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Racing against time: Masungi Georeserve keeps our rainforests alive

The Masungi Georeserve holds one of the most environmentally diverse spots of the country—but the reserve contends with problems as numerous as the species found within.

In 1996, a moribund piece of land situated at the tail end of the Sierra Madre was entrusted to civil engineer Ben Dumaliang for a housing project. However, due to issues surrounding logging and quarrying companies, Dumaliang pulled the plug on the project and decided to take on an  environmental approach—thus, the Masungi Georeserve was born. 

With the trust of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Dumaliang and his company, Blue Star Construction and Development Corporation, worked to bring back the life it once had. Masungi’s name was derived from the word “masungki”, due to spiked limestone formations which emerged from the Paleocene epoch. The land was then developed into a conservation area in 2000 and eventually, an ecotourism site in 2015. They would go on to develop Masungi into a conservation area and open it as an ecotourism site in 2000, laying the blueprint for modern-day environmentalism. Still, its caretakers know that the now emergent biodiversity in the Masungi Georeserve remains in the interest of profit-driven corporations.

Further in the greens

“Today, the same group of conservationists remain dedicated to the protection and conservation of the species that now call Masungi their home,” the Masungi Georeserve Foundation (MGF) proudly states. Such dedication was honored by the United Nations Sustainable Action Campaign, with the fruits of the georeserve’s efforts evident in their rich quarters. Catching the eyes of its caretakers and tourists, many exceptional organisms can be found in the georeserve, including the Philippine Hawk Eagle and the Purple Jade Vine. Additionally, the Masungi Georeserve is also known to play the role of protector against natural disasters for the surrounding low-lying areas. Not only does it stand as a cultivation of love for nature and geotourism, it also aids in preventing erosion and flooding in the surrounding environment.

The entire georeserve is powered by the strict protocol they put in place. They explain the three pillars of their system: restoration and assisted natural regeneration, limited development and geotourism for conservation, and low-impact design and engineering. The MGF illustrates that the first pillar observes tree-nurturing activities, infrastructure support, and training for park rangers. “Bringing back the forests is more than just about planting trees,” they opine. In a deliberate and caring manner, the foundation also states, “Geotourism follows the following principles to enable the harmonious co-existence of man and nature.” To ensure such relationships, their financial and physical operations are managed through the principle of limited development and geotourism for conservation. By being more selective about the markets they accept, they promote proper diversity and service to residing communities. 

They also value the gifts of low-impact materials that are characterized by sustainability and performance. “Our local craftsmen and engineers transform these materials to create world-class works of art that enhance the natural environment,” the MGF conveys. Thus, the georeserve has become a safely ever-changing place that adapts to its developing abode.

Arms in struggle

Alongside the need to ensure innovative restoration efforts is an even greater need to combat the exploitative tactics of quarrying tenements and land grabbers. According to the MGF, macro-scale quarrying is one of the biggest threats the georeserve faces. “Three quarrying tenements are currently occupying more than 1,000 hectares of the protected area,” they say. In February 2020, when a quarrying company fenced off areas of the site, the Masungi team was able to stop them right before their illegal operations had begun. 

Illegal structures and resorts also pose threats to Masungi’s crucial waterways, which are used as swimming pools in some cases. In July 2021, two forest rangers were shot while manning the reforestation site in Sitio San Roque, Barangay Pinugay. The attack apparently occurred a month after the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the DENR found the “illegal cutting of trees and slash-and-burn activities and illegal construction of a private resort in Sitio San Roque,” as stated in a 2021 Inquirer.net report. More recently, in February 2022, seven rangers and officers eating at a nearby carinderia were mobbed by 30 people who were “associated with illegal resorts in the Upper Marikina Watershed,” a statement by the Masungi team writes. 

Land grabbing syndicates have also placed the lives of Masungi rangers on the line. Just this September, a hired security group called Sinagtala illegally occupied parts of Masungi, on the grounds of carrying out a land survey. However, the MGF posits that “a mere survey plan is not a proof of ownership.”

In the end, the motivation behind Sinagtala and its mastermind’s actions was found to be rooted in money, as they had plotted to sell the land and its resources—most especially the famed limestone formations—to interested buyers. “We discovered traces of trees and bamboo cut down, possibly to make way for bigger structures they were planning to erect in the area,” divulges the MGF.

The government’s crucial hand

Since the Sinagtala invasion, the MGF says that the visit of DILG Secretary Benhur Abalos and the Philippine National Police Chief Rodolfo Azurin Jr. enhanced the police presence in the georeserve. Ultimately, they still demand the government’s proper interference in assuring the protection of the area. “Our conservation agreement with the DENR entails that they remove the large-scale illegal occupants, such as illegal resorts and police generals, inside the protected areas around Masungi,” the MGF says.

However, Masungi continuously calls for DENR’s support as another governmental concern reigns above their heads: the proposed Kaliwa Dam Project. Headed under the controversial Build, Build, Build Project, it is a bulk water supply whose construction may cause severe environmental damage to the Sierra Madre—the home of Masungi. “Any large-scale disruption [to] the larger ecosystem of the Sierra Madre may affect the ecological integrity of those around it,” the foundation laments. 

Nevertheless, the threats that the georeserve faces do not end on the outside. According to the MGF, quarries and illegal resort operations are behind disinformation against the 2017 Masungi Geopark Project, wherein former DENR Secretary Gina Lopez entrusted Masungi to restore 2,700 hectares of barren land within the Upper Marikina Watershed, Kaliwa Watershed, and the Masungi Wildlife Sanctuary. “They [wanted] to portray that residents or farmers are against the [Masungi Geopark] project by setting up fake Facebook pages or even orchestrating “protests”, when in fact, these people are their employees,” reveals the MGF. 

In hopeful vigilance

Underneath all of Masungi’s evergreen forests, rock formations, and diverse species is a multitude of widely-political problems bursting at the seams. “The looming climate crisis will only aggravate the effects of the degradation of our environment,” the MGF reminds. And so, the team declares, “We do not have much time, and we have to act now.” 
With all of these in the past, present, and future, Masungi stresses the importance of lending its voice to environmental causes. “The voice of the public, as we and other campaigners have proven time and again, can turn the tide for the environment,” the foundation affirms.

By Bea Cruz

By Arianne Joy Melendres

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