Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume 3, Number 2              February 9 -15, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines

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Panagbenga: Festival of Flowers and Schools of Thought

Baguio City’s Panagbenga opened last Feb. 1 and will end March 2. Now on its eighth yearly run, the Flower Festival has attracted its usual hordes of visitors and culture vultures even as it continues to draw criticism for its commercialism and downgrading the genuine ethnic Igorot culture.

By Ira Pedrasa 

BAGUIO CITY - “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” has its own tale beyond what Mao Zedong has to say for his “Let a thousand flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” As the theme of the Panagbenga or Baguio Flower Festival, the quotation reflects the city’s answer to its culture and tourism intensification.  It remains to be seen, however, if it will just become a reminder or a complete parody of the saying from which it was compared.

The festival begins

Spearheaded by Damaso Bangaoet, Jr. of the John Hay Poro Point Development Corporation (JPDC) and Victor A. Lim of the Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA), Panagbenga was conceived in 1995 to symbolize Baguio’s comeback after the July 16, 2000 earthquake.  Panagbenga, a Kankanaey term for “a season of blossoming,” also became a tribute to the flowers growing in abundance in the city.

The festival’s main thrust was “to highlight the best of what the city can offer and generate business for the community.”  Street dancing, market encounter, float parade and many more were added to the line-up of activities.

Held in February each year, the festival also serves as a barometer of the dry months ahead.  Baguio, as the summer capital of the Philippines, invests on its cold climate as part of the tourism intensification program.  For its eighth year, half a million visitors are expected to come and join the spectacle.

Culture for sale

Through the festival, the Igorot ethnic culture becomes a showcase for the city’s best features. Participants are garbed as flowers while others incorporate a touch of Cordilleran in their costumes. In dance, the Bendian, an Ibaloi dance of celebration, figures among many other performances .

While the Panagbenga has presented a tradition and the convergence of the cultures it has, to some quarters, projected a wrong impression.  Mary Carling, officer-in-charge of the Dap-ayan ti Kultura ti Kordilyera (DKK), says the festival has destroyed the real essence of the Cordillera peoples’ ethnic culture.

For example, dancing to the beat of a modern song or displaying the Cordilleran threads in a “Sex-bomb” way is a complete bastardization of the culture, she says.

Carling adds that the Panagbenga and other commercially-oriented tourism projects in the city have virtually reduced the value of aesthetics.  Citing the parallelism between the concrete pine tree (found on Session Road) and the fake sunflowers that abound in the city, she says that, “looking around Baguio is what beauty’s all about.  Sadly, the real essence of beauty (of the flowers and pine trees) is not being developed.”

Despite these, many Baguio residents have apparently chosen to keep quiet so as not to be labeled as “kill-joys” or “party-poopers.”  The high spirits of the revelers seem to justify the merrymaking.

Flowers on sale

Just the same, the merrymaking does not justify festival’s environmental impact and the economic plight of the ordinary participants.

With tourists pouring into the city months before the event (this year’s Panagbenga officially opened Feb. 1 and will end March 2, with Feb. 22-23 for the Grand Parade), residents have to make do with water rationing amid the growing air and noise pollution.

A recent news citing World Bank studies says Baguio is now one of the most polluted cities in the country.

Music blasting down Session Road has caught the ire of people living nearby or just walking through.  Others have been devastated with the changes going on at the Athletic Bowl which is being refurbished for reasons other than sports.

While flowers are the centerpiece of the festival, the issue of their mass cultivation has alarmed the local industry farmers.  Many farmers say that orchids and anthuriums for export have taken the place of other agricultural products such as vegetables and root crops.  The nutrient content of natural fertilizers has diminished because of the excessive use of pesticides.  No wonder, aggravated by the onslaught of imported vegetables, the death of the local farm industry is imminent.  Otherwise, there is nothing left to eat but the flowers.     

The wilting of the flowers

Meanwhile, schools in all levels competing in the street dancing, ask their participants to buy costumes and props for additional attraction.  Parents and teachers have no choice but to shoulder the expenses.

Rehearsals for the month-long festival competitions last about a month or two sacrificing long school hours. Teachers sweat it out to train their students for competition but cannot expect any remuneration.

Alternative festivals 

Despite all these, the Panagbenga spirit has not waned.  Some groups use the festival as a forum for issues. For instance, students and faculty of the University of the Philippines-Baguio have for four years made a political capital out of the grand parade to propagate such causes as the opposition to the education budget cut (last year, somebody placed a placard on top of a bumblebee mascot).  Others have crafted alternative celebrations such as performing the pattong (another Igorot dance), following a forum denouncing the backlash of the mainstream event on culture. 

Still others have simply done away with the whole festival. 

The eighth Baguio Flower Festival this February will still be a hit, simply through the merrymaking and not the thousand flowers whether blossoming or wilting upon its wake. Bulatlat.com

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