- Arroceros Forest Park in the heart of Manila is one of the few green spaces left in the bustling Philippines capital.
- Successive governments have tried to get rid of it for new developments, but the city’s newly elected mayor has announced plans to retain and rehabilitate it as part of his “green city” proposal.
- The park is home to more than 3,000 trees, including 60 native species, and serves as a rest stop for migratory birds.
- Often dubbed the “lung” of Manila, Arroceros has been shown to mitigate the city’s notorious air pollution, and plays a key role in minimizing flooding, another of the capital’s litany of problems.
MANILA — It’s said that when the mayor of the Philippine capital Manila looks out the window of his office, he often sees four things: the murky yet thriving Pasig River; the dilapidated Metropolitan theater, famed for its art deco furnishings; the busy train terminal; and the only patch of green in the gray and grime of the city: Arroceros Forest Park, a 2.2-hectare (5.4-acre) mini jungle that’s home to centuries-old trees and a favorite resting place for migrating birds.
Yet despite the respite the park offers its avian and human visitors, Manila’s mayors have persistently insisted on getting rid of it. Lito Atienza, who served as mayor from 1998 to 2007, allowed a portion of the park to be bulldozed for a new government building, while Joseph “Erap” Estrada, a former president and mayor from 2013 until earlier this year, wanted to turn the park into a school gymnasium.
But when Estrada’s deputy, Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso, won the race to succeed him last May, environmental advocates found reason to breathe a sigh of relief. Moreno announced in July that he would keep the park, considered Manila’s last lungs, intact, and even rehabilitate it as part of his “green city” proposal.
Arroceros is home to more than 3,000 trees, with around 60 native species present, accounting for 17 percent of all mature trees in the city. The species there include narra (Pterocarpus indicus), the country’s national tree, as well as endangered species like molave (Vitex parviflora), ipil (Intsia bijuga) and supa (Sindora supa).
There’s no other urban jungle in Metro Manila like Arroceros, says Menie Odulio, president of the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society Inc. “The closest could be the La Mesa Eco Park, which is a watershed. Quezon City Memorial Park is quite similar, though it doesn’t have that many trees as compared to Arroceros,” she tells Mongabay. (Both La Mesa Eco Park and Quezon City Memorial Park are located in Quezon City. Manila City and Quezon City are part of the National Capital Region or Metro Manila, the nation’s capital.)
Of the 21 urban green spaces in Manila, Arroceros is the only one that has no historical landmark or monuments defined by the National Cultural Heritage Act, making it vulnerable to development programs. Yet, in a study on Manila’s urban green spaces conducted in 2016, Arroceros was found to have the highest proportion of crown canopy cover among the other parks in Manila’s fifth electoral district. It also has one of the highest rates of vegetation, one of the parameters of resiliency that “improves infiltration, reduces surface run off, prevents siltation and ultimately, reduce exposure to flooding,” the study says.
Its importance, however, lies not just in the native tree species within its enclosed canopy but its contribution to urban biodiversity.
A shield against flooding and other climate change impacts
As the largest city and the capital of the Philippines, Manila plays a major role in national development. Yet it suffers from the myriad urban problems that plague a city of its size, including massive flooding.
“Species diversity in an urban green space influences capacity of an urban human settlement to withstand extreme weather events such as flooding,” the study says. A deeper look at the hazard map of Manila shows that District 5, where Arroceros and the other parks are located, is one of the areas least susceptible to urban flooding.
Arroceros’s high coverage of crown canopy also helps in regulating the city’s temperatures, which can sometimes reach as high as 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit). “You can really feel the difference once you’re inside. It’s way cooler in the park,” Odulio says.
Another study confirms that Arroceros helps mitigate air pollution levels in Manila. The study highlights the findings of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2016 that Manila’s pollution index where the park is located ranges from moderate to unhealthy.
“Arroceros Forest Park … can remove 30 tons of particulates per year. [It] provides a ‘Lung’ for the city. The carbon dioxide emitted from the city (from vehicles, factories, air conditions, etc.) is absorbed by the trees which reduces carbon dioxide and give out fresh oxygen,” the study says.
Beyond its environmental and historical importance, Arroceros also provides a service to the physical and mental well-being of the city’s residents by “bringing them closer to nature,” the study says. Odulio says that Manila Doctors Hospital occasionally brings some of its patients to the park as part of their therapy, in the belief that the environment in Arroceros facilitates the healing process.
“There’s what we call forest bathing, a form of nature therapy. It helps us physically if we have direct interaction with nature. They say it’s supposed to be scientific, something to do with improving hormonal balance in the body,” she says.
Beyond being a mere forest park, Arroceros is a “living laboratory,” Odulio says. After all, the development of the forest park was initiated in 1993 “strictly for educational purposes.”
“It’s a learning experience to visit Arroceros. At least, we have an area where people can go and feel how it is to be surrounded by trees. If you bring there adults and kids who live in Manila, at least they’ll get to experience nature first-hand,” Odulio says.
Threatened by invasive tree species
Arroceros Forest Park is the product of a planned development that started after the local government purchased the land in 1992. Back then, the area only had 150 trees. A memorandum of agreement signed in 1993 between the Manila city government and the Winner Foundation, which manages the park to this day, led to the development of the area as a forest park.
Chiqui Mabanta, the president of the Winner Foundation, says they proposed a 15-year development plan. “Fifteen years is considered enough period to develop a forest park. The idea is that we will develop Arroceros into a forest park, then we will return it to the city,” she says.
The foundation obtained some 3,500 saplings from the Manila Seedling Bank and planted them throughout the park. In the initial stages, invasive tree species such as mahogany made their way in the park and pushed back native tree species.
“Mahogany has to do with affecting the acidity of the soil, thereby affecting the growth of other plants,” Arroceros caretaker Antonio Magno says.
Odulio says that was one of the lessons learned in developing the forest park. “At first, people just planted any type of trees since they all provide oxygen and shade, and help in the absorption of floodwater. But after many years, we saw that some trees are not good for local trees. We realized that what we should be planting are only those endemic in the Philippines,” she says.
Since then, the goal of the foundation has been to grow native tree species, especially the endangered ones. “Little by little, the plan is to get rid of [the invasive plants]. It hasn’t started, but with the new plan [by Mayor Domagoso], it will happen,” Odulio says.
Biodiversity and history
The lush trees of Arroceros have attracted local and migratory birds such as the yellow-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus goiavier), pied fantail (Rhipidura nigritorquis), arctic warbler (Phylloscopus borealis), brown shrike (Lanius cristatus), white-collared kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris), common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), rufous night heron (Nycticorax caledonicus), glossy starling (Lamprotorniss pp.) and black-naped oriole (Oriolus chinensis).
“From our perspective, the value of Arroceros is very important because it showcases biodiversity,” Mabanta says.
But apart from its rich flora and fauna, the land where the park exists also holds important historical value. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the site was part of a long stretch of land along the Pasig River called the Parian de Arroceros, which served as a marketplace and trading post for Chinese merchants. Among the commodities traded back then was rice, hence the term Arroceros, which means “rice cultivators” in Spanish.
Proof of this historic trading activity was found during an excavation in the southern part of the forest park in 2005. The National Museum discovered archaeological materials such as fragments of stoneware jars, blue-and-white Chinese porcelain shreds, fragments of European ceramics, and even old coins.
The area was also the site of the historic Fabrica de Cigarillos, a tobacco factory in the 19th century, which was mentioned in national hero José Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere. In the novel, lead character Crisostomo Ibarra is described as having smelled the scent of tobacco coming from a factory in Arroceros. During the U.S. occupation, the area was the site of a military garrison, and after World War II, home to the office of the Department of Education, Culture, and Sports (DECS).
Gonzales, L. P., & Magnaye, D. C. (2017). Measuring the urban biodiversity of green spaces in a highly urbanizing environment and its implications for human settlement resiliency planning: The case of Manila City, Philippines. Procedia Environmental Sciences, 37, 83-100. doi:10.1016/j.proenv.2017.03.024
Ancheta, A. A., Membrebe Jr., Z. O., Santos, A. J. G., Valeroso, J. C. C., & Batac, C. V. (2016). Sustainability of forest park as space break: A case study of Arroceros Forest Park in congested city of Manila. OIDA International Journal of Sustainable Development, 9(5), 63-82.
Banner image of Arroceros Forest Park, which boasts the highest crown canopy cover among the 21 urban parks in the fifth district of Manila City. Image by Reynaldo Santos Jr
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