Tuesday July 17, 2018

Dacawi: Hierarchies turning upside down

WHEN exploited mainly for its tourism and commercial potential, the lure of a place triggers its own undoing.

Tourism was not yet the byword then but that’s how Baguio lost its Crystal Cave. The natural wonder so was named because of its formation of stalactites and stalagmites, is no longer. It’s now a misnomer, a name for the community that sprouted around it. The crystals were long gone, ripped off by waves of souvenir hunters, the cave ceiling ruined by black soot from “saleng” (pine peat) torches that lighted those human intrusions that ended in the 60s.

Nowadays, we tend to link anything to tourism. We discover another cave and then announce the find outright for its potential tourism or commercial value, to a world unprepared to appreciate it beyond its being a curiosity item, or thing.

I still cringe each time I see a bird, a rare sight nowadays. It reminds me of my boyhood days aiming slingshots at a bunch of “akikki” (crossbills), a solitary “panal” (shrike), a chickadee or a mother snipe keeping its eggs warm on its nest on the ground.

The guilt is not really about my having dressed, roasted and eaten them. Poverty partly then dictated the course of boyhood, as survival then drove our hunters up here to track the boar and deer towards extinction.

The pang lies in finally losing sight of them, and the dreadful thought our great grandchildren may never know these creatures were once around.

If it’s any redeeming thought, I had out-grown missing my slingshot or my frustration over finding no stone around to give bent to my hunter’s instincts the moment I see a bird.

How we wished kids were around when City Councilor Peter Fianza and volunteers of the city disaster coordinating council took on a rare sight Christmas years back at that tiny patch of pine beside the Baguio Convention Center.

The team was then watering 57 pine seedlings earlier added to the older ones balled in 1978 to give green ambience to the site of the Karpov-Korchnoi duel for world chess supremacy. The seedlings were planted by then mayor Reinaldo Bautista Jr. and members of the local media as living memorials for the victims of the massacre in Maguindanao.

What the water boys saw was something many had not seen for years – a pair of black crows perched on branches of the older trees. It’s a sight we may never see again, more likely if the tiny pine stand would have to go.

We almost lost sight of the patch when the Government Service Insurance System almost lost sight of the value of the balled trees and seriously planned to convert the area into a condotel-commercial complex under a joint business venture with mall giant Shoemart. The partners looked determined to do so, armed with a blueprint for four high-rise buildings dubbed “Baguio Air Residences” – as if the project was designed to improve the Bagiuio air that has lost the scent of pine.

We thank SM for building its branch on Luneta Hill. The mall is the best-designed compared to the box-type branches elsewhere, and is now a top tourist destination. Yet we can’t thank SM more if we have to bend back again and sacrifice a thousand pine more, figure out our traffic again and be consoled again that more congestion, less breathing space and elbow room are the price Baguio has to pay for its commercial, tourism and urban progress.

A city is made for people, not for buildings and cars that choke us.

That’s from Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, the capital of Colombia. Now a visiting fellow of New York University, Dr. Penalosa noted that, throughout history, there were more people killed by cars than by wild animals in the forest.

Among other things, Penalosa pushed for equal access to the urban landscape and space by building foot and bicycle paths. He set up carless days so the business executive could sit beside the laundrywoman on their way to and from work through an efficient and reliable bus system called Transmilenio.

But Penalosa’s direction is going against the tide of conventional urban development, one that’s turning the hierarchy of things upside down. At the rate private cars are exempted from the carless days give you the suspicion cities are made for cars, not for people.

The hierarchy used to be nature, culture and others, including tourism, in that order. That’s how our ancestors who settled these mountains saw it. So they built the rice terraces out of respect for this chronology of creation. They carved out the terraces according to the contour of the mountains and in relation to the life-sustaining capacity of water springing out of them. Indigenous culture, as spelled out by the rituals marking the stages in the traditional rice cycle, evolved out of this reverence for the natural environment.

No longer. Environment and culture are now compromised to serve tourism and business enterprise. We do have a department of environment but its men on the ground are stymied by environmental compliance certificates issued by the top leadership covering otherwise unsound infrastructure, tourism and commercial projects. We have a department of tourism instead of a department of culture.

The eruption of Mayon Volcano early years back even gave rise to the term “disaster tourism”. It comes on the heels of “environmental tourism”, “cultural tourism”, “agricultural tourism” and “medical tourism”, after-the-fact gobbledygook to rationalize the feeble efforts to justify the upside-down trend of the hierarchy of things.