House of Representatives

House panel questions constitutionality of DENR-Masungi Geopark Project contract

Iya Gozum

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House panel questions constitutionality of DENR-Masungi Geopark Project contract

SOLIDARITY. Environmental organizations march inside Masungi Geopark Project on Earth Day 2023.

Masungi Georeserve

(2nd UPDATE) The DOJ finds the perpetual land trust conferred by the DENR to the Masungi Georeserve Foundation unconstitutional

MANILA, Philippines – The House committee on natural resources questioned on Tuesday, May 16, the perpetual land trust conferred to the Masungi Georeserve Foundation Incorporated (MGFI) in a 2017 memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

DENR Legal Affairs Service director Norlito Eneran said during the hearing that they “have already submitted our report, and we found out that there is indeed a violation of the provision of the 1987 Constitution on the period of the 2017 MOA.”

“There is already a recommendation for the cancellation of the 2017 MOA,” Eneran added.

The 2017 MOA gave the MGFI the mandate to reforest some 2,700 hectares in Rizal province that cover parts of the Upper Marikina Watershed, the Kaliwa Forest Reserve, and an area mentioned in Presidential Proclamation 1636.

The 2017 MOA was signed by the late environment secretary Gina Lopez and Masungi founder Ben Dumaliang. The land referred to in the contract is now the Masungi Geopark Project. This is separate from the more popular Masungi Georeserve.

It is stated under the contract that “the project area shall be constituted as a perpetual land trust for conservation, subject to law, Masungi will be Trustee and shall continue to be so for as long as there is no neglect or violation of this agreement.”

The Department of Justice, in its formal opinion submitted to the committee secretariat, said this provision was in violation of Section 2, Article XII of the 1987 Constitution, which said such agreements must not exceed a period of 25 years.

In their position paper sent to Rappler after the hearing, the MGFI, however, argued that the 25-year limit applies to agreements that deal with exploration, development, and utilization of natural resources.The foundation said the nature of these activities run contrary to the essence of conservation efforts.

“This is why MGFI forwards that the 2017 MOA should be read as an agreement for a perpetual land trust for conservation, and not a perpetual license,” MGFI said in an online post. According to the foundation, perpetuity should not be an issue, as conserved areas “speak of permanence.”

Ben Dumaliang and Masungi managing trustees Ann and Billie Dumaliang did not attend Tuesday’s hearing and were represented instead by a lawyer.

In the previous hearing two months ago, DENR Undersecretary Jonas Leones said the agency had finished its review of the validity of Masungi’s contract and was only waiting for Environment Secretary Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga’s decision.

In a document obtained by Rappler, environment undersecretaries have already signed an internal memorandum earlier this year recommending the cancellation of the contract to the secretary.

“In light of the call of investigation of the Senate, the secretary deferred making decisions,” Leones said last March 16. Lawmakers are urging the Yulo-Loyzaga to make a decision and not wait for the hearings to conclude.

The lawmakers were also asking what the public would get from the agreement with a private entity such as MGFI, as profits were not shared nor divulged to the government.

“Protection is not the duty of the private citizen,” said Palawan 2nd District Representative Jose Alvarez. “Si Gina Lopez, tingin ko mali ‘yung pagkabigay ng MOA na ‘yan na walang consideration sa gobyerno. The MOA itself must have a consideration.” (Gina Lopez may have committed a mistake signing that MOA with no consideration to the government).

Despite the good intention of conservation, Rizal 1st District Representative Michael John Duavit said MGFI should be transparent to the public on its history and ‘how you came here.’

“We just like to make it very clear that we have nothing against Masungi Georeserve,” said Duavit. “What is very important is that we be transparent about this land…. When we’re talking about this MOA – this 2017 MOA – we’re talking about [27 million] square meters under the control of one corporation, family, whatever entity.”

No metes and bounds

During the DENR Calabarzon’s presentation on Tuesday, it was apparent that land disputes hound the area because of overlapping titles, protected areas, and presidential proclamations.

The area that the 2017 contract provided for Masungi’s reforestation efforts overlaps not only with three protected areas.

It also overlaps with the certificate of ancestral domain title issued in 2009 covering 21,183.80 hectares, the lot reserved for the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force’s headquarters and training camp, and the parcel of land reserved for the New Bilibid Prison and field office site of the DENR Calabarzon. The last two proclamations were issued by former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

It was in the same area that the DENR’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau granted mineral production sharing agreements to three mining firms – Quarry Rock Group Inc., Rapid City Realty and Development Corp., and Quimson Limestone Inc. – back in 1998 and 1999. These permits have been cancelled.

OVERLAP. The project area in the 2017 contract overlaps with protected areas, reserved lots for PNP and DOJ, as well as parcels of lands covered by MPSAs of three mining firms. Map from DENR

Committee chairperson Cavite 4th District Representative Elpidio Barzaga Jr. scolded the department for not having determined the metes and bounds of the Masungi Geopark Project area.

“All the technical descriptions, regardless of who was the surveyor, [have] to be approved by the DENR,” Barzaga said. “The overlapping was primarily caused by the DENR people by approving technical descriptions, which are overlapping with one another.”

Technical descriptions are important in titles because these determine the exact area and dimension of a lot area.

DENR Calabarzon Regional Executive Director Red Nilo Tamario was quick to defend that their field office did not have the chance to give input on the technical description in the 2017 contract.

Duavit, however, said, “I think we’d like to bring it up also that in the MOA itself, there is no technical description.”

Kabataan Representative Raoul Manuel said that the DENR was also to blame for the confusion regarding land coverage. He said that the DENR, as one of the parties which signed the agreement, should have defined the bounds as it was also in the best position to identify the area.

For the next hearing, the committee requested for MGFI’s disclosure of tax payments and financial statements. Lawmakers also warned that the Dumaliangs should be present lest the panel subpoenas them.–

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Iya Gozum

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