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15 January 2009

Subic tree row: Atienza urges critics to stick to the truth

Environment Secretary Lito Atienza confirmed that no trees have been cut here to make way for the proposed Ocean 9 hotel-casino and urged critics of the project to stick to the truth.

Atienza inspected on Wednesday the controversial two-hectare site of the project, a week after the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) took over the issuance of environmental permits in this free port from the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA).

“They said that trees have been cut here, so where are those cut trees?” Atienza wondered aloud during his inspection.

“At this point, personally, I can see that no trees were cut and that is important,” the DENR chief said.

“It is very important that the whole country know that no trees were cut in SBMA up to now,” he added.

Atienza was accompanied in his inspection of the project site by SBMA Chairman Feliciano Salonga and SBMA Administrator Armand Arreza, as well as some representatives of the project proponent Grand Utopia, Inc.

Atienza revoked last week a DENR agreement with the SBMA that allowed the latter to issue environmental compliance certificates (ECCs) for projects within the Subic Bay Freeport Zone.

In revoking the agreement, Atienza noted that the SBMA has been taking criticisms lately because of allegations, notably by architect and urban planner Felino Palafox Jr., that some 300 trees would be destroyed to make way for the hotel-casino project.

But in his visit of the project site, Atienza noted that the trees remain intact, and that reports that century-old trees have been cut were exaggerated.

“If there were century-old trees here, we should be seeing them now; but there’s none,” Atienza said.

"This is a reclaimed area during the US Navy days and it’s impossible for century-old trees to be here," he added.

Atienza said that activism for the environment is good. “But, of course, we have to stick to reality and the truth,” he said.

Noting Palafox’s avowed passion for the environment, Atienza also said that he and Palafox “could work together.”

At the same time, Atienza directed DENR field officers to conduct tests at the project site to determine whether some trees have really been poisoned, as insinuated by Palafox and other critics of the project.

He said that results of the soil tests may be available after a week.

Atienza’s inspection came three days after some 200 environmentalists and members of religious and civic groups visited the project site to press the SBMA to save the trees.

But during the said visit, Fr. Jun Vic Diolata, executive vice-secretary of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP), also confirmed that not one tree at the project site have been cut.

Diolata said after seeing the situation in the area that “all the allegations of Palafox will have to be assessed.”

During Atienza’s inspection, SBMA’s Salonga informed the DENR official that the SBMA has a continuing reforestation program to further enhance the environment in this free port.

“We have already planted about 170,000 seedlings since we assumed our positions here in the SBMA, and yet they are still accusing us of not loving trees,” Salonga said.

Atienza also expressed his appreciation with the SBMA after Salonga told him that since December 2 last year, the agency has frozen any work at the Ocean 9 construction site pending the issuance of ECC from the DENR. (SBMA Corporate Communications)

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