THEY DON’T GROW ON TREES A post card of the Jardín Botánico (Mehan Garden) Bird House, early 1900s

THEY DON’T GROW ON TREES A post card of the Jardín Botánico (Mehan Garden) Bird House, early 1900s

The very active Manila Mayor Isko Moreno has announced a plan to transform Manila into a “green city,” step one being to protect and expand Arroceros Forest Park by the foot of Quezon Bridge.

Manila mayors have been like kaingineros, treating Manila parks as jungles waiting to be slashed and burned. Former Mayor Lito Atienza chopped down some 2,000 trees, 25 percent of Arroceros Park groves. He and predecessors decimated Mehan Garden for a mostly empty parking building, the city university, and a humongous monument. They built Santa Cruz’s Central Market on what was once Osmeña Park. Manileños are lucky to have the tiny and endangered Manila Zoo as the remaining green area in the once large Harrison Park.

National authorities are a little different—Liwasang Bonifacio is a junkyard, Rizal Park is fast food and small and medium-sized enterprises country, and the Roxas Boulevard service road is probably Southeast Asia’s longest parking lot.

Arroceros trees date back to the 1940s. After World War II the area was occupied by the War Damage Commission, the agency that allocated US compensation for World War II destruction. It was housed in three rows of two-story prefabricated metal structures planted with narra trees in between. When the agency was dissolved, the premises were assigned to the Department of Education that proceeded to extend the front, top, and sides of the original Quonset huts. I was appointed Minister of Education in 1984 and moved the overcrowded offices to Intramuros.

It was after 1984 that greenery flourished. Winner Foundation, the non-governmental organization that former Mayor Alfredo Lim put in charge, reports that the park now has 61 different tree varieties and shrubbery that shelters 10 bird species. The foundation doesn’t have much money and park gates have long been shut against a feared informal settler invasion.

Mayor Isko’s plan is to open Arroceros Park, making it “the pilot of a green city… to make the Lawton area… into a green civic center so that Manileños would have more open spaces… I hope before the end of the year, 50 to 60 percent of the entire plan will be in place.” He added that the other parks and institutional buildings owned by the city government are expected to follow suit in the greening project.

It should also be easy to save the arboreal remnants of our once City Beautiful.

Some—looking more or less alive— survive. Taft Avenue has a few of the purple-flowering banaba trees that used to line it. Narras remain along Quirino and Lacson Avenues, and acacias on United Nations. A few sampaloc and banyan trees endure J.P. Laurel and Roxas Boulevard, respectively. The island on Onyx Street in San Andres has desperate-looking trees and shrubbery. Fire trees flicker on Padre Burgos.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Lawton becomes truly green, and if major Manila streets are shaded by healthy trees, easily done by freeing tree roots, filling gaps, proper feeding and pruning, removing nailed posters, maybe paying scavengers to care for trees in their territories, and hiring tree care experts?

Notes: (a) Arroceros Forest Park occupies an area that used to be part of Parián, the Chinese trading quarter until the late 1700s when the area was cleared to improve Intramuros defenses. It was later occupied by a tobacco factory and government military and hospital facilities; and (b) I was appointed Secretary of Education, Culture and Sports in 1984 and my office was a one-story building built at the edge of the Pasig. The area looked and felt like an urbanized barrio and I was able to move the Department to the newly built Palacio del Gobernador in Intramuros. The pre-fabs were to be disassembled and reassembled in spaceshort provincial schools, although the one in charge dismantled everything and dispatched assorted steel posts and beams to surprised school principals.

Comments are cordially invited, addressed to