Why Masungi matters
Masungi Georeserve, Rizal—Sunny days can be hot and humid in Rizal, especially this time of the year, but under the shadow of the limestone cliffs, it is cool and breezy. I could listen to the birdsong, punctuated by the distinctive calls of the tariktik (Luzon hornbill)—all day. If one looks at the karst landscape close enough, there are microsnails, traces of cloud rats, and endemic flowers—including a purple variant of the tayabak (jade vine).
Up in the park’s peaks and view decks—some 600 meters above sea level—one can admire the Sierra Madre mountains, and on the opposite side, glean the smog-blurred line of Metro Manila’s skyscrapers.
This sanctuary, just an hour away from Quezon City, some 45 kilometers along the Marikina-Infanta Highway, is probably one of the best and fastest ways to encounter nature for Metro Manila’s locals and visitors alike. And yet, its six-year-old existence as a government-owned, private-foundation-operated geopark is under threat from all fronts—including, seemingly, the government itself.
Most recently, it was at the center of a controversy with the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) reportedly planning to build its headquarters on the site, asserting its ownership of the property. Such a proposal was quickly opposed by the Upper Marikina Watershed Coalition and other groups, citing the “risk of destabilizing the terrain” and the threat to various species.
In the hearings that ensued after the furor, senators like Nancy Binay and Risa Hontiveros expressed grave concerns over the plan, stressing the need to protect the site—and thankfully, at least for now, it seems that BuCor has relented, with its acting director general, Gregorio Catapang Jr., saying that their proposal “will be held in abeyance pending further studies to be undertaken, taking into consideration the impact on the environment with the construction of BuCor facilities in the area.”
Even before the BuCor plan, however, Masungi Georeserve’s existence has been legally, politically, and physically precarious. Just last year, more than 30 armed men, who refused to disclose their identities, were reported to have encamped on the roadside within the georeserve; two years prior, 500 hectares of the site was fenced off by a quarrying company: An act that was ultimately deemed illegal (in a welcome development, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources or DENR has since canceled quarrying permits in the entire site).
The Masungi Georeserve Foundation is holding on to a 2017 memorandum of agreement (MOA) with DENR, represented by then Secretary Gina Lopez, but this agreement has been contested by various parties including the local government of Tanay and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples Region IV-A who claims to speak on behalf of the Dumagat-Remontados (Masungi counters that they have in fact reached out and won the support of the indigenous communities). The DENR and its regional offices seem to have also vacillated between affirming the MOA and questioning its implementation—even as various other actors within the protected area—including illegal private resorts—are able to quietly operate.
Regardless of the complex legal landscape, regardless of what reforms could be done in the park’s operational and organizational structure, I hope that the spirit of the law will prevail in the mind of DENR Secretary Ma. Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga and the President and convince them that Masungi must be preserved and protected—not quarried, destroyed to give way to a government facility, or handed over to those who seek to exploit its natural wealth.
After all, Masungi is preserving what’s left of a critical area that has already been massively deforested and degraded, protecting fauna and flora and water reserves, and upholding the government’s own mandate in the process.
It is also promoting ecotourism, contributing to an industry that has dramatically grown in the province over the past decade, employing many people and moving them away from unsustainable livelihoods. These include my guide Jun-Jun, who says that he, a native of Tanay, was once an “illegal logger” but has since been an “environmental advocate.”
Finally, as Masungi conservator Ann Dumaliang tells me, Masungi is presenting an alternate model for conservation—one that has been met with success in various parts of the world—at a time when many of our country’s natural sites are suffering from neglect and mismanagement.
Ultimately, the choice in Masungi is not between private stewardship or government control. Rather, the choice is between people who see the karst formation as priceless heritage that must be protected at all costs and those who see them as—in the words of a local official who testified in the Senate hearing—high-quality limestone that is good for cement production.
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