environmental issues

In DENR vs Masungi public spat, conservation takes a backseat

Iya Gozum

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

In DENR vs Masungi public spat, conservation takes a backseat
(UPDATED) Who will win in the court of public opinion?

The long-running animosity between the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and conservation group Masungi Georeserve Foundation Inc. (MGFI) erupted, with the latter openly calling for the resignation of DENR chief Toni Yulo-Loyzaga.

Tensions rose when Loyzaga said MGFI’s 2017 contract, which gave them conservation work of more than 2,700 hectares in the Upper Marikina Watershed, was “void from the beginning.”

It was a bold move for Loyzaga, who has evaded select highly controversial issues and the media.

Negotiate, groups told the DENR. MGFI, while mum on the call, sent the media a compilation of the statements of groups like Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, Caritas Philippines, and Alyansa Tigil Mina.

But the negotiating table wasn’t exactly uncharted territory for the DENR and MGFI.

In 2021, before the debacle surrounding the 2017 contract or the memorandum of agreement (MOA) erupted, DENR Calabarzon Regional Executive Director Nilo Tamoria sent a letter to the MGFI, requesting to transform their MOA into a Special Use Agreement in Protected Areas (SAPA) contract.

A SAPA would make MGFI a second party in relation to the use and development of land (ecotourism facilities, camp sites, among other uses) within the protected area for a set duration of 25 years.

This would cure the contested provision in the MOA that gives a private entity “perpetual” claim – unconstitutional under a law that gives only 25 years to project proponents.

“The law requires a certain type of agreement with the DENR on special uses of protected areas. We are bound by this law,” then-DENR secretary Jim Sampulna said in 2022.

“The conversion of a MOA into a SAPA is also an opportunity for the DENR to correct its course and to cure defects in the MOA. Such defects include unconstitutional provisions, and provisions that violate the ENIPAS Act, and the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act.”

MGFI didn’t want the SAPA.

In a response dated September 9, 2021, Ben Dumaliang, president of MGFI, said the MOA is a “joint public interest national government project” between the now-warring parties.

“It is not a SAPA as it is not meant to make a profit but to rebuild and rewild a forest,” the letter read. Dumaliang said MGFI did not engage in the business for profit or give dividends to its members as it is a foundation, unlike private corporations or individuals.

“The advances and progress made by Masungi also stand out against the backdrop of rampant watershed destruction going on around us,” Dumaliang wrote.

“It is disturbing that certain DENR officials are training their guns not at those countless wrongdoings or misplaced MOAs and instruments but at the good, rare, selfless work of Masungi – never mind if the watershed suffers.”

So here’s the quandary: the DENR may have the stronger legal argument, but it’s hard put to convince the public about its stewardship of protected areas. Not with recent issues on Chocolate Hills, Mt. Apo, and the alleged cult in Surigao del Norte, hounding the department.

MGFI, meanwhile, could not see the fundamental conflict in a situation where a private entity manages state-owned land in perpetuity, whether or not they profit from it.

That wasn’t the last time a renegotiation was broached. The Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB), under then-director Natividad Bernardino, and the MGFI had a meeting in 2022. A BMB presentation showed that both parties at that time agreed to explore the possible drafting of a revised MOA. This was supposed to include government shares and a definite term. It didn’t push through.

Rappler asked a representative of MGFI if they would pursue a SAPA now, but has yet to receive a response as of writing.


Profit is not the concern, MGFI would say. The issue is that they “use [their] own resources, risk the lives of park rangers and officers” to continue forest restoration.

This is the reason why Blue Star Construction and Development Corporation (BSCDC) is billing the government P1.2 billion for incurred expenses over the agency’s “unrealized delivery” of Lot 10, or the Masungi Georeserve. This is the popular ecotourism destination known for the karst limestone formations, the Discovery Trail, and the iconic sapot where tourists can take pictures.

BSCDC is owned by Dumaliang and is the parent company of MGFI. It is responsible for structures seen inside the Masungi Georeserve, such as the hanging bridges and bamboo house.

BSCDC’s billing, dated April 11, 2024, includes legal and security costs, and a P100,000 monthly rental to a private individual who holds a title over the land where the parking area of the georeserve is situated. The DENR said the billing has no legal basis. The Presidential Communications Office even amplified the press release on its Facebook page.

“The contracts entered into by BSCDC had legal infirmities ranging from unlawful excise of land for housing purposes in a National Park to award of contracts without bidding,” the investigation committee of the DENR said in a statement.

To clarify, the 2017 contract refers to the Masungi Geopark or the conservation effort of 2,700 hectares in the Upper Marikina Watershed.

The billing that BSCDC sent to the government was for the expenses “unnecessarily incurred by Blue Star because of the DENR’s failure to deliver Lot 10 free and clear of illegal occupants and encumbrances” as stated in their contract, said MGFI.

BSCDC was originally contracted by the government in 1997, under a joint venture agreement (JVA), to build a housing project. This is now Garden Cottages, where accommodations and event venues operate.

The contract was later supplemented in 2002, extending land size to 300 hectares, where now stands the georeserve.

“Facilities such as meeting venues and researcher and staff quarters are existing and refurbished structures inside the titled Garden Cottages project, a joint venture development project beside the Masungi Georeserve,” MGFI managing trustee Billie Dumaliang told Rappler on Wednesday, April 24. 

“These are used only for small and sustainable events. BSCDC allows MGFI to occasionally use these facilities for trainings and intimate events to help support its conservation efforts. All conservation fees for experiences and services involving these facilities go to the foundation and are used to help the upkeep of the areas MGFI takes care of.”

Public spat

The BSCDC billing or statement of account was sent by the DENR – not BSCDC – to the press. Besides the copy sent to reporters, the DENR included in its press release the findings of its investigation committee: that MGFI did not have clearances from the Protected Area Management Board, free and prior consent from indigenous people, environmental clearance certificate, and accreditation from the Department of Tourism.

On the same day, MGFI released a statement “daring” Loyzaga to come to the georeserve “to show to the public where the alleged hotel, swimming pool, and resort” are. Neither Loyzaga nor the DENR, however, made any mention of a hotel or swimming pool. But they did refer to the georeserve as a resort with “accommodations” and event venues for rent.

Dumalaing further said that If she cannot come and substantiate the claims, Loyzaga should resign. “The office of [the] DENR Secretary is crucial to the future of our nation and it must have the highest integrity.”

Loyzaga did not respond to the “invitation.”

MGFI said the trails in the georeserve are covered by a certificate of non-coverage, “which is the equivalent of the Environmental Compliance Certificate for projects with insignificant environmental impact as defined by the Philippines Environmental Impact System.”

Who owns the lands?

The simple answer is: the government.

But even that answer has many nuances. A document obtained by Rappler which maps the existing titles and agreements showed overlapping claims of private individuals, indigenous groups in the Upper Marikina Watershed. Thrown in the mix are mineral production sharing agreement titles.

For instance, Lot 10, where the Masungi Georeserve stands, is the same parcel of land that the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) had announced last year to be the site of their national headquarters.

Such conflicts have given rise to episodes of violence, injuring several rangers employed by MGFI. (READ: Under attack, Masungi rangers live to fight another day for the forests)

Yet the question of ownership is also misguided. The assets of, and structures in, the georeserve and the geopark are owned by MGFI and BSCDC. The lands within the protected areas are clearly government’s. Or more accurately, the public’s.

Both camps have decided to take the matter to the court of public opinion, given that claims and other courses of action have been exhausted.

That the DENR prolonged the issue, instead of immediately canceling the contract as they did with the alleged cult in Surigao del Norte, shows that the agency is aware it could easily lose the publicity war.

In a country where pools and resorts in protected areas seem to be unsurprising, the public will tend to empathize with a developer that has shown seriousness in conservation efforts – even if it means overlooking some wrinkles.

On the eve of Earth Day, advocates and artists gathered in Quezon City for a concert in support of MGFI. Some government officials sent prerecorded messages. Even actress Nadine Lustre appeared virtually.

MGFI estimated around 500 people came. It speaks a lot about the public’s hope for their natural resources. And this hope goes beyond warring parties. – Rappler.com

1 comment

Sort by
  1. ET

    The parties should go to Court. Let the Judiciary decide between their conflicting claims.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Face, Happy, Head


Iya Gozum

Iya Gozum covers the environment, agriculture, and science beats for Rappler.