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AS a state party to the World Heritage Convention, the Philippines is mandated by its charter, its operational guidelines and the World Heritage Committee to follow the highest standards of conservation and management of its World Heritage sites.
Is the Duterte government doing anything like this in Intramuros? Or have they left it entirely in the hands of the Chinese?
In allowing China to introduce an infrastructure whose design clashes with the Spanish colonial motif, alters the panorama, and weakens old buildings and the very soil on which those buildings stand, isn’t the government violating the injunction that state parties “not take any deliberate measures that directly or indirectly damage their heritage”?
Couldn’t this be cited as “failure to properly safeguard the anthropological, archaeological, historical and heritage site conservation concerns” of Intramuros as a national cultural treasure and of San Agustin Church as a World Heritage site?
As mentioned earlier, the World Heritage Committee deleted the city of Dresden as a World Heritage site in 2009 after it decided to build a modern four-lane Waldschlosschen Bridge, which would bisect the 20-km Elbe valley. Begun in 2007, the bridge was completed only in 2013. The WH committee did not have to wait for the structure to be finished before acting on its consequence.
The first WH site deletion occurred in 2007, when Oman asked that its Arabian Oryx sanctuary, a World Heritage site since 1994, be delisted after oil had been found in it, and poaching and habitat degradation had already reduced the oryx population to critical levels. Only four breeding pairs of oryx were reportedly counted at the time the site was delisted. The Arabian oryx, according to Wikipedia, is a bovid; a medium-sized antelope with a distinct shoulder bump, long straight horns, and a tufted tail.
In 2017, the Bagrati Cathedral in Georgia was also delisted after major reconstructions compromised the integrity and authenticity of the edifice.
What most closely resembles the Chinese bridge, though, is the long bridge at Dresden. In the late 1990s, as a senator, I took a boat ride on the river Elbe with some Southeast Asian parliamentary colleagues, and has never been able to shake my memory of the beauty of the place. But not all of that could move the WH committee to forgive the city for building that unwelcome bridge.
Big bridge, small streets
Would the WH committee be any kinder to China’s 55-meter, four-lane bridge, I wonder? From a layman’s point of view, how could such a bridge work, when on both sides of Binondo and Intramuros, its four lanes connect to two-lane narrow streets?
As one expert sees it, the western ramp of the bridge, which links it to Andres Soriano Avenue, will be built a few meters from the Intendencia or Aduana building, the old customs house on Plaza España, corner Soriano Ave. and Muralla Street, which used to house many government offices, and is now proposed as the future site of the National Archives of the Philippines. It is already in the process of being declared an important cultural property by the National Museum.
The ramp will permanently alter the scale and setting, which should conform to the urban scale of 1891. It will also cut the access to Maestranza, the 300-meter-long wall with 45 chambers, which the Japanese used as artillery depot when they occupied the Philippines, and disrupt the urban layout protected by law. According to this expert, a structural evaluation has shown the Intendencia to be already structurally weak and in a vulnerable state.
Effect of motor traffic
Vibrations during the construction and the future use of the bridge by motorists will cause further damage, given the high water content of its soft underground, indeterminate flooding could set in during the piling. Even if nothing happens now, if the estimated 29,000 cars a day, including container trucks, are allowed on the bridge, this could weaken not only the Intendencia’s masonry fabric but also the Ayuntamiento’s original ground floors, the expert said.
An extension of the bridge on the Binondo side will end at the historic Puente del General Blanco or Puente de San Fernando. This is a late 19th-century bridge, whose major elements are still intact. By virtue of its age, the National Museum considers it a Presumed Important Cultural Property. But it is now to be demolished. Binondo’s unique landscape of small streets criss-crossed by esteros will now be defaced as the bridge turns the Estero de Binondo into an invisible canal. For hundreds of years, the estero had served as the main entry point into Binondo from the Pasig River.
The bridge will also reduce the size of the promenade at the terminus of the Pasig River Ferry. This is one of the few remaining open spaces in the city. The eastern ramp leading to the proposed bridge will eat up most of the promenade, leaving only a narrow strip of land on the riverside. The western ramp on the other hand will cut across the historic Plaza Mexico, effectively reducing its size and obstructing the view of the trees, the two historic monuments on the plaza, and the river panorama.
The bridge could ultimately kill “walking tourism,” if allowed to take in vast numbers of cars and people from nearby routes. Heavily motorized traffic could ultimately eliminate pedestrians, tourists and pilgrims. This is the clearest danger once the bridge is done; for now, the danger lies in the construction’s impact on the buffer zone around the WH site of San Agustin. This problem concerns us all, like the extrajudicial killings. But no one is saying anything.
Malacañang has said nothing.
The city of Manila has said nothing.
The House of Representatives has said nothing.
The Senate has said nothing.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon has proposed an investigation, but the body that is ever quick to conduct a fishing expedition at the slightest provocation has been infinitely slow to call a hearing.
None of the notable cultural, historical, anthropological authorities, organs and institutions have said anything.
The lords of business and captains of industry have said nothing.
The universities would rather talk of basketball than say anything.
And no one who is running for high office in May 2019 has said anything.
An alternative plan
But if there’s anything decent left in the world, the bridge as conceptualized, and sought to be imposed upon us, must be stopped. Under Sec. 28 of the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, the NCCA can issue the appropriate cease-and-desist order on the project, if it so decides.
Then DU30 could sit down with Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua and discuss a more acceptable “friendship” project under terms and conditions that allow responsible and effective supervision by the Philippine government.
As of now, we are made to understand the bridge project is an all-Chinese affair, without any participation or “intervention” by the Philippine government. I hope we are completely misinformed. But if true, this is a complete surrender of Philippine sovereignty, without our having been conquered in war. This is unacceptable.
This has given rise to speculation that while working on the bridge, the Chinese workers could expand their excavations, to look for buried Hispanic or Japanese treasures on the worksite or nearby. Intramuros has been the site of numerous treasure hunts before. Under President Cory Aquino, one Malacañang official reportedly employed “dwarves” to help him dig for gold.
A pedestrians-only bridge
The new project could still be a bridge, if the Chinese insist. But it should be a smaller, lighter and of a more manageable scale “pedestrian only” bridge, to reduce its negative impact on the WH site and its buffer zone.
One recommended model, according to one source, is the London Millennium Bridge across the river Thames, connecting St. Paul’s Cathedral and Tate modern gallery. This could create a new landmark, which could be associated with the revitalization of Escolta and Dasmariñas on the other side of the Pasig. Before the rise of Makati and all related areas, which came up after the early 1970s, this used to be the center of business and the Chinese were most active there.