The Fight for the National Heritage on Masungi

by Nasser S. Sharief, Heritage Conservation Adviser, Masungi Georeserve Foundation

The author in Masungi with wife Norolaine Pacasum (in blue helmets) and other enthusiasts scaled the heights of Masungi on Saturday, June 11. Despite the scorching sun, it feels refreshingly cool atop the canopies of the forest. (Photo: Nasser S. Sharief)

As the easternmost country in Southeast Asia facing the slosh of the Pacific, the Philippines is at a crossroads. Our geo-reserves are depleting faster than they can serve our needs — let alone future generations. In our pursuit of affluence, we overstepped our limits, and the pursuit shows no sign of slowing down, and we don’t even deign to pause to collect our thoughts. This very minute, a drama is unfolding. Even more scathing, a battle is being waged in our backyard and no one seems the wiser. On this, stands the Masungi range— too majestic for the petty squabbling on resources like gravel and sands, piggeries, resorts, retreat centers, swimming pools, game-fowl farms, and even burned-wood charcoal, among others.

A close-up on the limestone walls on Masungi. Photo: Nasser S. Sharief

The Masungi Georeserve, a sprawling 2,700-hectare rustic rock garden in the rainforests of Rizal, had been delineated and earmarked for preservation by the government. This tourism haven is one of the Top 3 privately-led sustainable tourism project at the 2019 United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Awards for Enterprises held in St. Petersburg, Russia. It bested over 200 nominations around the globe. Masungi Georeserve had garnered dozens of recognitions and awards too numerous to enumerate since its inception, and counting.

But never mind the accolades. Never mind that Masungi is home to a towering 8-feet tall flower Amorphophallus rostratus locally known to folks as “Biga.” Never mind that it is tucked deep in the rainforests. There is no hidden place beyond the reach of poachers, land-grabbers, and resort exploiters. With its breathtaking sight also lies Masungi’s fragile eco-system.

In a just released May, 2022 Technical Report on Masungi Georeserve, National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) Chair Luli Arroyo-Bernas, daughter of then President Arroyo, sounded a dire warning to DENR OIC Secretary Jim O. Sampulna. “Major land or hydrologic disturbance, even outside the actual karst landscape, can have expensive consequences.” and that the “utmost conservation and sustainable utilization and management must be ensured.” As scientists explained in the report, “Karst regions require special management and protection.” Masungi requires babysitting by conservationists. Just this May, for her dedication, Masungi’s conservationist Billie Dumaliang was fêted in Forbes “30 Under 30” in Asia for 2022.

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But the sheer weight of these awards and recognitions proved to be not a talisman against environmental culprits. For all the vigilance of its rangers, the innovations introduced and the painstaking attention to detail of its conservationists, Masungi Georeserve seems helpless against the onslaught of poachers, and large resorts that have dammed the critical watershed and waterways to shamelessly carve out quarries and swimming pools to cater to clients unwary of the damage being done to a national heritage. What money they drew from these illegal ventures, they funnel them for influence-peddling in various government agencies. For instance, these operators had even the temerity to utilize government resources to spread lies and propaganda to soften-up the Masungi Georeserve. The DENR-Calabarzon in its recent post on the internet alleged that a legitimate group of “residents” petitioned the cancellation of the Masungi Geopark Project. An investigation revealed it was just a concoction of these operators. What skeletal ranger lookouts the Georeserve could muster, they were threatened and fired at by them. In April of this year, it took Malacañang through the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) and the Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) to order an investigation on them.

Much as these operators are living on borrowed time, the Masungi Georeserve is anxious to get rid of them once and for all. They are hanging on to a so-called Mineral Production Sharing Agreements (MPSAs) or quarrying contracts of sister companies Rapid City and Quarry Rock — the ultimate in land and hydrologic disturbance — that Secretaries Roy Cimatu and Dr. Angel Alcala said two years ago must be stopped. These MPSAs fail the show-cause-orders. Yet DENR is hesitating even after the quarries’ miserable failure to overturn show-cause-orders citing gross violations constituting, in the words of the Mines and Geosciences Director Moncano himself, “breach to their contracts, and the Philippine Mining Act…”

The logical conclusion ought to be an outright cancellation of the license, but to the surprise of nobody, they are still out there in the wild, shooting Masungi Georeserve rangers like sitting ducks. DENR is hedging. It hinted that since the quarry contract is due to expire in 2023 next year, cancelling it would be superfluous. Let the contract run its course, so goes its wisdom. Without categorically saying it will terminate the contracts or deny their extension, DENR harbor hopes of quelling the need to cancel the contracts now. The anxiety of Masungi conservationists is understandable. They suspect that the quarries intend to stay put beyond the 25-year term as can be discerned from their answer that they “will not give up their advocacy to revive the economy.” In this case, it would be interesting to investigate how much the MPSAs have contributed to government coffers all these 24 years.

In the meantime, their proxy war of attrition against Masungi Georeserve since 2017 continues. With their machinery and influence, these operators use the DENR, LGU, the police and even crony media to spread lies, terrorize and scare Masungi in their effort to perpetuate their plunder. The Masungi rangers and team members have suffered greatly while fighting a lonely battle to protect the forest. Left alone to the mercy of these syndicates and — getting less sympathy— the rangers have for so long been shot at, mauled, harassed and even jailed for defending the area.

The alarming situation moved the Supreme Council of the Knights of Rizal led by Sir Gerardo V. Calderon to issue a “Joint Call to Action” for the preservation of Masungi. This April, no less than 30 heads of environmental organizations and educational institutions signed a joint statement seeking an end to illegal activities at Masungi and the Upper Marikina Watershed, which they said risks degrading the environment around the portion of the Sierra Madre range to the east of Metro Manila. Signatories of the letter include environmental lawyer Tony Oposa, former Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn, and De La Salle Brothers provincial superior Bro. Armin Luistro.

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The Masungi Geopark Project (MGP) is a pet project of President Duterte, executed between the DENR and Masungi Georeserve Foundation, Inc. (Masungi) in 2017. It aims to reforest and re-wild about 2,700 hectares of degraded land at no cost to the government nor compensation to Masungi. It was Masungi which carried out the award-winning and globally-acclaimed restoration of the limestone pinnacles and biodiversity in Southern Sierra Madre. No less than the United Nations Development Program, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Global Water Partnership, World Tourism Organization and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) recognize the innovation and excellence of MGP. Only last month, the WTTC invited two Masungi trustees to speak before its Global Summit in Manila hosted by the Philippine Government.

To date, Masungi has physically recovered some 2,000 hectares of abused land including the four largest Benguet Pine tree groves planted by the government in the 1970s. It has installed and put on vigil on a 24/7 basis 12 ranger stations and cleared and maintained 15 kilometers of trails for protection, monitoring, and reforestation. About 80,000 Narra, Lauan, Lipote and other indigenous forest trees have been planted and nurtured. Now feeling safe and secure, birds, boars, monkeys and other wildlife are multiplying and the elusive pine tree wildlings are sprouting. The above accomplishments sans government funding are no mean feat considering the prevailing culture of lawlessness and competition for vacant forestland. No other project comes close for size, dedication, and distinction.

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