Only the President can amend proclamation of Mount Santo Tomas

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BAGUIO CITY – Only the President of the Philippines can amend or repeal the proclamation declaring Mount Kabuyao as part of the Santo Tomas protected forest reserve in Tuba, Benguet.

So explained Department of Environment and Natural Resources Regional Executive Director Ralph Pablo in response to a claim of Baguio Representative Nicasio Aliping Jr. that “it is no longer a forest land as it has been subsequently inhabited by 1,815 people with more or less 550 families, 20 towers of big telecommunication companies and military headquarters, a concrete national highway and vegetable gardens.”

As far as legal documents are concerned, he pointed out, nothing has revoked the proclamation of Mount Kabuyao as being part of a forest reserve. “(So) it will remain as a forest reserve. It doesn’t mean that just because houses were built there, it automatically changes its status, unless they move to amend its proclamation as such,” Pablo continued.

As a result, since Mount Kabuyao and adjoining Mount Santo Tomas are still considered as a forest reserve, they cannot in any way be reclassified as alienable and disposable, and be subjected to private ownership.

It may be recalled that the Supreme Court temporarily stopped road opening activities at the Mount Santo Tomas watershed in Tuba, Benguet late last year, following claims that it is causing environmental degradation in the area.

The court en banc, presided then by Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, granted the Temporary Environment Protection Order and referred to the Court of Appeals the Writ of Kalikasan case filed last September 12 by residents of Baguio City; Tuba, Benguet; and San Fabian, Pangasinan. Among the petitioners were Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop and Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines president Socrates Villegas and Baguio Bishop Carlito Cenzon.

In the TEPO, the court ordered Aliping and his co-accused to cease and desist from performing acts to develop or enhance the property located at Mount Santo Tomas forest reserve which he has claimed to be his or his brother’s. The acts include the improvement of the old building standing on the land, the building of any structure thereon, continuing with any road activities, and concreting any part of the road.

The court also ordered Aliping to immediately take steps to mitigate the contamination of the Amliang dams due to the erosion emanating from his road opening project.

According to the petitioners, the development projects could affect the Mount Santo Tomas watershed and threaten the availability of its potable water supply.

The same court also ordered the Tuba municipal government led by Mayor Florencio Bentrez to cease and desist from accepting applications for the issuance of tax declarations over lands within the forest reserve, from processing applications that have already been filed, and from issuing tax declarations that have already been processed and approved.

Residents of Mount Santo Tomas have been using tax declarations to justify the construction of the structures in the forest reserve.

The SC also referred the case to the Court of Appeals for the acceptance of comment, hearing, reception of evidence, and rendition of judgment.

In their plea, the petitioners said that mountains trekkers discovered massive tree-cutting and earth-moving activities at Mount Santo Tomas on April 15 last year, prompting barangay, police and environment officers to conduct an investigation.

Investigators then found out that the earth-moving activities were approved by Aliping for the purpose of opening a road starting from the Mount Kabuyao highway all the way to sitios Amliang and Bekel in Poblacion, Tuba. This allegedly resulted in the cutting of 306 trees and 455 saplings.

The petitioners said the newly-opened road ends 50 meters away from Amliang creek where rocks and soil from the earth-moving activities posed a pollution threat on the water resources around the area.

The investigators also found out that no environmental compliance certificate, tree cutting permit or special land use permit, right of way or excavation permit were issued for the activities.

This prompted Benguet Governor Nestor Fongwan and Tuba Mayor Florencio Bentrez to issue a cease and desist order to Aliping asking for a stop to the massive land development in his alleged property in the area.

On May 13 last year, Baguio Water District general manager Salvador Royeca also called the attention of Fongwan through a letter over threats on its water sources in Amliang which is in Kabuyao and Camp 6, Tuba, Benguet.

The BWD general manager reported the turbidity seen at Dam 3 Stage 1 in Camp 6 was seemingly a result of the land development in the alleged Aliping property. He said that this was established during an inspection conducted by the BWD on April 28.

Citing further contamination on the water sources Royeca then sought the help of Fongwan and asked to regulate activities in the area.

The governor, alarmed by the communication, immediately wrote Mayor Bentrez and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

On June 2, the DENR issued a Notice of Violation cum Cease and Desist Order to Aliping along with three more respondents Romeo Aquino of RUA Construction and Development Corporation, Bernard Capuyan of BLC Construction and Aggregates, and William Go of Goldrich Construction, the alleged contractors, for allegedly cutting, removing, gathering or collecting timber in the forest reservation.

In the notice, it was pointed out that the location of the project “is considered an Environmentally Critical Area (ECA) as defined under Proclamation 2146 PD 1586 which establishes the Philippine Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) System.”

It was also discovered the project was found operating without an Environmental Compliance Certificate, a requirement before any developments in an ECA.

Aliping admitted failing to secure an ECC but emphasized the road construction is not covered by his land development project.

While Aliping did not undergo the EIA process to secure an ECC, he said he tried to apply for an excavation permit from the office of mayor Bentrez. This excavation permit was never issued.

Even though the solon denied involvement on the road construction in Sto. Tomas, questions were raised on Aliping’s failure to secure permits necessary for his project.

To the people of Baguio, for someone who was elected as legislator, Aliping was expected to know the law and abide by it.

His violation on operating without any permit costed him P50,000 in penalties and a commitment to implement mitigating measures in Mount Kabuyao.

But as Aliping continued to deny his involvement in the construction, the proximity of the road works to his property still fanned speculations of his knowledge on the project.

This as he clarified his property is being developed into an eco-park. With this, the solon stressed his land development had nothing to do with the destruction in Mount Kabuyao caused by the road construction.

On June 6, then acting Benguet Provincial Environment and Natural Resources officer Octavio Cuanso filed the case with the Benguet Provincial Prosecutor’s Office on behalf of the DENR.

But in his counter-affidavit, Aliping firmly maintained, “There is no basis for the assessment of forest charges and computation of the market value of fallen and/or uprooted trees causes by new road openings constructed from Sitio Pongayan to Sitio Amliang and Sitio Pongayan to Sitio Bekel, Sto. Tomas, Poblacion Tuba, Benguet in the amount of P10,314,531.40 for the reason that I have not caused the felling or uprooting of trees at the road opening outside my property nor was there any such felled or uprooted tree found inside my property.”

Meanwhile, aside from the criminal charges filed against Aliping and the accused contractors for allegedly leading the Kabuyao tree massacre, another case was filed by the BWD for the destruction of its water sources.

The BWD filed a complaint June 26 before the Pollution Adjudication Board against Aliping and the three alleged contractors for violations of the Clean Water Act of 2009.

Three Amliang springs were first seen with turbidity caused by earth moving activities from Aliping’s property and the road construction whose “owner” has yet to be identified.

BWD was left without a choice but to shut down the Amliang springs scared to compromise the health of its concessionaires along Marcos Highway and other portions of Baguio and Benguet.

BWD later revealed the springs have been rendered useless by boulders which covered the water sources and expressed fears transmission lines are already heavily silted with soil preventing water to pass through.

BWD, in coordination with the DENR-EMB sought for mitigating measures to be instituted and a massive clean up to revive the water sources.

To date, BWD has already conducted clean-up operations to recover the water sources while the mitigating measures plan was submitted by Aliping to the DENR-EMB which is expected to issue a resolution about Aliping and the three accused contractors for their violation of Presidential Decree 1586 soon.

Aside from the mitigating measures, BWD is also seeking for payment of the cost of damages which include the cost for rehabilitation of the water sources and the opportunity cost the water district incurred due to the non-operation of these sources.

In his affidavit, Aliping admitted having undertaken excavations for a small road leading to a proposed ecological park on watershed land he bought in 2003.

“The excavation and leveling [of terrain] within my property is different and distinct from the road opening … outside my property … I have nothing to do [with that road project] and the allegedly felled or uprooted trees along the road,” he said.

But the DENR, in its reply-affidavit to Aliping’s comments in relation to the charges filed against him for his alleged violation of sections 77 and 78 of Presidential Decree 705 or the Revised Forestry Code, said that “Aliping’s allegation that he is being singled out for political persecution has no basis and is only a product of his imagination. No one is above the law. Everyone must follow the law. A leader must obey the law. A government must obey the law.”

The affidavit, filed before the Benguet Provincial Prosecutor’s Office on July 29, said Aliping could not claim he cannot be sued for introducing improvements within his supposed claims at the Mt. Santo Tomas forest reserve, which he has been occupying from 2003 up to present.

DENR cited that the Supreme Court in several decisions ruled that forest lands or reserves cannot be converted into a private property.

It also noted Aliping’s inconsistencies, when he said his claim within Mount Santo Tomas consists only of 2.6885 hectares.

The agency said tax declarations identified as ARP 99-001-05853 and 99-001-05854 identified as Aliping’s claims covers an area of 0.1550 hectares and 4.8450 hectares, respectively. They said that Aliping used these tax declarations as basis for his claims within Mount Santo Tomas.

The agency said that Aliping’s claim that the road opening project is outside his property is vague.

The DENR has secured a copy of the minutes of the meeting of the Tuba municipal council in May 29, 2012 where Aliping mentioned about his plan to establish an eco-adventure site within a 16-hectare property.

The proposed eco-adventure facility will feature a zipline that connects to the alleged 90-hectare claim of his brother Brian.

Assuming that Aliping’s property is five hectares, then a larger portion of the newly opened road is within his claim, according to the DENR. “But if his claim is 16 hectares, then almost half of the whole stretch of the new road project is within his alleged claims.”

DENR also rebuffed Aliping’s statement that no trees were cut within the excavation site, which covers an area of 4,500 square meters.

The agency said it has photographs showing there were trees within the 3,000 square-meter open area in the alleged claim of Aliping and there were damaged or uprooted and cut trees when excavation activities were implemented.

DENR also said the three contractors must be included in the complaint despite their claims that they acted in good faith when their backhoes were used in the excavation and road opening projects.

Meanwhile, the district engineer of Benguet’s 1st Engineering District denied that the DPWH road upgrading project was to blame for damaging trees and for excavating large volumes of earth and rocks that cascaded and polluted the Amliang Creek, where the Baguio Water District sources its water.

“It is impossible because the concreting project is located on a ridge on the right side of Mt. Sto. Tomas,” said Engr. David Buliyat.

“The solon’s project is on the Kabuyao side where massive diggings tend to affect the Amliang Creek,” he added.

Buliyat issued the disclaimer to refute Aliping’s statement that the DPWH project cut and damaged several trees and that large volume of earth and rocks that were excavated cascaded into the Amliang River and polluted the body of water.

He said the concreting project is done on an old road, hence there was no need to widen or to cut trees. He added the contractor has made it a point to haul the debris or earth removed from the project site.

Buliyat added the DPWH project is covered by an environmental clearance certificate.

The DPWH provided the DENR and Benguet officials copies of its report to show that its road upgrading project cannot be blamed for the contamination of the Amliang Creek.

The BWD, on the other hand, said it can prove it is the unauthorized earthmoving activities in Kabuyao that have caused the contamination and siltation of the utility’s water sources and transmission lines.

In a statement released by the BWD on July 31, after the utility’s board and management met with Aliping, the firm maintained that the allegations contained in its complaint against Aliping are supported by evidence.

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