NATURE takes away, and nature gives. July 16 awakens painful memories for many, as it was the day of the great 1990 Luzon Earthquake. With its epicenter near Nueva Ecija, it shook most of the island of Luzon, but particularly the Cordillera Region, the nest of summer playground Baguio City. Around 20 buildings in the city were leveled by the 7.7 magnitude quake, including the grand Hyatt Terraces Hotel. From the rubble, the city found hope in one of its joys — flowers — by launching the first Panagbenga Flower Festival in 1996.
“The primary reason for Panagbenga was really to bring and reintroduce Baguio to the Filipinos,” said Frederico Alquiros, former Chief Operating Officer of Camp John Hay Development Corp. and co-founder of the Baguio Flower Festival Foundation, Inc. “Baguio was up and about, and we are okay. You can come up. There’s no more trace of the earthquake and the devastation, and that we’re up for business.”
The choice of name is almost poetic when you think about the flower festival’s mission. “Panagbenga,” a Kankanaey term for “blossoming,” was chosen by Mayor Mauricio Domogan, himself from that group. Mr. Alquiros pins the significance of the word “blossoming” to the Baguio that aimed to rebuild after the earthquake, but also, “Baguio is really a hodgepodge of different ethnic groups and lowlanders… people have migrated to Baguio.
“Really, Baguio cannot be claimed to be purely Cordillera,” said Mr. Alquiros. “It’s really the blossoming of all of these.”
During its inception, only three floats paraded around the streets of Baguio. Now, on its 2019 iteration, Mr. Alquiros expects about 26 floats on average, all of them bedecked in flowers. There isn’t any theme: “You can be as wild… as long as it’s covered with flowers.” Panagbenga floats are also judged by bodies outside the city, such as representatives from the World Flower Council. Panagbenga is the only festival in the Philippines accredited by the International Festivals and Events Association.
BusinessWorld attended the festival’s opening at the beginning of February, which was kicked off by the opening day parade featuring a Drum and Lyre Competition between students of Baguio City. The festival has been running through the whole month of February, but the Grand Street Parade and the Grand Float Parade — the most awaited events — are slated to begin on March 2 and 3. “We try to move our festival as far from Valentine’s [Day] as possible,” said Mr. Alquiros, pointing to the fact that Baguio and Benguet have some of the country’s biggest flower farms, and having them devote their harvest to the festival would distract from the very profitable Valentine’s season. “We don’t want to compete with their market.”
Truckloads of flowers, after all, are used in a float, put together by locals and big, big conglomerates. The grand prize for this year is at P500,000 — which only just about covers the cost of one float.
Still, Mr. Alquiros explained that Panagbenga is one of the cheapest festivals for a local government unit to produce, with a budget of just P4 million every year as compared to other festivals, which could go up into the tens of millions. This isn’t to say that it works on that limited budget however: the foundation raises about P10 million on its own, making it a partnership between the city and its citizens. The P10 million is sourced from sponsors and the trade fairs leading up to and during Panagbenga, such as the Baguio Blooms Exhibition and Exposition.
That flower show shows the impact of Panagbenga on its city. “People are growing more flowers,” Mr. Alquiros pointed out. He also said that some flower farms have taken to breeding blooms especially for the flower show. It might lead to a scientific breakthrough — to BusinessWorld’s eye, they’ve at least reached a decorative breakthrough: some flowers we observed had petals of different colors, appearing like stripes; flowers fit for a fantasy.
The festival also highlights Baguio’s closeness to nature: think of the vegetables, the flowers, and homes that are built to preserve as much of the natural landscape. “Preserving the environment and giving thanks for a good harvest are some of the principal reasons why this came about.”
“It is the only festival of Baguio,” said Mr. Alquiros. “We have no patrons; we have no religious festival in Baguio.” It’s easy to stick to a tradition because of an omnipotent being, but isn’t it more wonderful to have a tradition simply because of the sense of community that lives in each one? During the opening parade, with the smiles of the schoolchildren, the music of the Panagbenga theme performed on the lyre, and the sunshine of Baguio shining on flowers and trees, it was hard to say no to life. “It makes us all closer,” said Mr. Alquiros, citing the 5,000 or so volunteers who make the festival possible. “Blossoming can really mean a lot of things.” — Joseph L. Garcia