On June 25, news broke about Mayor Benjamin Magalong sounding the call against the cutting down of 54 pine trees on Outlook Road in Baguio City. The city was just about to “enforce a tree-cutting moratorium given Baguio’s dwindling tree line,” and a land developer’s cutting spree right smack in the middle of a pandemic was unexpected. 

On June 28, Bishop Victor Bendico of the Dioscese of Baguio issued a statement “strongly opposing the mass killing of full grown and healthy trees.” 

The trees were being cut for a 12-storey condominium project by Vista Land, which has said that it was granted a “special private land timber permit” by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Vista Land also claims that they are turning over 10,800 Benguet Pine Seedlings to replace the full-grown trees—53 Benguet pine and one Norfolk pine—they are cutting down.

This is not the first time Vista Land has gotten in the news for purported violations of environmental laws. In May 2018, during the Boracay lockdown, citizens reported the levelling of a mountain for Costa Vista, its residential condominium development on the island. It comes as no surprise then, that the Covid-19 lockdown is the context in which the same developer has decided to do its tree-cutting activity for its Baguio development. 

Kalikasan PNE urges authorities to look into these instances when land developers like Vista Land seem to be getting a “free pass” when it comes to acquiring environmental permits. The environment group calls for stricter regulations on projects with clear adverse trade-offs especially for old-growth trees and forests. After all, the link between biodiversity preservation and the emergence of zoonotic infectious diseases like COVID-19, has been proven to be more critical than ever. 

It is also important to highlight the connection between the current leadership and Vista Land. It is no secret that the owners of Vista Land are close allies of President Rodrigo Duterte. Businessman Manny Villar is a known ally and campaign donor of the President, as was wife Senator Cynthia Villar. Their son Mark was appointed by Duterte as Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) Secretary, and daughter-in-law Emmeline Aglipay-Villar as Undersecretary of the Department of Justice.