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A 'massacre of trees' and not a single photo to prove it

By Elson T. Elizaga


On March 16, 2012, I signed the online petition to save the 182 trees in SM Baguio. I wrote a comment after my name: "... Go underground, build houses in the sky, but leave the trees alone." I wrote this knowing that my wife is the manager of SM Cagayan de Oro since August 2010.

On April 10, 2012, however, I was surprised to read in Facebook that SM Baguio was cutting trees. My natural reaction was to ask for picturesof cut trees to support this claim, because I'm a photographer, I've worked as a researcher1, and I feel I have the right to get accurate information because I supported the petition.

So, I asked several friends and acquaintances and was sufficiently disappointed. I thought it would be easy to collect hundreds of pictures of cut trees because of allegations that SM Baguio was "raping the environment." But no one could give me any.

What they gave me were more interesting than I had expected. The first picture I saw was posted for the public in Facebook by tour guide Carlos Celdran, thank you.

Photo of alleged SM Baguio tree cutting. Posted by Carlos Celdran in his Facebook.

Please take some time to examine this photo. It is supposed to show tree-cutting in SM Baguio. Do we see any trees cut here? There could be, but do we see any? If you still can't, have a look at the enhanced version. Do we see a cut tree this time? Check your monitor. Is it possible that some monitors in Baguio are tilted 90 degrees?

Baguio resident Karlo Marko Altomonte also uploaded a video in youtube titled "Boycott SM now!" He has removed it already, good for him, but I have a copy. Below is a ScreenPrint of 0:52. Observe the following anomalies:

  • The video was published on April 9, 2012, a day before the described event, suggesting that Altomonte boarded a time machine to the future, then returned to the day he came from just to upload the video.
  • The video states SM Baguio cut the trees "around 1 am." But Altomonte's picture of a cut tree was taken under diffused sunlight on a cloudy day.
  • I asked Altomonte in April 2012 if the tree in his video was inside SM Baguio, because he had superimposed the SM logo on the felled tree. Altomonte didn't reply. When I tried to see the video in October 2012, it was already "removed by the user." Sent back to the future, I guess.

PrintScreen of a section of a section of the youtube video "Boycott SM Now!"

In my Facebook, I ask friends to give me information about alleged tree-cutting in SM Baguio. One gave me a photo of policemen. Yes, a row of policemen with SM Baguio in the background. Stunning.

Then another gave me the same Celdran photo. A third showed me what appeared to be earth-balling in progress. So, I complained: "Where's the cut tree in any of these?"

They're all over the Internet, one wrote. So, I searched for "sm baguio cut trees" in Google Images. Nothing in the result page. The first thumbnail in the page, when clicked, presents a dark image of trees supposedly cut. Sus, Ginoo! It's the same picture posted by Celdran!

Then the same person who gave me a photo of policemen told me that earth-balling and tree-cutting are the same because these methods kill trees.


Look, that would be saying castration and circumcision are the same -- a very dangerous proposition for the human species. By "cut" in reference to a tree I mean simply "to fell by sawing; hew", as in to cut down with an axe. Perhaps in Endor "cut" is a synonym of "earth-balling" and "transplanting", but I doubt the Ewoks would accept that.

On April 11, 2012, The Philippine Daily Inquirer published "Baguio court halts SM trees removal." This article does not mention tree-cutting. Again, no photo of a cut tree.

But rappler.com appeared to be convinced of the accusation of tree-cutting and consequently published the article "Court stops SM from cutting trees in Baguio." Instead of a factual photo, the article came with a cute CGI. I was expecting something less fancy -- a boring shot of a very dead trunk illuminated by frontal flash -- because rappler.com has the prestigious distinction of being founded by former CNN correspondent Maria Ressa. But I was wrong.

PrintScreen image of rappler.com page about SM Baguio

On April 13, 2012, a person who claimed the name of "Boo Yeah" posted links to videos and photos of SM Baguio in Facebook. One of the videos was dated April 11, 2012, 2:15 am. The 19-second footage showed a tree falling behind a blue fence but the caption said more than 10 trees fell earlier. Did the tree fall because of cutting or another procedure? The video did not reveal the sound of a chainsaw or other cutting equipment.

I wanted to have more information. My guess was that if 10 trees were felled and Boo Yeah had made a video of them, Boo Yeah should have a 190-second video at least. So, on April 14, 2012, I asked Boo Yeah if a longer footage was available. Boo Yeah didn't reply but wrote in a Facebook thread the next day:

Boo Yea charges "destabilization and public smearing"

I found this statement absurd because in the thread I only 1) asked for evidence of tree-cutting and 2) gave advice on how to use the camera to gather evidence. I even suggested using cameras with Global Positioning System. Why couldn't Boo Yeah simply give me a longer, clear video that would support their cause?

On April 18, 2012, the Philippine Star reported that SM Baguio allowed protesters to see the trees in SM Baguio. No trees were seen cut, only earth-balled. But rappler.com wrote an editorialized title, quite close to fortune-telling: "Low chance of survival for SM Baguio earth-balled trees."

On that same day, Altomonte uploaded another video titled "Luneta Hill Massacre - Baguio City." The introduction: "Trees marked for fatal earthballing, trees earthballed and transplanted haphazardly, trees dying, trees dead ..." Take note of the word "dead" and its reference to some of the 182 trees in question.

Because when Altomonte wrote a petition to British musician Sting, he accused Henry Sy of planning "to kill 182 trees." So, it appears that Altomonte has revised his opinion of the dead trees. They are all alive! They are resurrected! But beware Sting because Sy will kill them again!

Print screened portion of "Luneta Hill Massacre" video by Karlo Marko Altomonte

On October 20, 2012, the Philippine Daily Inquirer published Sting's decision to transfer his planned concert from SM Mall of Asia to the Araneta Coliseum, apparently in sympathetic response to a petition written by Altomonte and the letter of complaint of lawyer Cheryl Daytec addressed to a representative of Sting. Daytec claimed "SM cut down more than 40 trees in the dead of the night."

The protesters are ecstatic and thankful by the change of concert venue, but I believe Sting and the Rainforest Foundation know the facts. And though Sting cannot say it publicly, he simply wants to avoid trouble. See my other article,

Let me end with a conclusion and an invitation to refute this conclusion:

SM Baguio has not cut down any of the 182 trees inside its property. SM has only earth-balled and transferred some trees.

If anyone could send me a photo of a felled tree inside SM Baguio -- trunk split in two -- with SM Baguio building in the background, I will give the photographer P1,000.

The color image should be unedited, preferably taken with a 10mm to 35mm lens from April 2012 to November 2012. Have the photo published first in Sun.Star Baguio or a national newspaper then email me a copy. The photo will be displayed in my website at 1400 pixels maximum length or width. Photographer retains copyright.

Protesters who claim trees have been cut can help this project by raising the fund.

Remember: A picture is worth a thousand pesos. Last day of submission has been extended to 12 midnight, January 15, 2013 Philippine time.

Bengwayan's incorrect statements
By Elson T. Elizaga
Michael Bengwayan is an environmentalist and one of the strongest critics of SM Baguio's planned expansion. He wrote the petition that I signed.

On April 26, 2012, Bengwayan posted an article in a Facebook group about SM Baguio. It's a long piece but I will quote only three statements.
The Lies and More Lies of SM About Their Tree Massacre [Title]

False. SM Baguio has not "massacred" any trees in Baguio, but has planted 8,000 trees since 2005, and will plant 50,000 more in three years. Inside SM Baguio property, SM Baguio has only earth-balled the trees. This was witnessed by protesters who went to SM Baguio On April 18, 2012.

Allow me to let you see through the lies of SM's so-called Green Expansion Garden in the Sky project. They say that their project is "certified by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the internationally recognized standard for green building design and construction developed by the US Green Building Council.

However, Jennivine Kwan, Vice President for International Operations of USGBC denied this claim. She said they have never certified any project of SM and do not intend to work with SM.

False. SM Baguio has not claimed that its expansion project is certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). The report in the Philippine Daily Inquirer states: "SM City Baguio said the project [is] ... designed to be [emphasis mine] certified by LEED ... The expanded SM City Baguio is designed to receive a LEED Gold Rating ...." The website of SM Baguio also gives the same information: "The project aims to be the first mall in the North Region to be certified by LEED ..."

SM Prime Holdings, Inc., which operates SM Baguio, is a member of the US Green Building Council (USGBC). Bengwayan's claimed statement from Kwan is "incorrect", according to Jennifer Easton in her reply to my query in Facebook. Easton is Communications Associate at USGBC.

LEEDS [sic] Philippines also said SM's trumpeting of its so called Green Project is a case of Greenwashing, (Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image) and called on people to sign the petition against SM.
False. A US LEED-accredited architect and environmental planner, Marie Therese Santiano wrote in LEED the Philippines Facebook in response to my query: "There is no LEEDS Philippines. LEED is an international rating system from US Green Building Council. I believe SM Baguio is trying for LEED certification to show everyone that their building is green. We don't know who made a statement about 'greenwashing'. But there's no formal LEED Accredited Professional/ Green Associate organization in the Philippines; hence, it's impossible to make a formal/ official statement from USGBC LEED about it." End
Not hero of the year

In April 2012, several websites described Michael Bengwayan as Reader's Digest Asia hero of the year. A few protesters in Baguio bragged about this alleged achievement. I'm miles away from Baguio, but I found this claim to be a hoax. Baguio residents just got the info secondhand. On May 15, 2012 RDAsia wrote in response to my query that RDAsia has no hero-of-the-year program. The official statement is posted in the RDAsia Facebook:

"Reader's Digest Asia wishes to clarify information recently reported in the national media concerning Dr Michael Bengwayan.

"Contrary to reports, Dr Bengwayan has not been voted or awarded a Reader's Digest Asia Environmental Hero award. In fact, we have no such awards programme currently or planned.

"Earlier this year Dr Bengwayan was interviewed by a freelance writer working on a project for Reader's Digest Asia magazine. That interview has not been used and is not scheduled for publication."

Reply of Reader's Digest Asia

Baguio City
Wikimapia map of SM Baguio and vicinity
This is just a portion of Baguio. If you click the photo you will see a larger area in Wikimapia. Compare the area of SM Baguio to the land occupied by residents of Baguio. How much of Baguio vegetation has been removed by residents or by SM? Did the residents or SM cut the trees, or earth-ball them? Did they build houses and roads away from the trees? Who are planting trees in Baguio?


1 Elson T. Elizaga used to be a researcher of the Research Center and the Educational Management Center of De La Salle University. His work was ethnographic process documentation in a Hanunuo Mangyan village in Mindoro. Dr. Jonathan Okamura, an anthropologist, was his supervisor.

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