Posted at 05/30/2011 4:43 PM | Updated as of 05/31/2011 11:15 AM
MANILA, Philippines - No less than the President of the Philippines, a United Nations official and ambassadors from the ASEAN nations witnessed the event: the declaration of a more than a century-old balete tree in Malacañang as a heritage tree.
And if the legend is to be believed, the tree’s long-time resident was there too to witness the unveiling of the marker: the kapre named “Mr. Brown.”
The balete tree is said to date as far back as the 1800s. It has been an imposing figure in front of the Palace state entrance where incoming and outgoing Presidents pass through. “Mr. Brown” is said to be living in the tree since the American occupation.
The balete tree was declared today as “Heritage Tree” under the DENR’s Heritage Tree Program. A commemorative marker was unveiled by President Aquino and Dr. Ahmed Djoghlaf, United Nations Assistant Secretary General and Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
Under the DENR program, “heritage trees” will be accorded special care by volunteer individuals and groups.
The unveiling coincided with the launch of the United Nations on Biodiversity and International Year of Forests for Southeast Asia in a ceremony in Malacañang.
“This balete tree, which is more than a hundred years old, has been a mute witness to Philippine history. Now, as a fitting symbol of our commitment to the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity, I hereby proclaim the balete tree located in front of this hallowed hall as our Heritage Tree,” President Aquino said in his speech. “In making it a Heritage Tree, it will constantly remind us of our obligations, both as citizens of this country and a stewards of this planet.”
The commemorative marker, meantime, has recognized the tree’s unseen resident.
“Considered a sacred tree by the Filipinos, the balete is believed to be the residence of supernatural beings,” the marker reads.
Malacañang’s Chief of Protocol Miguel Perez Rubio shares a story related to him by a gardener who had worked in the Palace since time of President Manuel Quezon.
“‘Why Mr. Brown?’ ‘Well because it was during the American times he decided to use the tree as his house so he settled there and he lives there. And they say, some people say, at night they see this kapre,” Rubio tells reporters in Malacañang.
“Mr. Brown” is said to be “a good man” who can be “mischievous” and play pranks on Palace officials and guests. But Rubio knows a way to appease the gentle giant.
“This kapre, as all kapres, is a giant, very very big. But he is a good man. But he is very mischievous. He doesn’t do bad things. But if you don’t say, ‘Good morning, Mr. Brown,’ if you don’t say, ‘Good evening, Mr. Brown,’ if you don’t say, ‘How are you, Mr. Brown?’—just a few words—he does a trick to you. Maybe you fall because there is a wire—maybe from TV or from something—and them you trip on it and you fall, something that doesn’t do much harm to you but he will make a trick because you did not say hello to him,” Rubio says.
Rubio first heard of Mr. Brown during his stint as protocol officer in the administration of President Cory Aquino.
President Aquino unveils the commemorative marker declaring
“Since that day, I confess, during the period of the administration of President Cory, now that I’m back again, every time I go from the Palace to the other place, I always say, ‘Good morning Mr. Brown.’ I become, at my age, very superstitious. So I said, ‘How are you Mr. Brown. So far I have been very lucky. Nothing bad has happened to me,” he says.
“I guess if I’m walking there, if you hear me say, ‘Hi, Mr. Brown,’ you [will] probably take a picture [and say], ‘Hey this man is a little bit tuktok (crazy) or very superstitious.’ But sometimes, it’s good to take precautions,” Rubio says.
As for the Palace’s present occupant, President Aquino says he has heard stories about “Mr. Brown” but has not experienced anything eerie or untoward.
A backgrounder says, the balete tree “has survived 18 Spanish governors-general, 14 American civil governors and all presidents of the Philippines after independence who have all been residents of the Palace.”
The full text of the marker reads: “Over 100 years old and standing witness to the unfolding of the Philippine’ rich history, this balete tree is recognized under the DENR Heritage Tree Program.
“The balete tree, indigenous to the Philippines and also to other parts of Southeast Asia, Southern China and India, is found in lowland and medium altitude thickets and forests.
“It starts as a small plant on top of a large tree usually through bird droppings. The balete eventually grows around the host tree which it strangles and kills leaving a cavity in the middle.
“Considered a sacred tree by the Filipinos, the balete is believed to be the residence of supernatural beings. The tree contributes immensely to biodiversity conservation as a significant food source and habitat for various small mammals, birds, and other wildlife.”