees pruned or cut but he still faced complaints from the residents. The residents said it was because they felt that there were still violations because of how the trees were being pruned.

VIOLATIONS?

In January this year, a tree-cutting and pruning permit was issued by the DENR to Brgy. Philam. It enumerated 50 trees inside the Philam Homes Subdivision that are supposed to be cut and pruned – five Narra trees, four Rain Trees (often mistaken as Acacia), four Eucalyptus trees, three Mahogany trees, one Camachile, two Fire Trees, one Molave, one Aure tree, two Banaba trees, and 27 Gmelina trees.

Seventeen out of the 50 were supposed to be cut and not just pruned. 

After DENR received the complaint letter of the residents, their personnel visited the site to check. The report showed that the trees meant to be cut were just pruned but those that were supposed to be pruned were “pollarded.” Pollarding is a pruning method that removes the upper branches of a tree near the trunk to restrict its height.

DENR noted in their report that the “chairman agreed to adjust the height of prune trees from 15 feet to 25 to 30 ft. and not to overdo the pollarding because of the complaint.”

The height restriction is supposed to be applied to the remaining 20 trees that have yet to be pruned.

A sign says the tree pruning operation has a permit but residents say what they did was more than pruning. Photo by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN

At the time of the interview, Hermogenes was drafting his response to the DENR. He said he was being asked to explain why they overdid the pruning.

He told ABS-CBN that it was to prevent the trees from damaging building and hurting people.

“That was written in our permit. Our football field is a designated evacuation area…what happens if there is an earthquake?” Hermogenes said while showing photos of uprooted trees falling on buildings and vehicles.

Brgy. Captain Plecy Hermogenes shows photos of trees damaging properties in Philam Homes. Photo by Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN

He also lamented the supposed lack of technical definitions. “In the permit, they did not specify a height or width. So now the problem is the definition of terms. What is pruning? What is cutting? And now they have new words such as [coppicing] and pollarding.”

Hermogenes also denied rumors that he was cutting the trees to sell the wood. He said he has even told residents that they can get their share of the wood so they won’t have to pay for trucks to transport the wood outside of the village.

DENR Undersecretary Benny Antiporda, in response to ABS-CBN’s queries, wrote that while pollarding is not a violation of the permit, what happened at Philam Homes was not ideal.

“During the inspection of conducted on 15 July 2019, Technical Personnel of this Office observed that the height of the pruned trees were relatively too short compared to the actual height of the trees which resulted to all branches being removed,” he said in a written response.

Asked if the barangay violated any rule, Antiporda wrote, “Condition No. 7 of the issued permit with No. 2019-01-01 states that this Office should be informed prior to the conduct of the actual pruning activities which shall be under the direct supervision of this Office. However, Barangay Philam, the permittee, did not properly coordinated with this Office. We were only informed by the contractor during the actual conduct of pruning.”

Antiporda said the DENR is “currently evaluating if this constitute a violation of the issued permit.”

MAN VS. NATURE

AGHAM, a group of scientists and science advocates, agreed with the DENR in pointing out that pruning and even tree cutting must sometimes be done for the safety of the community.

However, they said the community would benefit from having an environmental planner or scientist manage the area.

“Science-informed advice is necessary,” said AGHAM member Vito Hernandez, an archaeologist who specializes in development issues.

Hernandez, who accompanied ABS-CBN to see the trees, said that while Hermogenes might have “good intentions…the ideas that we might have might not always be best practice technologies.”

He pointed out that some of Hermogenes' beliefs when it comes to trees do not hold true. “He mentioned that nothing would grow in non-sunlit areas. In a tropical environment it is not the case,” Hernandez said. “He also mentioned, he was insisting on keeping some invasive species (Mahogany).”

Cleng Julve, a forester and member of AGHAM, said the barangay seemed to have overdone the pruning because there were almost no leaves left, based on the photos she saw. However, she said it was fortunate that the tree species found there had high capacity for sprouting. 

Hernandez said he even saw sprouts in some of the cut trees.

Julve explained that there are valid reasons to remove some trees, especially if the tree is rotting or it poses a risk.

Branches from the cut trees are left at the park. Photo by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN

DISCUSSION

“It’s a big thing to have a lung, a green space in the area,” she said. “But it has to be planned and the community should be educated.”

Julve said it is important to identify the purpose of a green area. If it is for disaster risk reduction, she said there are trees that serve as good windbreakers. She said that besides being an invasive species, Mahogany trees are not advisable for communities because its hard fruit can easily injure people. If the purpose is to have a fruit-bearing garden then the community should look into Kamagong, Bignay, and other native fruit-bearing trees.

As Hernandez and Julve urged the village to employ an expert to manage the trees, they also encouraged better community discussion.

During the interview with ABS-CBN, village chief Hermogenez dismissed criticisms against him, saying that these came from “renters” and outsiders. 

Of the three residents interviewed, only Aguinaldo is a homeowner. But Ferraz and Castrence are both long-term residents leasing houses inside the village. 

“The fact that I am not a homeowner doesn’t mean I have no voice. We’re all in one ship it can’t be that you don’t care,” Castrence said as she talked about climate change and the worsening weather in the Philippines.

As the Philippines continues to develop – with concrete structures representing progress – environmental groups and urban planners continue to raise the issue of green spaces. 

“It might also be a good question (to ask): Who is encroaching on whose space? Is it human encroaching on nature or nature encroaching on human space?” Hernandez said.

As for Aguinaldo and her fellow retirees, they said they are just looking at trees for clean air and respite from the city’s worsening heat.