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14 January 2009

NGOs, religious groups reconsider Palafox claims on Subic trees

It pays to hear both sides of the story.

A visit to the site of the controversial Ocean 9 hotel-casino project here this weekend has prompted environmentalists, religious groups, and non-government organizations to reconsider accusations by architect and urban planner Felino Palafox Jr. against the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA).

The groups also pressed for a dialogue between the opposing camps to ferret out the truth about Palafox's allegations that the project would destroy more than 300 trees — a claim that the SBMA has disputed.

The site visit was organized by the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP) and was joined by some 100 representatives from the Haribon Foundation, Kapatiran, Zambales Earth Savers, and students from De La Salle University, Adamson University, Assumption Academy in Bulacan, and Columban College in Olongapo City.

Fr. June Vic Diolata, AMRSP executive vice-secretary, said the visit provided "helpful" information that countered "serious" accusations by Palafox.

"All the allegations of Palafox will have to be assessed," Diolata said. "We hope we could see a dialogue between the two (parties)," he added.

The groups visited the project site on Saturday after hearing Palafox speak in a forum at the Columban College in Olongapo.

However, Palafox did not join the on-site site visit, wherein the visiting groups were escorted by SBMA Administrator Armand Arreza.

Ocean 9's managing executive director Louis Jong-Moon Choi was also at hand to welcome the visitors and respond to their queries.

He pointed out that Ocean 9 has been complying with all relevant laws, rules and regulations of the Philippines as far as the project is concerned, and that Palafox has never visited the project site.
As Arreza answered inquiries about the project, he also assured the visitors that the SBMA is open to a dialogue with Palafox.


"That was what we have been asking Palafox ever since — instead of his propagating malicious ideas against SBMA, just like what he did this morning," said Arreza.

"I can face him right now if only he has had the courage to come here," he added.

During the assembly at Columban College, Palafox , a former consultant who turned critic of the $120-milion hotel-casino project, said that "161 trees are dying in the area," and further implied that the trees could have been poisoned.

"You can kill trees simply with rock salt, or bulldozers can be used to shake the trees overnight — which can cause their death," Palafox added.

Arreza, however, laughed off Palafox's claims, saying that the project consultant-turned-critic might be referring to some narra trees, which naturally shed leaves in this season, making them appear lifeless.

The SBMA official even welcomed a proposal to test the soil for poison, adding that the visiting groups can conduct the test if they wanted to.

"Anyone can come here anytime. Just inform us so we can secure arrangements with the project proponent," said Arreza, who also ordered the SBMA police to guide the group's convoy of vehicles to the project site.

"We have nothing to hide here," he added.

Palafox also told the Olongapo assembly that the SBMA took advantage of the holidays to sneak cranes inside the project site.

Presenting slides which showed markings on trees that were made during the tree inventory undertaken by the SBMA Ecology Center last year, Palafox said that the trees "were marked like convicts lined up for execution."

But Arreza explained that the markings were made during the tree inventory and "precisely to ensure that not one tree is touched until the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is done with processing the project's environmental compliance certificate (ECC)."


As for the presence of cranes, which Palafox claimed are poised "to massacre the trees", Arreza said those were for soil testing, a necessary procedure to determine the integrity of the site, which was reclaimed from swamplands from the late 50s to the early 60s.

Fr. Diolata said that the visit confirmed that "the cranes were being used for soil testing only" and that "all of the trees are intact."

He added that the site visit "would enable everyone who participated here to come up with an objective opinion."

Meanwhile, an ARMSP member who asked not to be named, made it clear that the visiting groups were "in no way supporters of Palafox."

"We came here for the trees, and to find out the truth," the source said. (SBMA Corporate Communications)

PHOTO CAPTION:

SBMA Administrator Armand Arreza (right) fields inquiries on the Ocean 9 hotel-casino project during a visit to the project site by environmentalists, religious groups and non-government organizations. Arreza pointed out that contrary to claims by critics, the more than 300 trees in the project site remain intact to this day.

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