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RIZAL, Philippines – Ricardo Pajareto was following the scent of wisterias in a forest in Baras, Rizal, when it led him to a spot overlooking two limestone formations and Laguna de Bay.
Pajareto, one of the park rangers who regularly visited the open area, soon discovered that orb-weaver spiders came out every 5 pm to spin their webs on jagged rocks. This was in 2015, the same year the Masungi Georeserve – a conservation area in Rizal renowned for geotourism practices and karst limestone formations – opened to the public.
The spider webs inspired what has become the most Instagrammable spot inside Masungi: Sapot ni Ric (Ric’s Web). The metal cables hanging over rocks were patterned in spirals and spokes to mimic the gossamer feel of the webs.
Below Sapot ni Ric is the sprawling vast green space that is Masungi, a georeserve that has been under conservation since the beginning of the century, developed through “innovative tourism and engineering.”
Built on a rock
Masungi was built on chance encounters like this. In 2000, Ben Dumaliang, the founder of the georeserve, was assessing the land to be developed around two kilometers down what is now known as the Discovery Trail when he found a rock he became enamored with.
“It was a thing of beauty to me. It must be preserved,” he recounted. “Then and there we decided that it should be a park. It was not a road or a house that we first built – it was a park.”
That rock was only the tip of the iceberg. Karst limestones of the Paleocene epoch found throughout the area would later become one of the most recognizable features of the georeserve.
But back in 2000, Masungi was not yet the conservation area it is known today. According to a study published in the Handbook of Geotourism, as early as the 1990s, the land in the town of Baras was already denuded because of illegal logging operations in the area. Baras is home to rolling hills and mountains part of the Sierra Madre range, boasting land resources and scenic views easily accessible from Metro Manila.
In 1996, Dumaliang’s company, Blue Star Construction and Development Corporation, entered into a contract with the government to develop the 400-hectare land into a housing project. The project was delayed because of conflict with logging companies operating in the area and quarrying firms interested in the karst limestone formations. In the next four years, the project saw no progress, and interest in it dwindled, so much so that, in Dumaliang’s words, “they lost the market.”
In 2000, after the housing project fell through, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) tapped Blue Star to convert the land into a conservation park. Antonio La Viña, who was environment undersecretary until 1998, helped write the draft of the contract and impose the conservation requirement for the company. Blue Star was given the mandate to rehabilitate the limestone forest.
With the help of 12 park rangers, who were part of the engineering and construction staff, the company explored the area to develop, make alterations, and rebuild. Renowned geologist and revolutionary Rolly Peña studied the karst limestone formations in Masungi, preparing it to become the georeserve we know today.
Masungi estimates that from just around 10% limestone forest cover back in the 1990s, the georeserve is now classified as a “secondary forest,” with a 70% to 80% forest cover. This means that a piece of the degraded land is finally regenerating through rehabilitation efforts such as planting and tree nurturing.
It took two decades, the persistence of advocates amid land conflicts, and five administration changes before Masungi launched into the periphery of outdoor enthusiasts, tourists, and the general public.
Taking cues from nature
Now, Masungi has become one of the top destinations in Rizal. The management requires tourists to set an appointment ahead of their intended visit to manage the crowd eager to see what the social media hype is all about. Its most famous route, the Discovery Trail – a three- to four-hour hike, – gives visitors a sweeping look at what the georeserve has to offer.
During the amihan season, the air in Masungi is cool and dry – perfect for hiking. The park is nothing like a wilderness: it is not dark, dense, or clandestine, and light enters through the foliage. It also isn’t primeval, unlike untouched forests. Instead, its novelty sprouts from the foreign elements seamlessly introduced to the area.
Taking cues from the natural world, there is coherence in the flow of the park’s tourist attractions.
The trail is lined with smooth, slab stones, so one does not have to negotiate gnarly roots and trip on jutting rocks. From the trail, you get a perfect view of the crown-shaped rock that inspired Masungi’s logo, as well as distinct plants with medicinal value.
The appeal also comes from the adrenaline rush that comes with crossing hanging bridges, walking on tree-top walkways, and climbing rope ladders. Suspended in the air, the structures swing to a slight breeze and the cadence of other people walking. The effect is an almost transparent connection with nature.
To achieve the sense of uninterrupted design, the park applied principles of biomimicry – the imitation of biological designs and functions – while building the tourist structures such as the pit stops and bridges.
Carla Hernandez, guest operations head of the Discovery Trail, said that the builders avoided installing permanent structures such as cemented viewing decks as these would tamper with nature.
She said the idea is that no permanent man-made structure should be left behind in the area when, in a distant, ideal future, humans leave the place.
The Patak (raindrop), for example, is a bamboo house suspended in the air in the middle of a hanging bridge. Similar to Sapot ni Ric, the house was not built directly on rocks or trees.
Haven for tourists and advocates
If natural processes helped design the park, forest rangers gave their names to points of interest. There’s Sapot ni Ric, named after Pajareto, who discovered the spiders. Yungib ni Ruben was a nod to Ruben Gianan, another ranger who found the cave.
When the United Nations recognized Masungi as a model for conservation innovation in 2018, the award was dedicated to the late Peña for his work, dedication, research, and advocacy for the famous limestones. Peña died on November 30, 2018, in a road accident along Quezon Avenue. His ashes are stored in a white urn, tucked inside a crevice of a rock formation inside Masungi.
As a geotourism site, Masungi is not only concerned with preserving nature. It also espouses tourism that conserves the geographical identity and history of a place, as well as the heritage and culture embedded in the land.
Since its opening in 2015, Masungi has enjoyed steady support from tourists and advocates. Through social media, weekend warriors, hikers of all levels, and even celebrities have helped put the place on the map.
But aside from photos, tourists also leave the place with the challenge from the park to help in protecting the watershed. Issues of forest rangers’ safety, for example, are not sugarcoated whenever these are discussed with visitors.
Recently, researchers from the National Museum released a technical report dated April 11, 2022, which was submitted to Acting Environment Secretary Jim Sampulna. The museum’s report looked into Masungi’s susceptibility to geohazards – sinkholes in particular – and the effect of anthropogenic threats such as quarrying and development to the area.
The report recommended that conservation must not stop with Masungi “but must be shifted to the whole watershed” as activities in the vicinity “may disrupt the karst system in the long run.”
Out and beyond Masungi
Despite the challenges, Masungi Georeserve now serves as an ample habitat for various flora and fauna. The once-deforested land is now home to endemic species such as the Philippine serpent eagle, the North Luzon giant cloud rat, and JC’s vines (Strongylodon juangonzalezii).
Building on the success of Masungi, conservationists and the DENR in 2017 agreed to reforest 3,000 hectares more of denuded land in Mt. Susong Dalaga, a few kilometers away from the georeserve proper.
With its expanded mandate and the public’s ever-growing support for the georeserve, Masungi proved the success and viability of the geotourism model. And thanks to tech-savvy millennials, even the rest of the world has now been introduced to Masungi.
For Dumaliang, what happened in Masungi holds promise for the rest of the deforested lands in the country.
With his daughters and the younger staff of Masungi slowly taking the helm, Dumaliang said he’s not that worried anymore about the georeserve.
“We have a larger landscape that also needs protection. It’s where we should be going now, outside of Masungi,” he said. – Rappler.com