Postscript to Masungi

QWERTYMAN - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

Senate President Pro Tempore and environmental champion Loren Legarda did the right and necessary thing last week when she called on the Bureau of Corrections to desist from building prisons or offices on land it supposedly owns in the Masungi Georeserve in Tanay, Rizal.

For unfathomable reasons, former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo awarded BuCor 270 hectares in 2006 for new headquarters and a New Bilibid Prison in the heart of Masungi, a protected area that has become an internationally recognized showcase of nature conservation. Following Legarda’s statement, BuCor officials have assured the public that it will not push through with its plans, and will instead just build facilities for a detachment of forest rangers who will protect BuCor’s lot.

That’s still not the best solution – which would be the revocation of the land grant, given that prisons have no place in Masungi or any protected area for that matter. But even a reprieve is welcome, as it buys time for the national government to take a long, hard look at what’s happening in Masungi, where the threat of new construction pales in comparison to what’s already been built there.

I first wrote about Masungi last January, when I visited the 3,000-hectare georeserve along the border of Tanay and Baras, Rizal. It’s a critical stretch of land that’s not only home to some of the country’s rarest and most threatened species such as the purple jade vine and Masungi microsnail – as well as 72 kinds of birds – but also helps protect Metro Manila from catastrophic flooding because of the watershed it sits on.

The place has had a long and complicated history, from the time the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) tried to use it for employee housing in the early 1990s to 2017 when its care and supervision was entrusted to the Masungi Georeserve Foundation, Inc. (MGFI) by then DENR secretary Gina Lopez. Well before and since then, Masungi’s caretakers have battled a host of threats, including landgrabbing by syndicates reportedly backed up by powerful people connected to the government. Aside from the BuCor’s plan to make a prison out of a natural Eden, a wind farm is being built on Masungi by a Singapore-owned company.

But beyond the quarries, resorts and private houses that have sprung up on the reserve, MGFI president Ben Dumaliang’s main source of worry is the government itself – specifically, the DENR, or what he sees as its inexplicable indifference or even hostility to the foundation and its efforts to preserve and protect Masungi from parties hungry for its land.

I met with Ben recently and he explained to me how many times he had tried to approach DENR officials to get their support for the foundation’s work on the georeserve – an achievement that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Action Awards recognized in 2022 – but how he has been repeatedly rebuffed, and even threatened with the cancellation of their management contract. “The secretary didn’t even congratulate us for our UN award,” he told me in a voice tinged with sadness and dismay.

It isn’t really the accolades that Ben and his team – which includes his two daughters and a corps of bright, young forest rangers and volunteers – are after. While they can bank on a deep wellspring of support from the public and most of the media – you can’t go to Masungi without being impressed by the extent and the inescapable beauty of the foundation’s reforestation efforts – they need resolute action from the DENR to enforce its own laws and rules. The cold-shoulder treatment he’s been getting has driven Ben to suspect that “rogue DENR officials” are behind the landgrabbing syndicates plaguing the reserve.

“They see our foundation as the only hindrance to quarries, resorts, real estate and many other deals in the protected area. Unfortunately for the environment and the public, these deals cause irreparable harm. Our presence, vigilance and conservation work in the area have stalled, stopped and derailed countless syndicates from pillaging the frontline forest that is being swallowed up by creeping urbanization and development,” says Ben.

I saw the irrefutable evidence of this massive encroachment myself on my visit there last January. A whole village – Sitio San Roque in Baras – sits and thrives where a forest should have been (and probably was). I saw a pool resort, mansion-like homes, shops, etc., all on land claimed by the residents to have been legally acquired under the Marcos-era PD 324, which granted free patents to land that it designated alienable and disposable. Ben points out that this is fraudulent, because PD 324 had long since been superseded and nullified by PD 705 and Proclamation 1636, which withdrew the land given out under PD 324 and protected it from settlement, disposition and development. 

“The three big-time quarries totaling some 1,300 hectares misplaced in Masungi trace their roots also to the PD 324 scam,” Ben alleges. “The quarry owners justify their contracts with claims of private rights derived from PD 324. They were also fooled. They brazenly violate the prohibition against mining in protected areas of at least three laws – Proclamation 1636, the NIPAS Law and the Mining Act.”

Ben wonders why, in the face of these strong legal arguments, the DENR hasn’t moved against the presumptive squatters in Masungi and has instead refused to meet with the foundation and work with it to defend and protect the georeserve. When I saw him recently, he brought up the same question I raised at the end of my previous column, which I’m asking again: “What do they have against us?” I think that deserves a clear, fair and not incidentally overdue answer.

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Email me at [email protected] and visit my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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