Protecting our protected areas

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

Standing somewhere in the Sierra Madre mountain range in Baras, Rizal, I could see the cityscape of Metro Manila down below, a panoramic view of towering buildings glistening under the setting sun.

It’s a breathtaking view of the skyline; of skyscrapers kissing the clouds; and of towering buildings casting shadows on a mirage of the fast-moving and dynamic life in the sprawling world down below.

It’s difficult not to be impressed, but on a deeper and larger scale, it’s even more difficult not to be worried.

The view of the city, you see, is no longer distant--the urban jungle is getting nearer the fringes and the mountains. Development has been steadily expanding and its radius has grown bigger, eating up bigger chunks of many of our natural resources---from mountain ranges, foothills, to watersheds; and it’s an alarming reality.

This is happening because of massive land-grabbing, quarrying, rampant deforestation, mineral extraction, and aggressive development by big business.

As a result, only three percent of primary forests in the country remain, according to the Masungi Georeserve Foundation Inc. (MGF), a non-profit that spearheads the Masungi Geopark Project.

The project is one of the largest collaborative reforestation efforts in the country, which aims to help solve the triple crises of biodiversity loss, climate change, and a looming water crisis.

Masungi Georeserve: A microcosm of environmental problems

I learned all this during a recent visit to the Masungi Georeserve in Rizal, east of Manila.

The conservation area and rustic limestone landscape tucked in the rainforests of Rizal is a sprawling piece of paradise. The air is crisp and fresh; wildlife and plant species abound. It’s a community rich with heritage and life, but threatened by modern-day developments.

Masungi is a microcosm of the environmental situation in a highly sensitive karst landscape, which serves as a natural filter for vital waterways, the Foundation said.

While Masungi itself has been restored after 20 years of protection, its surrounding mountains remain desperately threatened by land trafficking, slash-and-burn farming, quarrying, illegal logging, and resort developments, practices that continue because of government neglect and corruption among law enforcement officials.

“This has led to the forest being cleared and for clean water supply in the local communities of almost 40,000 people to be diminished,” the Foundation said.

It’s also one of the reasons that when typhoons hit the mountains, there are massive floods and landslides that reach Metro Manila.

As such, the Foundation strives to protect the area, comprising 430 hectares of secondary forest and 2,270 of grasslands from deforestation, and which currently stores an estimate of 160,000 tons of carbon or the equivalent of 66 million gallons of gasoline consumed.

The Foundation seeks to restore nearby forests to protect the natural ability of the watershed to regulate water. Watersheds are important because they provide many ecosystem services, including carbon and water storage, erosion and flood control, increased biodiversity, and many more.

Government support needed

The Foundation is seeking government support to help the organization protect the conservation area and its surrounding environments.

In a recent letter to Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Roy Cimatu, Foundation president Ben Dumaliang is calling for urgent government action to clear the project site of illegal occupants to stop further degradation.

The Foundation laments the continued pillage and attacks against the area and the forest rangers that guard it.

“The offenders by the way are not farmers or poor folks requiring government help. They are big time players with resources enough to install a large gamefowl farm among the government-owned Benguet pine trees, build resorts, accumulate 40 and even hundreds of hectares of land in the protected area and fence-off, appropriate, reclaim and develop hundreds of meters of vital waterways, all in brazen violation of the law,” Dumaliang said.

Environmental defenders

I heard more heartbreaking tales from the people of the Foundation. It’s unfortunate and alarming, and it must stop.

As world leaders gather at the ongoing COP26 climate change summit in the United Kingdom, let’s think of the very real threats against our environment and the people who protect it.

The Philippines was the deadliest country for land and environmental defenders in the Asian continent for the eight straight year in 2020, according to environmental watchdog Global Witness.

Environmental defenders are not just a bunch of people passionate about their field. They are trying to save the planet as we all must do.

There’s no Planet B

Climate change is real and developing countries like the Philippines are the most vulnerable to weather disturbances.

Against this backdrop, the government must realize the urgency of the situation. It must implement environmental laws and go against violators, while big businesses must stay away from protected areas. No, you cannot burn your way to prosperity.

As for us individuals, the first step we can take is to care and learn about the ongoing environmental onslaught happening in our country, teach ourselves, our families, our children, and parents, our immediate communities on the situation, and collaborate with environmental organizations to see what bigger steps we can take.

As we always hear, “There’s no Planet B,” and that’s a hard truth we must all keep in mind.



Iris Gonzales’ email address is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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