Are We Losing Another Park?
Nobody expects to find greenery in the middle of historic, busy, and often chaotic Manila, so first-time visitors to Arroceros Forest Park are pleasantly surprised. Found on Antonio Villegas Avenue (also known as Calle Arroceros), the park is literally a breath of fresh air where you least expect it: Right smack in the middle of the city, beside the LRT Central Terminal and across Manila Metropolitan Theater and Quezon Bridge, overlooking the Pasig River.
It's a small park, but important enough to have been dubbed "Manila's Last Lung." To Manileños who need respite in the middle of all that concrete, Arroceros is a priceless oasis that opens its gates for free to all who want to take a stroll through this urban forest.
It wasn't always like this. In 1993, a group of women, now mostly seniors, were tasked to create the forest park from an abandoned property full of debris. Supported by then First Lady Ming Ramos and Mayor Alfredo Lim, a civic group called the Winner Foundation took charge of the project. President Fidel Ramos granted permission for Landbank to sell the property to the City of Manila "for recreational, educational and environmental purposes"—for the citizens to enjoy, in other words.
The site itself is historic. It was part of the Parian in the 16th and 17th centuries, when it earned its name for being the area where rice merchants (arroceros) were found; by the 19th century, it had turned into a tobacco factory called Fabrica de Arroceros, owned by the Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas, the country's first private tobacco company. The building was used as a US military garrison in the early 20th century, and then as the headquarters for the Department of Education after World War II.
When the DepEd offices transferred to its current headquarters in Pasig in 1993, the city government agreed to let the Winner Foundation to develop the site as a nature park. The group planted over 3,000 trees (in addition to about 150 trees that had been there for more than a century) with the help of the Manila Seedling Bank. And it was beautiful.
"I joined the group in 2003 when I found out that Mayor Lito Atienza had plans of 'developing' the park. We lobbied keep Arroceros Park alive—a five-year battle that we lost. They took over, banned us from entering, and destroyed over 200 trees (about a fourth of the park) to construct a building for the Division of City Schools," wrote Chiqui Sy-Quia Mabanta, current president of the Winner Foundation, in a Facebook post on August 1.
"In 2010, when Alfredo Lim won the mayoralty back from Lito Atienza, he handed the park back to us and appointed us its caretakers once again. We may have lost a lot of trees and seen much of the park paved off, but we were happy to have it back."
"Around a week ago, we received a letter asking us to vacate Arroceros. The city wants to build anew—this time they want a gym [for Universidad de Manila, and they want to build it in the very center of the park]," she continued.
It's been nearly 23 years since the park was created, and through it all, the civic group has used its own funds and manpower to conserve and maintain the park. The place has become so beloved that volunteers from the nearby universities have come in to help maintain the grounds during weekends. "Thankfully, we've also gotten new allies and supporters, particularly the Catholic Women's Club and the corporate social responsibility arm of the Manila Doctors Hospital. Arroceros might be a secret to many outsiders, but to us Manila citizens, it's well-used and well-loved," Mabanta says.
The members of the foundation are currently seeking dialogue with current Manila Mayor Erap Estrada, hoping to come to an agreement about preserving the trees and greenery while also looking for the best location for UDM's gym. "We want everybody to benefit," says Mabanta. "We are grateful that we have strong allies and public suport, and with that we hope we get to keep the park as a park—and to preserve its ecological, historical, and cultural heritage. Otherwise it would be yet another tragedy for the city."