• Heritage and septic tanks


    When news broke about the Fort Bonifacio War Tunnel being used as a septic tank, I was writing the last column on heritage confusion. Which is to say that I was in the middle of realizing that the confusion is born of a lack of transparency as to who is responsible for which heritage structures, and how exactly the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) or the National Museum (NM) is deciding on which structures to restore, or preserve, or, well, simply care about.

    Obviously the Fort Bonifacio War Tunnel is not one that they care about. And the cultural institutions responsible could say: we have such a small number of people, and we have no funding to do everything.

    I say: that’s hard to prove when the NHCP ain’t quite transparent about what it’s doing, how it chooses the structures and churches it will mess with . . . este, restore . . . and make easily accessible info on the methods and process of restoration that they undertake.

    In the meantime we are losing our heritage structures, even the ones that private owners are willing to restore and preserve (like the Meralco Building I hear), but which government institutions are amiss in supporting.

    Eh, building nga, pinapabayaan. Tunnel pa kaya.

    Minimum effort

    In 2012, the Fort Bonifacio War Tunnel was in the news because the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) announced that it was going to make a heritage site out of it. From the Interaksyon.com feature by Abigail Kwok: “The sprawling Fort Bonifacio Tunnel, which dates back to 1936, was used mainly as an underground passageway for military supplies, and at one point sheltered the headquarters of American General Douglas MacArthur. <…> The tunnel lies about 70 feet below the ground with steep steps leading to a dark and damp passageway. The floors are muddy, the walls filled with graffiti. Only fog lamps illuminate the way to the innermost parts of the tunnel. The tour covers only a 730-meter segment of the tunnel which lies directly below C-5 road. Military historian Restituto Aguilar said the tunnel is about 2.24 km long and four meters wide, reaching all the way to Tunasan, Muntinlupa. It has 32 built-in chambers and two exits leading out to Barangay Pembo and Barangay East Rembo in Makati City.” (27 September 2012)
    To my mind, it would’ve taken minimum effort to keep the Fort Bonifacio War Tunnel safe from intrusions and disrespect. I mean, lock it up. Make sure fences guard all exits / entrances to the tunnel. Speak to the local government of Makati (and Taguig!) and make sure informal settlement is kept at bay.

    It seems to me it would’ve taken minimum effort to keep this tunnel from degenerating into a septic tank for the informal community on 27th Avenue in Barangay Pembo, Makati.

    Discovered by cultural heritage graduate student Edgar Allan M. Sembrano to fulfill a Conservation Management Plan requirement for class, the history of the tunnel is now layered with a more recent history of neglect.

    It is neglect that falls squarely on the shoulders of NHCP doesn’t it? Responsible as it is for heritage tunnels like this one, which could easily be classified as a National Cultural Treasure, i.e., “a unique cultural property possessing outstanding historical value and significance” as the NHCP website says. In fact, according to that article by Sembrano in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the NHCP, NM, BCDA and the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) had signed a memorandum of agreement “for the development of the tunnel into a museum and a historical site.” (21 April 2014)

    Maximum damage

    It is now more offensive that the Fort Bonifacio War Tunnel has suffered this kind of disrespect and debasement, given that MOA that includes our government’s cultural heritage offices. Because if we cannot expect the NHCP and NM to value the tunnel, even before this MOA and especially after its signing, how can we expect either institution to value the rest of our heritage sites?

    At this point too, the discussion becomes embroiled in the crises of informal settlements, ones that are validated by the years people have been allowed to nest here, communities from which the local government  gets its voters. The Pembo Barangay Captain Jeline Olfato has since taken a stand that is painful to hear. That is, that she—with cooperation from the Makati local government—is for the “eviction of the informal settlers.”

    Images of the other entrances / exits of the tunnel that are within Pembo as well reveal how this eviction cannot be easy. We are not talking a few houses here; we’re talking about a whole community. Sembrano’s photo of the exit on Morning Glory Street for example, shows a cheap cement staircase that leads from the road to houses built right on top of the tunnel entrance. And I imagine that tunnel entrance / exit on Amapoloa Street that has been claimed by the lot owner in front of it is a crisis in itself.

    If we are evicting these informal settlement communities, which is what a heritage site like the tunnel demands, then certainly a lot of time needs to be spent educating this community on heritage and culture and history. I mean, yes, find this community a new place to nest in; but also use this opportunity to explain why heritage and history are important. Don’t treat them like overstaying guests, when it has been clear (at least to them) that no one owned that tunnel, and no one thought it important enough to protect, until now.

    That’s obviously a job for the NHCP, but one wonders if we will ever know what this office is doing for history and heritage education. As we said in the last column, there is no transparency here, and that is not only unacceptable. It is also indefensible.

    * * *

    Ivan Henares (whom I do not know personally) sent me this response to the last column entitled “Heritage confusion” (April 23 2014). In that piece I mention how he agreed with the NHCP “restoration” of the Paoay Church in 2012, something that Governor Imee Marcos called a desecration. He raises good points about conservation and preservation of heritage, and the problem of giving institutions sole power to decide on undertaking (or not) heritage-related activities.

    “While a colleague at ICOMOS had initially said the methodology of the Paoay Church facade restoration done by National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) was correct, upon closer investigation, I noticed something was amiss. I took photos and sent them to other ICOMOS members.

    “Unfortunately, who regulates the regulator? How can we question the work of the agency responsible for historical preservation if we discover that their methodology is not up to date? The point is, government cultural agencies should invest in their people by sending them for training abroad. Conservation practices and principles change, more or less, every ten years. If the professionals in our cultural agencies do not update their knowledge, the conservation decisions they make are years behind and no longer applicable today.”


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    1. International standards regulate the ph regulator… UNESCO and ICCROM can review the work of the NHCP…

    2. Renato Perdon on

      Under existing conservation and preservation laws of the Philippines, the NCHP is in-charge of historic sites that are declared historical landmarks, national monuments, and national shrines. A criteria is being followed in declaring a historic site either of the three. On the other hand, if a historic sites is declared as national treasures, national cultural properties, and another category which I forgot the name, the jurisdiction belong to the National Museum. One must study the laws creating the two agencies to be able to determine which agency has jurisdiction. Also to remember, not all ‘historic sites’ in the Philippines have declared in any of the classifications, therefore some sites presumed to have historical and cultural significance will remain outside of the jurisdiction of the two agencies. Another law that has to be studied carefully is the National Heritage Act which involve not only the NCHP and NM, but the National Commission Culture and the Arts. All the laws on cultural and historical conservation and preservation gave the cultural agencies specific areas of responsibilities. Remember the recent earthquake in Bohol, all the three cultural agencies were moving in unison to protect whatever left of the cultural and historical heritage of Filipinos in that area.

    3. mauricio palao on

      Given two more presidential terms, no remaining relic, visage or trace from our past will be left. The National Historical Commission and the National Museum are succeeding in seeing to this, or, have failed to preserve our heritage…depending on your perspective. I understand that some episodes in our history, be they Spanish, Chinese, American or Japanese, are abhorrent to some Filipinos..but these phases in our history are what we are about..as a people..as a country. Manila’s, Cebu’s and Davao’s street names are no longer reminiscent of our colonial past; they now remind you of mayors and governors just two or three decades ago. Statues in the Luneta and along Roxas, (Dewey) boulevard is a smorgasbord of Jose Rizal, the Aquino’s, Fernando Poe and Dolphy. I’m sure that one gets the picture. Are we that lost as a people?