300-year-old Toog tree faces danger anew of being cut down

SAN FRANCISCO, Agusan del Sur (MindaNews / 15 March)—The 300-year-old Philippine Rosewood tree (Petersianthus quarilatus) near the national highway in Barangay Alegria here, considered the tallest and the oldest of its kind in the country, is facing another threat to be cut down as residents living nearby were worried it might fall during a strong earthquake last week.

The centuries-old iconic Toog tree in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur photographed on Tuesday (14 March 2023) after local officials conducted a meeting to discuss if it should be cut for the safety of people living nearby should storms or strong earthquakes occur. MindaNews photo by CHRIS V. PANGANIBAN

Most of the local officials attending a committee hearing initiated by the municipal council’s environment committee have given more weight to the protection of people’s lives than the historic value of the towering tree locally called Toog.

The committee hearing chaired by Sangguniang Bayan (SB) member Jay-Ar de Asis was held at Barangay Alegria’s covered court on Tuesday to hear the residents’ sentiments of fear that a tree might fall whenever a natural disaster like a storm or earthquake might occur in the future.

It was held in response to a barangay resolution asking Mayor Grace Carmel Paredes-Bravo to conduct another assessment by a joint team of government experts on the health status of the 54-meter-tall tree.

“The protection and safety of the greater number of people is my utmost concern,” Paredes-Bravo said.

Vice Mayor Arth Ryan Palabrica and other SB members aired the same stand as the mayor as they took turns in voicing out their respective concerns.

Barangay Captain Blandina Rufila earlier told the town officials that many residents living near the tree were sleepless for many nights, fearing the Toog might tumble down after the magnitude 5.9 earthquake jolted many towns of neighboring Davao de Oro province last week.

Elsie Teola, a retired public school teacher whose house is near the tree across the national highway, told officials she saw the tree jolting towards them during the earthquake, prompting them to seek refuge at the covered court for many nights.

The committee agreed that a letter of invitation will be sent on Monday to concerned government experts for updates on the health status of the tree.

This was the third time local officials were poised to decide in cutting down the centuries-old Toog after the regional office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) had given the cutting permit.

In 2019, local officials, a local conservationist group, and DENR foresters agreed they will spare the cutting of the tree to pave the way for a thorough assessment by experts to determine if it is still healthy.

The following year, local officials moved anew to cut down the tree to half its height, so that 30 meters will remain standing to maintain a landmark memory.

The tree was set to be cut down on August 8 and 9 in 2020 on orders of local officials based on the recommendations of the DENR, which said the cavity on its buttress has worsened that “it might fall anytime soon.”

In a last-minute effort, a local conservationist group, Save the Toog Tree Please (STOP) movement, led by Engr. Mauro Bravo Jr., a retired district engineer of the Department of Public Works and Highways whose family is a town pioneer, had succeeded in suspending the scheduled cutting of the tree.

The STOP movement sought support from the Society of Filipino Foresters, Inc. (SFFI) and the Philippine Native Tree Enthusiasts (PNTE), a social media-based national conservationist group, that resulted in another suspension of the tree cutting as they pleaded to Mayor Solomon Rufila, Agusan del Sur Gov. Santiago Cane Jr., and Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu to conduct a reevaluation and reassessment on the health status of the Toog tree.

Tree surgeons Armando Palijon, a former forestry professor at the University of the Philippines–Los Baños, and Marcelina Pacho, the former pathologist of DENR’s Ecosystem Research and Development Bureau, agreed to conduct the reevaluation and assessment via a Zoom live meeting with SFFI vice president Jose Kanapi Jr. and local SFFI member Raul Bunao, who followed the guidelines set by the experts while doing live discussions at the location of the Toog tree.

At that time, Palijon and Pacho could not personally visit the tree due to the difficulties of travel as the country was grappling with the COVID-19 crisis, thus the Zoom meeting as an alternative procedure.

Tree climber Gil Andipa, 61, working on top of the crown of the 54-meter iconic Toog tree in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur on 26 September 2020, cleans the hole decays before applying polyurethane foam to limit the oxygen, temperature and moisture inside, as initial part of the tree healing process. Photo courtesy of Forester Raul Buñao

In September 2020, Palijon, along with another expert arborist, June Micosa, found the iconic tree to be alive and well after two days of technical assessment.

He told members of the Agusan del Sur Environment and Sustainable Development Council (ASESDC) in a meeting that the Toog tree is very much alive and still structurally stable that can even resist the effects of natural calamities.

Palijon issued these findings as the concluding part of their series of third-party scientific assessments (TPSA) of the iconic Toog tree as requested by STOP movement with the support of the SFFI and PNTE. (Chris V. Panganiban / MindaNews)