Kat Palasi and ‘The Last Pine Tree’
PASSAGE - Ed Maranan (The Philippine Star) - May 13, 2013 - 12:00am

During a recent trip to the very top of Benguet province’s Mt. Sto. Tomas, site of an abandoned radar installation visible from the city of Baguio nestling below, we had a panoramic view of a changing city, whose once forested peaks and valleys are being taken over by man-made structures, from cheek-by-jowl houses of settlers who have taken over vast territories, to humongous malls and medium-rise condominium clusters.

Other parts of the landscape offer a stark contrast to the remaining green cover of the mountains: brown earth either being prepared for new subdivisions out of former pine stands, or else eroded areas and landslides caused by earth tremors, torrential rains, and human activity. On top of this grim scene is the reality of pollution of the city’s air, waterways and inhabited areas.

To my generation which grew up in the old Baguio from the late ’40s to the early ’60s, there are persistent memories of a greener world, of pine-scented mountains (where, according to older inhabitants of the place, deer and other wildlife used to abound), of clear rivers and streams. I remember the Balili river which rose from the Sagudin river in the barangay of Trancoville and runs down to Trinidad Valley, where on free days our group of grade school adventurers would be wading in the cold clean current, catching the slippery small fish juju to play with and release afterwards. All around was shrubbery, tall grass and solitude, where now one finds garbage and unregulated structures. In the once “green and pleasant land” that is now the congested Burnham Park in the heart of Baguio, there were once upon a time tiny streams and rivulets where we used to wade after a wild ride on the swings.

And who is the oldtimer in the City of Pines who would not remember Luneta Hill where stood the stately Pines Hotel? In its place now rears a multi-story mall which has been the target of environmentalists for more than a year over its plan to remove 182 pine and alnos trees because the owners want to build another multi-storey building for parking (which has no reference at all, of course, to a green place where one may stroll or lie down among the trees).


The old Baguio as remembered by my generation which grew up there from the late ’40s to the ’60s could inspire (or depress) one to write something similar to Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley which, according to a book review, celebrates “the picturesque mountains” and “the ever-changing winds” of Wales, at the same time that it chronicles the pitfalls and changing fortunes of families in a mining community. This resonates with the history of Baguio and Benguet, and it is this story that is told through the lens and words of Kat Palasi, a professional photographer and photojournalist whose exhibit of 27 mounted photographs, “The Last Pine Tree,” is now going on throughout the month of May at the UP Vargas Museum.

Kat Palasi and I share similar memories of how life was in the past in this southern reach of the Cordillera, I as a child of settlers from the lowland, and she as a native of the place. She describes the task she has taken on, and her purpose for mounting the exhibit “The Last Pine Tree”:

“My mission as a communicator is to be able to use photography as a medium to foreground issues close to my heart. One of these issues is how the Benguet people have been disenfranchised by the many ‘development’ projects imposed on them for many decades. As a child, I remember playing with the colored stones in a grey-colored river in Itogon (a municipality of Benguet) not realizing that the river had turned gray because of the mines in the mountains upstream. I never saw any fish in that river. My maternal grandfather worked for the mines most of his life and as a child, my mother and I would ride a Dangwa bus to visit him in this small mining town.

“Years later, as a photographer and an outdoor enthusiast traveling throughout Benguet,  I realized the many stories that have not been told or are forgotten about my own heritage. The richness of  the Benguet cultures is slowly being eroded today, as is the case with the patrimonyof many indigenous peoples everywhere. Today, I theorize that the three important components of culture  — land, language and customs — l have become ‘special pockets of resistance,’ evidence of a struggling culture that tries to keep itself alive through its traditional rituals, dances, and the assertion of language. Benguet as compared with the other provinces in the Cordillera, and because of its long history of mining, has had the most degraded land and the least density of forest cover as well.

“These stories are about Benguet’s environment and culture. This project is about how the Benguet people continue to struggle to maintain their culture and how they try to protect the little that is left of their environment in this day and age of massive ‘development.’”

Llewellyn’s novel describes events which took place in a mining community in pre-war Wales. There is thus a parallel with the kind of economic life that became dominant in Benguet with the introduction of large-scale mining. Two sentences, one in Chapter 30 and the other which ends the novel, make a reference to the title of the novel. Putting the two together, we come up with a poignant couplet that may now seem like a prophecy and prefiguring of the thesis Kat Palasi has developed in her revealing photo documentation. 

How green was my valley that day…green and bright in the sun.

How green was my valley then, and the valley of Them that have gone.

The blight of overdevelopment has been the fate of Baguio and, increasingly, of Benguet, home to once-verdant forests and still proud natives who have inhabited these highlands for countless moons and summers.


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