Learning my lessons in forest paradise | Inquirer Lifestyle
Masungi’s reforestation project has planted and nurtured over 47,000 trees, with the help of many partners and guests.

Learning my lessons in forest paradise

Billie Crystal Dumaliang

Advocacy officer and trustee, Masungi Georeserve

Masungi guardian Billie Dumaliang picks out an edible fruit of the “katmon,” an endemic and threatened tree species.

As advocacy officer and part of the skeleton force of the Masungi Georeserve Foundation, a group conserving limestone formations and biodiversity in Baras, Rizal, I have been fortunate enough to spend most of my quarantine time in this forest paradise, and learn a few lessons along the way.

I treat this as a challenge to exercise my creativity, focus and resilience while learning new skills or revisiting old ones. I am privileged to be in a perfect setting to ease mental anxiety with the healing powers of nature.

I have been able to sharpen my bird-watching and identification skills on a bird and gratitude walk every morning, frequently spotting parrots, hornbills and doves. I’ve also been able to practice my weeding and composting skills during training sessions for park rangers, who remain hard at work maintaining the trails.

The foodie in me has never been so alive as I am forced to cook on my own. We have been able to create a small herb and cocktail garden with a surprisingly wide assortment of goodies. This allows us to recreate dishes and experiment with new ones using ingredients straight from the forest. The most popular concoction so far is the katmon and kasoy apple cooler, the ingredients of which are simply foraged from nearby trees, blended together with fresh basil leaves and ice.

I have also done a lot of reading. I am a proud follower of over 1,700 accounts on Twitter and 3,300 accounts on Instagram. This keeps me attuned to the latest news, trends and research for our work. A daily dose of social media, despite its frenzy, helps me create relevant content on Masungi’s social media feeds and find opportunities for partnerships and special grants.

I usually cap off the work day with a stand-up Zoom call with our guest care officers who are working remotely from home. I’m not a fan of online meetings, so every officer has 15 minutes to present what he or she has done for the day, what he or she plans to do tomorrow, and what help is needed from the team.

After my daily digital immersion in the “outside world” and cooking dinner, I wash the dishes and play songs like “Easy” by the Commodores to help me relax. Before sleeping, I reread a few pages of the “33 Strategies of War” by Robert Greene.

Masungi’s 60-million-year-old limestone formations in the summer sunset —KAL JOFFRES

Karst ecosystem

Masungi Georeserve uses geotourism and nature-based experiences to raise awareness for the protection and conservation of this unique karst ecosystem, and to support the enormous costs of maintaining and reforesting the now 2,700-ha site.

Since 1996, our mother organization Blue Star has protected the Masungi limestone formations as part of a project with the government. This has allowed the forest to heal after 20 or so years. The results of this program are now enjoyed by guests from all over the world in the award-winning Discovery Trail. This popular trail features innovative low-impact highlights such as the Instagram-worthy Sapot (a spider-web style viewing deck) and the Duyan (an 80-m long rope hammock atop the rainforest canopy).

Unfortunately, the lockdown has brought all leisure travel and tourism, our main source of funding in recent years, to a grinding halt.

Despite this, the work of conservation groups like us continues and becomes even more critical. Just because most of us are at home doesn’t mean environmental violators are lounging on their couches, watching Netflix. Friends from conservation organizations around the world have already sounded the alarm on rising cases of opportunism from illegal loggers, irresponsible miners and poachers.

Even before the lockdown, we already faced an epic battle against quarry interests in our reforestation site located in the neighboring mountains.

In a highly laudable move in early March, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu himself removed remaining barbed wires installed by a quarry and ordered the cancelation of their permits. He revealed that not one but three mining agreements encroached on the Masungi Wildlife Sanctuary and the Upper Marikina Watershed. Combined, they represent some 1,500 ha of forests and mountains that would have been flattened out sooner or later.

But just several days after this, another battle was to be fought. The Luzon lockdown saw members of the community losing jobs, access to basic services and peace of mind. We also monitored suspicious activities, including forest fires threatening our planting sites, grazing animals stomping on newly planted seedlings, and unidentified men seemingly scouting the area for purposes we can only surmise. We reported these incidents, coordinated with authorities and enhanced our monitoring.

Masungi’s reforestation project has planted and nurtured over 47,000 trees, with the help of many partners and guests.

Quarry and quarantine

The quarry quandary and the quarantine are hardly separate issues. Research shows that the emergence of new diseases like the new coronavirus disease can be traced to the unabated destruction of forests and habitats just like Masungi.

Spending most of the quarantine period in the forest has reminded me of our “impossible” dream for Masungi—for this special place to be a refuge and sanctuary for wildlife, where birds and all kinds of animals roam free without being hurt by humans or waking up one day to find their homes gone.

Two important lessons I learned from these experiences: First, happiness is not about being carefree, but finding a purpose. During the quarantine, I found my energies more focused to attend to the immediate needs of the georeserve and community members. It’s not just the hundreds of hectares of forest in peril that make our cause worth fighting for. A single birdsong in the morning, or a smile on the face of a park ranger or indigenous friend after receiving much-needed aid, is worth the fight.

Second, radical optimism is key. Masungi’s recent battle with quarrying showed us that traditional power and money can be defeated by an inspired community. How past guests, conscientious leaders and environmental advocates have rallied behind us has been inspiring and empowering.

Right after the quarantine, we will strengthen these campaigns even more to protect Masungi from present and future threats. We are also excited to finally reopen our trails for visits with enhanced health measures in place. In true Masungi fashion, we are experimenting on handcrafted bamboo face shields and hygiene products made of medicinal plants, which can be used by guests and park rangers. —A­lya B. Honasan