UP to give up more than half of QC’s remaining rainforest for PGH Diliman

What you need to know:

  • The UP Board of Regents approved the reclassification of 9.58 hectares of the Arboretum forest into an “Academic Support Zone” for the construction of Philippine General Hospital (PGH) Diliman. 
  • Constructing the new PGH in Quezon City would bring the city’s number of Level 3 hospitals to 20. There are already more Level 3 hospitals in Quezon City than ten other regions combined.
  • Arboretum is Quezon City’s last urban rainforest which has the potential to be an ‘outdoor laboratory’ to educate the public about biodiversity.

In a metro sprawling with towering buildings, a thatch of forest allows its residents respite from the urban jungle. Lined with trees that provide oxygen, its roots go all the way back to the 1950s — older than most of the students who used to go there for research.

But more than half of the UP Arboretum forest, long-held as the university’s neglected biodiversity treasure and Quezon City’s only urban rainforest, is about to go.

Almost eight years after the university classified the Arboretum as a Protected Forest Area, the Board of Regents greenlighted Wednesday, Oct. 28 the reclassification of nearly ten out of 16 hectares of the forest for the construction of the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) Diliman. 

When UP named the forest a Priority Protection Zone in 2003, it pulled all the stops to protect the forest from “any invasive development or other activities that will undermine its environmental integrity.” 

This is about to be reversed as the university goes back on its 2012 Land Use Plan to change the forest into an Academic Support Zone for the construction of the P19-billion hospital. 

What has been considered as UP Diliman’s underutilized natural resource will have to give way for the university’s pursuit of ‘world-class’ infrastructure.

Decimating one of Metro Manila’s ‘last lungs’  

Deemed a priority project by both the UP administration and the national government, PGH Diliman finished its second feasibility study in September that will determine its viability as a project for Public-Private-Partnership. 

The hospital is set to carry 700 beds, a dedicated Genomic Cancer Research Center and a medical school. 

“Ito ngayon ay i-ro-roll out for marketing and kung may magkakainteres na [public-private partnership], i-ro-roll out natin [ang PGH Diliman project] before the end of the year,” UP President Danilo Concepcion said in a Sept. 21 Senate hearing. 

Due to the lack of information on the possible environmental consequences of lifting the protected status of the majority of the forest, Faculty Regent Ramon Guillermo, along with Student Regent Isaac Punzalan and the Staff Regent Mylah Pedrano, voted against the decision. 

The Board of Regents did not release the names of those who voted in favor. 

Conducting a study on the environmental impact of decimating one of Metro Manila’s ‘last lungs’ needs to be done first to truly understand the scope of the issue, said Carmela Espanola, an assistant professor at the UPD Institute of Biology. 

Its impending deforestation is set to alter the area’s microclimate, or the weather conditions of that particular area, she said.

“If you remove those trees, there is a chance that you will affect the water table and the ambient temperature. Existing creeks and waterways may dry up. The capacity of the land to absorb flood water would also be reduced,” she added. 

Since 2006, Espanola has been bringing her students to the Arboretum to conduct ecological exercises and research in their ‘outdoor laboratory’ that is the forest. But she stopped bringing her undergraduate students to the forest five years ago when it became “too dangerous” to visit after the influx of settlers in the area.

“Malaki ‘yung potential ng gubat na ‘yun para maiangat ang kaalaman hindi lang ng mga estudyante, pati na rin ang karaniwang tao patungkol sa kalikasan, if only it was managed well,” she said.

With only about six hectares remaining from the forest if the PGH Diliman construction pushes through, Espanola said that the deforestation will affect many endemic and threatened species of trees. Among these are the rare endemic dipterocarp trees. Removing these will mean a loss of potential ‘mother trees,’ which are the source of seeds used for reforestation projects. 

But it is not just a simple matter of planting trees elsewhere to replace what has been uprooted.

The forest, while degraded, still supports a rich biodiversity with many endemic bats, birds, amphibians and reptiles that will lose their habitat as the concrete jungle takes over the greenery. 

Students nearby will also lose an easily accessible forest for research, she added.

Necessity of another PGH

The need to decongest the PGH in Manila drove the university to pursue a Diliman-based hospital that is “accessible to the poor,” UP President Danilo Concepcion said during the Sept. 21 Senate hearing. 

“Ito ay preparation na rin sa ating next health crisis. Kung magkakaroon ulit ng pandemic, mas magkakaroon tayo ng paghahanda dahil sa 700-bed capacity that we will establish in Diliman,” he said. 

PGH Chief Nurse Jossel Ebesate said that PGH Manila has long reached its limit in entertaining more patients than what they were built for. 

The lack of hospitals in rural areas push many to flock to the hospital in Manila, resulting in longer waiting lines and not enough beds, he added. 

Level 3 hospitals — the highest in the Department of Health’s (DOH) classification of hospitals’ capacity to provide medical care — are few and far in between despite their crucial services for critical patients. These hospitals, including PGH Manila, provide high-level specialty interventions like dialysis treatment and physical rehabilitation.

Of the 129 Level 3 hospitals in the country,  51% are concentrated in the National Capital Region, according to the latest data from the DOH National Health Facility Registry. 

Building PGH Diliman would bring the number of Level 3 hospitals in Quezon City to 20. As it stands, there are currently more Level 3 hospitals in Quezon City than Regions 2, 4B, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13,  Cordillera Administrative Region and Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao combined. 

This uneven access to hospitals capable of specialized care at an affordable price forces patients as far as Cavite to travel to PGH Manila despite the long lines, Ebesate said.

“Kahit yung mga primary cases like appendicitis, mula sa probinsya, dadalhin pa talaga sa PGH para ipa-opera. Samantalang kung maganda sana ang distribution ng specialists, dapat mayroon sa bawat rehiyon,” he said.

The university is also eyeing to attract more future doctors by creating another medical school, but UP Manila (UPM) College of Medicine Associate Professor Gene Nisperos said this may not be necessary as “the number of medical students in UP can be increased without having to build an entirely new hospital,” he said.

“If you want to increase the number of medical students, why not focus on the School of Health Sciences?” he added, referring to the UPM medical schools in Leyte, Aurora and South Cotabato that train health workers to serve in rural communities.

Ebesate added that the public-private character of PGH Diliman also calls into question its mandate of being ‘for the poor.’ 

“Hindi totoong mas mura, mas mabilis at kalidad ang private hospitals. Mas mahal actually sila dahil ang pangunahing interes ay tumubo,” he added. 

The project is currently being helmed under the country’s PPP Center, with a private local affiliate executing its feasibility studies, among others. 

The PGH Diliman project has also caught the interest of local conglomerates, said Mary Jade Roxas-Divinagracia of PwC Philippines, the accounting firm tapped for the project’s transaction services. 

“Both local and foreign players have expressed interest in this very important and timely healthcare project,” she said in a July article on IJGlobal, a publication for the infrastructure and energy market. 

Tinig ng Plaridel requested for a copy of the PGH Diliman feasibility study from the university and the PPP Center. They have not responded as of press time. 

Striking middle ground

The construction of a medical facility meant to cater to patients in the city should not necessarily clash with the preservation of the forest, said Rogelio Andrada II, an assistant professor at the UP Los Baños College of Forestry and Natural Resources.

“Kung gagawin nila ‘yung structure na ‘yan in a forest, I hope they design it in such a way that they recognize the benefits of the vegetation, which can help to make people feel better,” he said. 

In a country where development is often justified for its potential economic benefits, the decision to construct PGH on a decades-old forest has raised questions among the UP community on the university’s role in protecting its natural resources.

The forest has degraded over time due to the increasing number of settlers in the area and the commercial activity from the city. 

“There used to be a stream right in the middle of the forest, and I was told that it used to be really big. But when my students went back four or five years ago, that creek has all but shriveled up,” Espanola said.

More than 600 families living in the area have yet to be included in any relocation plan presented to the BOR, the UP Sectoral Regents said Oct. 29 in a joint statement.

Residents’ calls for a humane relocation plan became more pronounced last year when UP put up cyclone wire barriers around people’s houses to prepare for the construction of PGH Diliman. The barriers led to even more garbage piling up due to the residents’ difficulty of getting in and out. (Read: Arboretum residents face displacement, trapped inside barriers

The future of the man-made forest now rests with the university. Turning more than half of its area into an academic zone will leave little chance for UP to preserve the forest. 

“If we always think that we’re not absolutely removing the whole habitat, we’ll just leave a little bit there for wildlife, and do that at every green space that we have in the Metro — what will stop us from actually demolishing everything?” Espanola said. 

Editor’s Note (May 13, 2020): This story has been edited from its original version to show more in-depth research of the issue. The story now includes a graph showing the number of Level 3 public hospitals in the country.

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