environmental defenders

[OPINION] Nature and people at stake in Masungi

Tony La Viña
[OPINION] Nature and people at stake in Masungi
'I join Masungi in calling for the strengthening of security in the area, and especially request the DENR, the the DILG, as well as the DOJ to look into what can be done to ensure that this protection is sustained'

It has been a few days since armed men were first seen within the vicinity of the Masungi Georeserve, a conservation area and rock garden found along Tanay in Rizal. On September 19, Monday, police came over and took the firearms of these men, yet no arrests were made, and as of the morning of September 20, the armed men remained in the area, despite the lack of legal basis for staying on the site.

In a press statement that they released on September 20, the Masungi Georeserve wrote that the invaders are situating themselves in “titled property of the Republic of the Philippines and part of protected areas as enacted by then President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. through Presidential Proclamation 1636 and Presidential Proclamation 573.” The Georeserve also stated that provincial police considered the issue as a land dispute, despite the subsequent action taken on the firearms. 

As someone who has worked closely with the Masungi Georeserve and its trustees Ann and Billie Dumaliang, and has seen the wonderful work of Masungi in conservation and sustainable tourism, I am one with the Georeserve, other conservationists, and environmentalists in one call: Protect Masungi Georeserve! (Disclosure: I was instrumental in creating the reserve in the 1990s when as environmental undersecretary I proposed that majority of the area be conserved as is.)

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The Masungi Georeserve

The Masungi Georeserve is an integral part of the Rizal ecosystem. It is not just one of the international leaders in sustainable tourism and home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna, it has also been fundamental in ensuring the reforestation of the southern Sierra Madre range within the Upper Marikina watershed, which protects low-lying areas from the worst effects of typhoons and rains, including flooding and erosion. 

Because of its beautiful location and abundance in natural resources, Masungi has been, in recent years, the focus of individuals and groups who want to come in with different intentions, including developing the land. At times, this has led to illegal trespassing and even violence, putting in danger the lives and safety of those who work within the Georeserve. The events of the past week are no different.

The Masungi Georeserve Foundation said that the armed men, who it identified as associated with Sinagtala Security Agency Services, arrived with the intention of taking over 300 hectares of land, 150 hectares of which form part of the protected area. The men said that they had the authority to enter the property by virtue of a survey plan which was signed by a director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in the early 2000s.

[OPINION] Nature and people at stake in Masungi
No disputes over land

Similar to other attempts made in the past to enter the area, the armed men seemed to postulate that their survey plan was sufficient proof of ownership that will allow them to enter the protected area. They cannot be more wrong.

The main conservation area of Masungi is a 400-hectare land, which was subsequently expanded to include 2,700 hectares of degraded forests for reforestation in partnership with the national government through a memorandum of agreement signed by the Foundation and then Secretary Gina Lopez in 2017. This additional area, dubbed the Masungi Geopark Project, is an ambitious initiative, is situated inside the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape (UMRBPL), and is the area where most of the recent conflicts have taken place. 

The UMRBPL, with a total land area of more than 26,000 hectares, was established in 2001, and is a declared protected area under Republic Act No. 11038 or the Expanded National Integrated Protected Area Systems (E-NIPAS). Also declared protected is adjacent land, the Kaliwa Watershed. There is also a National Park, Wildlife Sanctuary, and Game Preserve Reservation in the area which was created as a result of Proclamation No. 1636 in 1977. 

The fact that the area in question forms part of the UMRBPL therefore means that there is no dispute on the land. The land is titled, the title is with the Republic of the Philippines, and any other document that shows the contrary, specifically a survey plan, cannot be sufficient basis to justify entry into the property.

It is thus urgent that action be taken to remove the men from the area, as well as ensure that no similar issues will take place again. 

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Masungi’s calls

Since its creation, the Masungi Georeserve has been staunch advocates for the environment. It is therefore just right that the same amount of protection is offered to the Foundation and those that it protects.

I echo the call of Masungi to terminate the illegal Mineral Production Sharing Agreeements (MPSAs) in the area, as they are the biggest and most powerful threats to the survival of Masungi. Unless they are canceled with finality, similar issues will arise, and the years of work that Masungi has done – in reforestation, rewilding, and conservation – will be rendered nugatory. 

I join Masungi in calling for the strengthening of security in the area, and especially request the DENR, the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), as well as the Department of Justice (DOJ) to look into what can be done to ensure that this protection is sustained.

I reiterate all these calls and ask that the Philippine government really take stock of what is happening in Masungi Georeserve, a Foundation that has relentlessly been acting as environmental stewards for a significant portion of the Sierra Madre mountain range, and make concrete steps to protect it and the work that it does.

The Masungi Georeserve is a vital Foundation, especially to those of us who live in Rizal and the National Capital Region. Therefore, whenever I am asked why I always call for the protection of Masungi, my answer is always simple. Its reforestation efforts are aimed at making sure that those who live in low-lying areas are shielded from the worst effects of typhoons. It is home to countless flora and fauna. Finally, it has shown the world what responsible and sustainable tourism can do both for the planet and its people. – Rappler.com

Tony La Viña teaches law and is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government. 

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