THE year 2023 has been a fairly monumental year for the city of Baguio in many directions – some significant developments in the field of politics, health, social landscape, and even the physical landscape of the city happened this year. Developments, positive and negative alike, took place throughout the months, and conflicts in and out of local government started coming into the limelight.
With the end of 2023, let us look back at Baguio in review from the banners of the Baguio Chronicle.
A new start for BENECO
One of the big storylines of the past years has been the ongoing power struggle of the Benguet Electric Cooperative (BENECO). Having come into the limelight in the year of 2021, the two -year power conflict between BENECO board of directors (BOD)-elected general manager (GM) Melchor Licoben, and former Presidential Communications Office (PCO) official Ana Maria Paz Rafael, who had come in with the backing of the National Electrification Administration (NEA).
This conflict put BENECO in a deadlock, split between the camps of Licoben and Rafael. Not only did the split culminate in a physical armed takeover of the BENECO headquarters in the dead of night in late 2021, as well as massive protests and nationwide scrutiny, Rafael’s influence caused many banks to freeze BENECO’s funds from the access of Licoben and the sitting BOD, paralyzing the cooperatives’ activity.
The conflict would finally end in January of 2023, in the NEA decision that removed all parties from positions of leadership entirely – Rafael was removed from being GM, the 7 BOD members behind Licoben were ousted, and Licoben himself was demoted to assistant GM while the NEA put into power an interim board and interim GM.
This was the first big story of 2023, and the Chronicle’s second banner that year – and it would take almost an entire year for the power vacuum to end properly with the NEA finally reinstating Licoben via recommendation and election to the GM seat in November.
The charter conflict, and the curious case of BCDA vs Baguio
A major storyline that came to the forefront this year was the ongoing fight between city lawmakers and the revised city charter that lapsed into law at the tail end of the Duterte administration.
The revised city charter has been subject to strong opposition from local lawmakers since it first passed, with lawmakers of the city council citing unfavorable provisions as well as a complete lack of proper public consultation with the populace through plebiscite and the lack of oversight and input of the local lawmakers.
Early in the year, the council was calling for a repeal of the law under the new administration, citing “gross errors” such as provisions requiring that Baguio’s local government transmit its ordinances and resolutions to the Benguet provincial government, essentially limiting the city’s autonomy.
Other provisions of contention include the lack of a proper definite territorial boundary of the city of Baguio, a major point of re-establishing the new charter, and other little holes such as improperly-written provisions for ancestral lands and indigenous peoples’ participation in government. House Bill 9428 of Baguio Congressman Mark Go however has wordings referring recognition of private rights
The council also assailed the controversial House Bill 9428 of Congressman Go in reference to BCDA issues which they claimed to be favorable to BCDA and the JHMC especially on the fulfillment of the 19 conditionalities they are supposed to comply with in exchange for a 1994 endorsement of their development plan.
City council sentiments say that the new charter has inclusions favoring the Camp John Hay (CJH) reservation, such as the inclusion of a JHMC representative in the city’s Special Committee on Lands, and the exclusion of CJH from the Baguio Townsite reservation.
Congressman Mark Go however explains that the involvement of BCDA and JHMC in the Committee on Lands is limited only to the Camp John Hay reservation.
Many stories have arisen this year from the BCDA vs Baguio storyline, from the closure of schools located in John Hay and the city’s attempts to get the BCDA to hand them over or allow their use as extensions for other schools, the much delayed segregation of 13 barangays from the CJH reservation, a conditionality that was issued as early as 1994, and the BCDA refusing to pay business taxes to the city of Baguio by citing the revised charter as a tacit, legal acknowledgement of the BCDA jurisdiction being outside of Baguio’s own jurisdiction, prompting the council to scramble and call for the immediate repeal of the charter as it is being “weaponized against the interests of Baguio,” in the words of Vice Mayor Faustino Olowan.
To this Go said that the appeal had a one-liner in reference to the charter and that he had included provisions in his latest bill that would require BCDA to comply with terms also beneficial to the city.
To date, the local lawmakers have made little headway against both the charter and BCDA, while the charter’s own author Congressman Mark Go, asserts that bills to remove sections such as the provision asking city ordinances to be approved by the Benguet board are now with the Senate. Go also said that House Bill 9428 is the beginning of the process to start allowing residents of more than three decades to acquire the land they have lived in for that long via purchase.
Go is also awaiting amendatory recommendations to House Bill 9428.
Communism and terrorism accusations – and the city’s stands
Another big throughline in 2023 was the consistent string of high-profile incidents of red-tagging and activism-related harassment as early as January. Not even Baguio Mayor Benjamin Magalong was spared – as early as the third week of January, the banner was Magalong facing accusations of communist-terrorist allegiances from the country’s premium accusation-slinging network SMNI and its political commentators Lorraine Badoy-Partosa and Jeffrey Celiz.
The accusations came about from Magalong’s public support for the constitutional right to student activism and activism in general. In a rare turn of events, SMNI apologized the week after and retracted their statement after an outpouring of public support from various sectors, including the uniformed personnel of the country, as well as a tacit reminder that Magalong can and will pursue legal action against the claims.
Badoy-Partosa and company in SMNI would keep going, accusing members of Baguio media in June of being communist-terrorists with little or even no concrete evidence. Journalists Harley Palangchao and Frank Cimatu and freelance writer Luchie Maranan were accused of being networkers of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). They also tagged Champions of the Earth awardee Joan Carling, Katribu International Solidarity Officer Beverly Longid and indigenous rights advocate Minnie Degawan as “identified active CPP-NPA-NDF urban operators in Cordillera.”
Activists that made the headlines this year in the Cordillera region were not so lucky. Cordillera activists from the Cordillera Peoples’ Alliance (CPA), who had been facing accusations of ties with the “communist insurgency” of the country for years, and were facing charges of rebellion against the government from the previous year, had a slight moment of reprieve in May when a court quashed the rebellion charges against them over an alleged insurgent ambush in Abra Province in 2022.
However, the following month in June, the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) immediately declared the CPA activists Windel Bolinget, Sarah Abellon-Alikes, Jennifer Awingan-Taggaoa, and Stephen Tauli as known terrorists, and denied any appeal from the said activists to lift the tag or even show the evidence for said designation, prompting the activists to challenge the ATC and the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 in the court of law in November, filing the first legal challenge to the law since its inception.
Around the same time in the days transitioning between April and May, Cordillera indigenous peoples rights activists Gene Roz Jamil “Bazoo” de Jesus and Dexter Capuyan disappeared from the public. Capuyan was among the initial 600 “known terrorists” named in a 2018 Department of Justice (DOJ) list, whose name was subsequently removed from said list when state prosecutors trimmed the number of respondents down to a mere eight.
After disappearing on April 28, de Jesus and Capuyan have not been seen since despite public outcry and a concerted search effort. No details of their whereabouts or continued survival, or even evidence of their deaths have surfaced.
With the continued action against the constitutional right to freedom of speech and right to peaceful assembly, Baguio’s government has taken a clear stand, siding with human rights.
Through various resolutions, statements and ordinances, members of the Baguio City local government have attempted to enshrine in their own mandates as the local government a need to stand up for and protect human rights and activism, committing the city to protect, promote, and respect human rights in perpetuity in its borders.
Land acquisition, infrastructure and the year-end plot twist
The fourth major storyline in 2023 is the city government’s early efforts to acquire land for the administration’s ambitious infrastructure projects, and the multitude of infrastructure-related major stories in the year.
From this topic came a few sub-plots. The first was significant infrastructural damage, with two major incidents making headlines in the city – first, the razing of a big portion of the Baguio City Public Market from a fire early in the break of dawn, which led to a hasty clearing and restoration process that spanned mere months. And second, Typhoon Egay, which led to millions of pesos worth of infrastructure damage in Baguio. The city was largely spared from damage, but neighboring Benguet was hit significantly harder.
Related to this is the second sub-plot of infrastructure of the city raising eyebrows and calling for investigations into sub-par infrastructure. The Chronicle carried seven different stories of Baguio Mayor Magalong and the city council calling for probes into various Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) projects in the city, such as the P118 million Kennon Road parking area, cracks in the famed Lion Head monument, with Magalong even lobbing anti-graft complaints against the head of the Baguio City District Engineering Office-Department of Public Works and Highways (BCDEO-DPWH) as early as February over a “sub-standard” bridge in Barangay North Sanitary Camp. This will come back later.
This also tied into the city’s greatly intensified campaign against illegal and substandard unlicensed structures in the city, netting hundreds of violators in ocular in-person inspections across months, with the revelation that nearly 80 percent of the city’s structures have no permits.
The third sub-plot involves the city beginning to implement major infrastructure projects, breaking ground on two different socialized housing projects along with the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development (DHSUD) projected to house thousands of residents. Thirty, 40 million peso multipurpose buildings in Barangay Gibraltar, P70 million health centers in Barangay Atab, upgrades to the Baguio General Hospital and Medical Center (BGHMC), were some of the major constructions of the year. There were also the non-physical beginnings of other major projects such as the city acquiring funding for its waste-to-energy project, beginning of bidding for public-private partnership (PPP)-funded major infrastructure such as the intermodal transport terminal, and a “smart” mobility network.
The big story of 2020 – the Baguio City Public Market, this year has finally concluded the lengthy negotiation process with SM Prime Holdings Inc, to move on to the next step.
The city also unveiled plans to find proper land for the establishment of wind-based and solar energy projects, more bicycle lanes and road-rights-of-way clearing, new facilities for various agencies such as the Bureau of Fire Protection, planned to relocate along Kisad in due time, and more.
The fourth and final sub-plot talks of the city’s aggressive efforts to begin acquiring land for its projects and use, with the city formally declaring a land-banking effort in earnest in May, buying up plots of land for use in the future for whatever development projects the city puts into place.
The city also acquired the Burnham Park lot title for the purposes of preserving the park in the case that private entities were to attempt purchasing it, landing the city in a legal scuffle with the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA), culminating in the city eventually transferring the land titles it acquired to TIEZA.
But the land-banking efforts led to the biggest last-minute plot twist of 2023, when Councilor Mylen Yaranon filed a massive charge against Magalong, accusing him of graft, corruption, gross misconduct, and calling for his immediate suspension from office before the Ombudsman.
The accusation stems from a lot purchase in Topinao, Tuba as part of the land-banking efforts, but Yaranon alleges among other things that the lot purchase was prompted via private communication between the mayor and the owner as early as 2020, protocols and due process were broken, the lot itself is vastly overpriced and majorly unusable due to its lack of accessibility and topography, and Magalong’s insistence on the purchase of the lot, which was completed in September of this year, as an advantage to the lot owners and action prejudicial against the best interests of Baguio City.
Smaller stories, snippets of success
Not all of the developments of Baguio in 2023 have been dramatic or controversial. Many smaller success stories and tales of progress have filled the inner pages and non-banner space of the Chronicle’s print space this year.
In the field of health, Baguio saw vastly expanded coverage and many advancements in healthcare this year. Not only did the city institutionalize more mental health programs in various levels such as the barangay grassroots and the public workplace, the city is also funding significant improvements in its healthcare, from the establishment of a public dialysis project in BGHMC, to a program for free medicines for indigents in the city, more support for the auto-immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) program of the city in the form of contraceptive distribution and a digital app.
Environmental care also took a few strides forward with the city renewing its annual tree-planting efforts alongside aggressive policing efforts of the city’s watersheds which started mid-year. Regular patrols have been instituted and multiple government initiatives for reforestation were put into place this year. Amendments to the Environment Code have put provisions for better protections this year.
There are still a few gaps, as only this month a large, unauthorized forest clearing was discovered in Ambuklao, but there are moves being put in place to protect the environment better in 2023.
A handful of new celebrations have been put into place in the institution of the government this year, celebrating all sorts of things ranging from bicycling culture, mid-autumn – a season that the Philippines does not naturally have, but is observed by its significant foreigner Asian population, such as the Filipino Chinese communities – a wide gamut of festivities celebrating architecture, Baguio’s designer, healthy and organic food, and even busking.
The city is also pushing hard into its artistic and cultural roots as a UNESCO Creative City, establishing government-supported art galleries, murals showcasing local talent, providing spaces and support for the local artist community, and even establishing a dedicated council for arts and culture in the city.