environmental conservation

A massacre of trees: Masungi Georeserve struggles vs illegal loggers

JC Gotinga
A massacre of trees: Masungi Georeserve struggles vs illegal loggers

Courtesy of Masungi Georeserve

Masungi Georeserve

The sight of decade-old trees felled by loggers in an already denuded forest motivates park rangers and workers to fight more fiercely for every single tree in their care

Billie Dumaliang had heard the story from the forest rangers, but it still felt like she was punched in the guts when she saw the logs strewn all around what was supposed to be a nature sanctuary.

Many of the felled trees were saplings not very long ago – adolescents, in human terms. They were ipil-ipil, buho, and other pioneer species that were the first to emerge from degraded land, a sign that the forest was regenerating.

The rangers told Dumaliang that the felled trees were about 8 to 10 years old. This means they germinated around the time this land, the Upper Marikina Watershed, became a government-protected sanctuary in 2011.

There were also scores of narra logs among the casualties. Narra trees are indigenous to the watershed, and these ones were among the few that survived decades of unrestrained exploitation before Presidential Proclamation 296 declared it off-limits to loggers.

Clearly, the edict was not enough to keep illegal loggers out of the supposed sanctuary. The massacre discovered by Dumaliang and the forest rangers of the Masungi Geopark in Baras, Rizal, was not the first.

One of many trees illegal loggers cut inside the Masungi reforestation area. Photo courtesy of Masungi Georeserve

“I was really stunned, and I really cried, to be honest. It’s like a sting to the heart that on one side of the watershed, we’ve been planting trees – almost 50,000 of them – and then just beyond it, illegal activities continue to happen unchecked,” Dumaliang, trustee and advocacy officer for Masungi, told Rappler in an interview. 

Rangers fenced out from the forest

Dumaliang and Masungi’s rangers were in the news recently following their October 23 confrontation with a handful of private guards who had built a fence on the northern portion of the reforestation site. The guards, who claimed their client owned over 1,000 hectares of the watershed, wouldn’t let the rangers through.

“By fencing us out, pinipigilan na nila ‘yung efforts namin, di ba (they were in effect stopping our efforts, right)?” Dumaliang said.

The guards were in the employ of a company named Rublou, owned by retired police general Luizo Ticman. Rublou is a meat distributor. Its subsidiary, Green Atom, is into renewable energy.

Ticman was among several police officers accused of involvement in the sale of secondhand helicopters to the Philippine National Police, and an allegedly anomalous purchase of 75 rubber boats in 2009.

Guards hired by a private entity built a fence around a reforestation site in Masungi, keeping park rangers out. Photo courtesy of Masungi Georeserve

Dumaliang and the rangers asserted that the area was within the 2,700-hectare protected area covered by the Masungi Geopark, which includes the 400-hectare Masungi Georeserve. The guards insisted it was private property, but had no documents or land titles to prove it.

“They had shotguns! Long ones!” Dumaliang told Rappler. A video clip of the encounter showed her asking the guards why they bore firearms. A guard told her it was “only for [their] protection.”

By October 25, the guards had built themselves a wooden hut near the fence. It was made of logs from the sanctuary itself.

Dumaliang sought help from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which sent several of its foresters to the area. The hut and the fence were then dismantled.

A ‘very clear violation’

The next day, October 26, DENR Undersecretary Jonas Leones said in an interview on the ABS-CBN News Channel that the agency had issued a show-cause order to Rublou, giving it until October 29 to explain why it fenced off a portion of the Masungi Geopark, or else face lawsuits.

Leones said it was a “very clear violation” of existing laws on protected areas. He admitted, though, that the government does not have enough people to guard nature reserves.

In a statement sent to, and reported by, ABS-CBN, Rublou said the land involved in the controversy is part of the ancestral domain of the Dumagat-Remontado tribe, not of the Masungi Geopark. The company and Ticman were not claiming ownership or possession, it said, but were helping protect the ancestral domain by sending guards and building a fence on the tribe’s behalf.

Dumaliang disputed this, saying Masungi Georeserve has documents to prove the area is part of the reforestation site the government entrusted to them. Besides the proclamation from 2011, a US colonial executive order has designated the Upper Marikina Watershed as a reservation since 1904.

A fire

The following day, Dumaliang returned to the place where the fence had been. She and the rangers who accompanied her found piles of logs, the stumps that were left of the trees, and mounds of garbage.

“If they were indeed protecting the area, bakit ganito ‘yung inabutan namin (how come this was what we found)?” Dumaliang said of Rublou.

All she and the rangers could do was take photos of the felled trees, hoping the images would convey the anger and despair they felt at the destruction in the sanctuary. They called it “a massacre of the forest.”

It had taken the forest a decade to grow these pioneer trees, and they were preparing the ground for the taller, mightier trees that would attract wildlife to return. Now, this patch of land is once again bare.

“It really hurts us to see something like that, but it also gave me a fire, that if things are this dire, it gives us a bigger sense of purpose than we already have, knowing that what we are doing is necessary,” Dumaliang told Rappler.

The guards at the fenced off reforestation site used logs from the area to build themselves a hut. Photo courtesy of Masungi Georeserve

She has not heard back from the DENR about whether Rublou has responded to the show-cause order, or whether any accountability will be exacted from the company.

For now, there are no more fences and huts, Dumaliang said, but Masungi’s rangers still report seeing the guards roving the vicinity.

Masungi faced a similar threat in March, when a quarry company put up a barbed wire fence around 500 hectares of the reforestation site. Intruders go away when reports of their activities make the news, but either they or other intruders turn up again sooner or later.

Unless the government actively protects these so-called protected areas, Dimaliang said decades of reforestation can be wiped out in an instant. The current ratio of park rangers to protected land nationwide is one for every 4,000 hectares. How on earth can they defend every single tree from illegal loggers, miners, and other threats?

“Whenever someone reports a violation, even if it’s an ordinary citizen, the local enforcement agency should make sure that they do the investigation vigorously, honestly, and that it actually results in conviction,” said Dumaliang.

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Ready to plant

Nature cannot be rushed. It takes its time to heal and regenerate. Although there may be a temptation to pepper denuded mountains with seedlings that grow fast, Masungi believes in “assisted natural regeneration.” They don’t mess with nature’s balance.

“If you allow nature to heal, it will itself – if you don’t disrupt it,” said Dumaliang.

Masungi’s work is to “accelerate” this healing process by planting more of the trees that naturally grow in the area, like ipil-ipil, narra, dao, duhat, antipolo, and bamboo.

Dumaliang’s team is preparing to plant new trees while the rainy season lasts. This includes cleaning up the ground, making trails through the thickets, and then marking the plots for new trees. The process will take about two months.

“We are ready to plant,” she said.

Masungi has an ongoing petition to President Rodrigo Duterte for the protection of the Upper Marikina Watershed and the entire geopark from quarrying. Up against a seemingly endless stream of “adversaries,” Dumaliang said they urgently need the public’s support for their efforts.

“If people do not get serious about protecting and restoring the Upper Marikina Watershed, it will be to our destruction as well – very, very soon,” she added. – Rappler.com

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.