Text by Cristina C. Chi
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 PGH Diliman construction.
- Deforestation will alter the microclimate or weather conditions of the area and affect the wildlife habitat in the Arboretum.
- Arboretum is Quezon City’s only 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, 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 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 UP Diliman’s underutilized natural resource will now become the latest collateral damage in the university’s pursuit of ‘world-class’ infrastructure.
Decimating one of Metro Manila’s ‘last lungs’
Due to the lack of information on the possible biodiversity and environmental consequences of lifting the protected status of the forest, Faculty Regent Ramon Guillermo, along with the Student Regent and the Staff Regent, 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, Institute of Biology Assistant Professor Carmela Española said.
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. It will open the area to direct sunlight. There’s a chance that existing creeks and waterways will dry up. The capacity of the land to absorb floodwater would also be reduced,” she added.
Since 2006, Española has been bringing her students to the Arboretum to conduct ecological exercises and research in the ‘outdoor laboratory’ of which is the forest. 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, Española 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 removed, she said.
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 a forest easily accessible for research.
Necessity of another PGH
The need to decongest the PGH in Manila drove the university to pursue a Diliman-based counterpart, UP President Danilo Concepcion said in a Sept. 21 Senate hearing.
The PGH in Diliman is set to carry 700 beds as a “hospital accessible to the poor.” It will have a dedicated Genomic Cancer Research Center and a medical school.
“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.
But the public-private character of PGH Diliman calls into question its mandate of being ‘for the poor,’ he said.
“Napatunayan sa studies abroad na hindi totoong mas mura, mas mabilis at dekalidad ang private hospitals. Mas mahal actually sila dahil ang pangunahing interes ay tumubo, pero, di rin magkaiba sa pampublikong ospital ang kalidad,” Ebesate said.
The number of medical students in UP can be increased without having to build an entirely new hospital, said UP Manila (UPM) College of Medicine Associate Professor Gene Nisperos.
“In fact, 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 that train health workers to serve in rural communities.
The project is currently being helmed under the country’s Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Center, with a local affiliate executing its feasibility studies, among others.
The PGH Diliman project has 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. UP has not responded as of press time.
Striking middle ground
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 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,” Española said.
But the construction of a medical facility meant to cater to patients in the city should not necessarily clash with the forest’s preservation, 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.
The UP Sectoral Regents said in a joint statement that “no concrete plans were presented to the BOR” regarding the relocation of more than 600 families in the area.
Last year, UP ordered the construction of cyclone wire barriers in the forest around residents’ houses. 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)
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 PPP.
“Ito ngayon ay i-ro-roll out for marketing and kung may magkakainteres na PPP, i-ro-roll out natin [ang PGH Diliman project] before the end of the year,” Concepcion said during the Senate hearing.
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 the university 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?” Española said.
*Land area is based on the 2016 Quezon City Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance