By Princess Elaine Vergara, SDO Mabalacat City

Ano pong Balakat? Ano pong itsura noon? Saan po pwedeng makita iyon?” (What Balakat? How does it look like? Where can we see them?)

These were the questions of some junior high school students in Mabalacat City, Pampanga about the city’s own official tree, and the exact same tree their hometown was named after.

A virtual survey by The Sighter, Camachiles National High School’s official publication, found that more than 60 percent of its student-respondents know little of the origins of the name of the city where they were born and grew up in.

Moreover, some 70 percent of them have not yet seen any Balakat Tree for themselves, let alone have any idea of what it looks like.

The City of Mabalacat gets its name from an old indigenous word which means “full of Balakat trees.” Bearing the scientific name Ziziphus talanai, a good number of Balakat treescan be seen around the city.

But as Mabalacat grew from a town into a city, some of the trees have been cut down to give way to road widening projects, as well as the construction of buildings and other infrastructure projects.

Engr. Anne Jerni Peña of the City Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) said that these trees had to be trimmed down because they “obstruct” these widening and construction projects.

But as buildings and roads replaced Balakat trees, younger natives have less and less knowledge of the tree that shaped their own hometown’s heritage, as evidenced by the recent survey by The Sighter.

Saving the Balakat trees

In 2008, the local government of the then municipality of Mabalacat launched the “Balakat Greening Project,” which aimed to preserve and conserve the Balakat trees.

The project was realized through an agreement signed that year between the local government of Mabalacat, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in Region III (Central Luzon), and Recyclers Foundation Inc.

Peña, who was a councilor at the time the project was signed, noted that the project saw “many trees planted” around Mabalacat, even as the local government has yet to release an official updated count of the Balakat trees in the city.

“We have already planted many Balakat trees in several areas and schools. The city has its own nursery and they continue to produce Balakat seedlings as well as distributing notebooks that contain information about the tree,” he said.

In 2016, the local government also signed the Environmental Code of Mabalacat City into law, which mandates the City Agriculture Office to produce Balakat seedlings all year round, to be given to Mabalaqueños for free.

Section 13 of the said ordinance also declares the Balakat as the city’s official tree.

 ‘Students lack awareness’

But even with these initiatives in place, Mabalaqueño learners still lack knowledge and awareness on the presence of Balakat trees in the city.

“I think the initiatives do not reach the school level. Students lack awareness because information dissemination is not totally established,” said Trycia L. Gonzales, editor-in-chief of The Sighter.

She added that for the learners to have a more cultural understanding of the Balakat tree as a historical symbol of the city, discussions of this must be embedded in the curriculum or a school-to-school campaign that should be done by the local DENR.

“Our publication will ensure that we will promote environmental protection through our writings and words, including the preservation of Balakat so it will not be a forgotten symbol so soon,” Gonzales assured.

This article was written and prepared by Princess Elaine Vergara (Student-Journalist) and Jasper Catanduanes (School Paper Adviser) from Camachiles National Highschool, Division of Mabalacat City as a final output of DepEd-DRRMS and AYEJ.org’s Green Beat Initiative: An Online Environmental Journalism Training.