Anybody who has taken the time to visit the awesome, incredibly green Masungi Georeserve in Baras, Rizal, knows that the 400-hectare area some 47 kilometers out Manila is a natural and national treasure. After all, as the site’s website states, the area is home to limestone cliffs estimated to be around 60 million years old and over 400 species of flora and fauna, and has been replanted with some 40,000 native trees. The scenery can certainly take one’s breath away.
The outspoken, proactive angels of this forest are sisters Ann and Billie Dumaliang, whose family has protected this area for some 20 years. Since 2015, they have opened the place to controlled numbers of ecotourists who have hiked scenic trails, relished the experience and gained a new appreciation for protecting forests. The destination has won much global recognition, as well, including from the National Geographic Society, United Nations World Tourism Organisation and International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Ann, Masungi Georeserve’s project manager, is also a National Geographic Explorer, and was a regional finalist for the Young Champions of the Earth of the United Nations Environment Programme. Younger sister Billie is a trustee and advocacy officer of Masungi Georeserve Foundation, and this year, both received the Changing Your Mind Travel Award from Vanity Fair magazine—proof that they are indeed “global changemakers” in both tourism and environmental stewardship, whose heads (they know their science) and hearts are in the right place.
The Georeserve was proposed as a Strict Nature Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary a year after the National Integrated Protected Area System (Nipas) Act of 1992 (Republic Act 7536) was declared. Masungi’s guardians were mandated to reforest almost 3,000 ha of degraded land in the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape. Most significantly, an administrative order from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources declared quarrying, mining and land speculation illegal in the area.
On Nov. 24, 2011, Presidential Proclamation No. 296 signed by President Benigno S. Aquino III declared the Marikina Watershed Reservation in Antipolo and the municipalities of Baras (where Masungi is located), Rodriguez, San Mateo and Tanay, Rizal, a protected area, pursuant to the Nipas Act, effectively barring loggers, as well.
All is not quite well in this unique paradise, however, no thanks to plain old greed. In the article “Why ‘big threats’ don’t faze Dumaliang sisters in saving Masungi” by Niña V. Guno (April 5, Inquirer.net), the eco-warriors recount how they have spent the lockdown in the Georeserve, despite the tourism slowdown.
“A lot of the problems that we have revolve around environment and sustainability, rooted in our detachment from nature. Because who would want to destroy what keeps us alive?” Ann said in the interview.
“There are those with interests that are not in line with conservation,” said Billie in another interview with Nina Unlay of National Geographic last July. “But this is a conserved area. We believe these areas should be free from human exploitation. They should be protected.”
The urgent need for such protection came into grim focus once more on July 24, when two Masungi forest rangers, Melvin Akmad and Kukan Maas, were shot by a still unknown assailant at a reforestation area. The two survived the murder attempt, but Georeserve stewards have pointed out that this was not the first time rangers had been targeted.
Inquirer’s editorial on July 31, “Violence in the forest,” noted, “Despite its legal mandate, the Georeserve has had to contend with quarrying and logging companies that have barricaded the area with barbed wire, preventing Georeserve workers and forest rangers from doing their job. Some companies have put up guard huts using illegally cut logs from the sanctuary and hired roving guards with long arms to fence out intruders, even using ‘errant elements of the SAF (Special Action Force) and the army to harass our project teams,’ according to Masungi Georeserve Foundation trustee Billie Dumaliang. ‘Professional squatting’ has become a challenge as well, with powerful individuals, including retired enforcement officers, appropriating chunks of forest land for themselves.
“With the country’s current ratio of one park ranger for every 4,000 hectares of land nationwide, it has been a losing—and sometimes fatal—battle for environmentalists.”
Billie Dumaliang answered some questions on this debacle:
How are you feeling about this last terrible incident? How is the morale among the rangers?
I have not had time to process my feelings, but what stands out is a lot of frustration and anger. Our rangers in the remote stations in the Upper Marikina Watershed are still alone, and we still need urgent security support.
How many rangers do you have, and how much have they contributed to caring for Masungi? Aside from this threat to their lives, what has their work cost them?
We can have from 80 to 100 rangers at any point in time. The funds raised through geotourism in the Masungi Georeserve pay for their salaries, as well as those of rangers stationed in the Upper Marikina Watershed. They are the heart and soul of Masungi. The work is taxing, from walking kilometers to patrol reforestation sites and encountering hostile violators, to getting threatened late in the night and working in the outdoors, rain or shine.
Who is doing this, in your opinion? And how can they be stopped, in an ideal world?
I believe this was done by a particular group that has been threatening our team since March. In the past several months, we have stood against their illegal activities such as illegal occupation and construction, the cutting of trees and tampering with waterways. To stop them, all we need to do is use existing powers to remove the violators from the watershed without fear or favor. Those powers are already in our laws.
Just to underscore the point: How important is Masungi?
Masungi is part of the watershed divide, and whatever happens here and in the Upper Marikina Watershed affects downstream communities and cities in terms of flooding and other effects of extreme climate. Studies say that a healthy watershed in the Philippines can reduce flooding by up to 47 percent. The limestone also acts as a natural water filter, which gives us clean water. Beyond this, it is a national natural heritage and habitat of unique wildlife that must be preserved for future generations.
How did you get so invested in Masungi? And how do you deal with such frustration? Have you girls been in danger in any way?
I have been involved with Masungi since 2016, after leaving the corporate world to join my sister Ann as she launched the Georeserve. However, we have always come here as kids since our dad and his team led the protection of the limestones since the 1990s. Throughout my time at Masungi, my consciousness for injustice surrounding environmental conservation in the Philippines grew. Whenever I see or experience injustice myself, I am always compelled to do something about it despite the risks.
What keeps you going?
I try to focus on the work that needs to be done, which goes beyond myself. Whenever I feel discouraged, I am lifted by all the people who show their compassion and generosity to our team and our mission.
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