Why Arroceros guardians oppose forest park makeover 2
Cemented paths inside the Arroceros Forest Park. Photo courtesy of Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta

They paved paradise: What happened to Arroceros Forest Park?

A fountain was being built, a raised walkway was being completed, there were cemented paths—all amid the forest’s plants and trees. 
ANCX Staff | Nov 16 2021

Members of the Save Arroceros Movement were shocked with what they saw Friday last week when they checked the ongoing “redevelopment” of the Arroceros Urban Forest Park, “Manila’s last lung.” 

An estimated one-fifth of the small land area was covered with concrete, said Menie Odulio, former president of the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society Inc. (PNPCSI), in a Facebook post. The pictures that accompanied it seemed to say it all. A fountain was being built, a raised walkway was being completed, there were cemented paths—all amid the forest’s plants and trees. 

Arroceros Fores Park
A playground will be built on this cemented area.
Arroceros Forest Park
Construction in full swing at the forest park.

Cement sacks and construction debris were being dumped at the foot of an old tree. Some trees have been cut and some encased at the roots with concrete. Tree labels were on the ground, covered in dirt. Benches designed by National Artist Napoleon Abueva were partially destroyed. 

Arroceros Forest Park
Construction debris threaten the life of this old tree.

Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta, president of the Winner Foundation, the park’s guardian since its creation in 1993, also posted the abovementioned images online, raising their concerns on the so-called forest park redevelopment.

Ano ang nangyari sa Arroceros FOREST Park?” Odulio wrote on her Facebook wall. “We weren't prepared for what we saw,” Mabanta shared.

Arroceros Forest Park
A fountain will rise on this spot.

Last frontier 

As far as Manila City Ordinance 8607 is concerned, the Arroceros has been declared a “permanent forest park.” As such, the City shall “protect and conserve the integrity” of its “last environmental frontier.” The ordinance was filed in September 2019 and signed by the city’s officials, including Mayor Isko Moreno, last February 2020.

Odulio tells ANCX it was in July 2019 when the Save Arroceros Movement first met with the Manila mayor. In the meeting, Odulio and fellow environmental advocates expressed their disapproval of former Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada’s plan to build a gym inside Arroceros. “That was the reason the Movement was formed,” says Odulio. “Natuwa naman kami kasi hindi natuloy ang gym and Mayor Isko promised us that they will pass an ordinance to declare [Arroceros] as a permanent forest park.”

But what the movement’s members saw in their recent visit was “anything but a forest,” says Odulio.

Arroceros Forest Park
Concrete walkways everywere.

The native plants advocate pointed out three breaches to the ordinance. The city government was supposed to maintain Arroceros as a forest park. “They are turning it into something like Luneta from what we see—paved walkways, may area pang gagawan ng fountain. May stairs leading up to somewhere,” she says.

Hindi yun ang konsepto ng forest,” Odulio insists. “It’s supposed to be a microcosm of a real forest. It’s not supposed to be a landscaped park like Luneta. Arroceros is not meant to be that.”

Arroceros Forest Park
Benches designed by National Artist Napoleon Abueva were partially destroyed. 

In a forest park, what takes place is a natural regeneration. Plants and trees would naturally germinate by themselves in fertile soil, from seeds brought by the wind, birds, bats and other creatures. “Now there is cement where no new plants will grow,” Odulio’s Facebook post reads.

“Moreover, the area under the remaining trees which served as a natural incubator for flora and fauna was cleared and is being planted with exotic ornamentals—plants that do not naturally grow in our native forests,” she adds.

Arroceros Forest Park
Details of the ongoing construction.

Concrete and more concrete

What’s hard not to notice, says Odulio, was the large cemented area. How many trees were cut to make way for these portions in concrete? The contractor’s architect told them no trees were cut but Odulio, who used to do “tree walks” (providing talks about the trees) at the Arroceros Forest Park, says she’s sure there are trees that are no longer there—another violation of the ordinance.

Kasi when I do my tree walk, I point out particular trees we see along the way—wala na dun. Plus, we have a tree map that pinpoints the location of each tree,” she says. According to Odulio, a group of foresters from UP Los Baños did an inventory of the trees at the park in December 2018. There were 1,567 trees that were identified.

Arroceros Forest Park
The architect insists that no trees were cut. 

The native plants advocate adds that some of the trees in Arroceros may have been planted almost 30 years ago, and was to provide a covered green canopy inside the park. “Now there is so much light inside, as the canopy has thinned considerably,” she says.

As per the ordinance, says Odulio, the City is supposed to consult with the residents, civil society and stakeholders with regards the formulation of a management plan for Arroceros Forest Park. “They never did that. We approached them so many times,” says Odulio.

Arroceros Forest Park
Ninit Paterno, the chairman of Winner Foundation, who spearheaded the creation of the park almost 30 years ago was speechless upon seeing all the concrete, says Mabanta.

After their meeting with Mayor Isko in July 2019, they were told Architect Dennis Lacuna has been assigned to handle Arroceros. “Chiqui Mabanta and I were able to meet [Architect Lacuna] and correspond with him,” Odulio tells ANCX. “But after a few months, natigil yun. Parang na-ghost na kami e. Then the pandemic happened. So walang naging management plan. Walang consultation sa mga partners.”

Odulio says the two major stakeholders of Arroceros—Winner Foundation and Manila Doctors Hospital—already sent letters to the city’s officials when they noticed a construction going on during the pandemic. But the stakeholders never got a response.

Arroceros Forest Park
More trees are to be encased in concrete.

What’s a forest park for

Odulio says she has lived in Manila for the past 64 years—and it’s always a new and pleasant experience stepping inside the Arroceros Forest Park.

“A forest is an entire ecosystem and not just trees,” Odulio shares on Facebook. “The park, small as it was, helped to show residents of the urban jungle that is Metro Manila what it was like to be enveloped inside the green cocoon of a forest, with greenery all around, the sound of birds and insects and the beauty of fallen leaves, flowers and fruits under a lush green canopy.”

Arroceros Forest Park
The forest park is being turned into a manicured garden, says Mabanta.
Arroceros Forest Park
Plants waiting to be planted.
Arroceros Forest Park
"It’s not supposed to be a landscaped park like Luneta," says Odulio. "Arroceros is not meant to be that.”

She says Arroceros serves a very big educational purpose. “It’s a new learning experience for kids born and raised in Manila. It is also a showcase of biodiversity. It shows how natural regeneration works,” she says.

The forest park serves as a sanctuary for different species of animals. The Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, says Odulio, noted that their members have seen about 30 bird species nestling there.

Arroceros Forest Park
Another portion of the Abueva bench that was destroyed.

Odulio says they are setting a meeting with the city’s officials but nothing is confirmed yet. Their appeal is to put a pause to the ongoing “redevelopment” ASAP and design a new plan that will prevent any further damage to the park’s biodiversity. “Otherwise, Arroceros will no longer be a forest park but will just be the usual park, like Rizal Park which is just a fifteen minute walk from there,” says Odulio.

At the groundbreaking rites of the Arroceros Urban Forest Park on September 2021, Mayor Isko did share his plans for the 2.2-hectare forest park. It will have amenities like play areas, kiosks, and public toilets. It will also have landscaping with an elevated path walk, a special lighting system, and water fountains. 

Arroceros Forest Park
Trees encased in concrete.

When asked if they read the PDI story that carried Mayor Isko’s plans, Odulio told ANCX: “We had understood these changes to be done on the extension portion of the park, the closed-off portion of the street between the park and the Metropolitan Theater, banking on the promise made by Yorme that no trees will be cut.”

ANCX tried to reach out to Manila City Hall and the city engineer’s office for comments, but we have yet to receive a reply. 

Photos courtesy of Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta