Words by Aron Jan Mitchell Sierva
On October 30, authorized managers of the Masungi Georeserve aired their disappointment through a video on Facebook, depicting a thicket of felled trees in the area. In the caption of the said post, they described the scene as a “massacre of the forest.”
This alarming environmental issue takes its roots from an incident on October 23 that involved a private company, which deployed armed men in the georeserve and erected fences in the trees around the vicinity.
The company was identified by the georeserve managers as Rublou Inc.-Green Atom, which is owned by retired police general Luizo Ticman. He was reported to have been involved in anomalous graft issues when he was still a part of the Philippine National Police (PNP).
The deployed armed men, who the georeserve rangers reported to have been carrying shotguns, had already been observed inspecting the area before the fencing incident, despite being unable to show any title, permits, or documents allowing them to do so.
Billie Dumaliang, Masungi Georeserve’s advocacy officer and trustee, claimed that the armed men’s presence at the time prevented the park rangers from fulfilling their duties of protecting the site’s diverse wildlife. She added that the fences blocked Masungi Georeserve personnel from accessing about 1000 hectares of land.
“Pumunta kami roon to clean…[for] reforestation and planting tapos biglang, ‘Ano ito, sino kayo? Ano [ang] ginagawa niyo rito?’” Dumaliang said in an interview with ABS-CBN News.
Because the area is a safeguarded sanctuary, the Masungi Georeserve team immediately called for the company to end its threats and environmentally-damaging activities.
“We implore the company to immediately remedy its actions and comply with laws and geopark policies,” they wrote on their Facebook page.
However, instead of finding a resolution, the issue persisted. On October 25, Rublou Inc.-Green Atom claimed private ownership of the forest without any permits.
In a report by ABS-CBN, Rublou Inc. released a statement that the area that their guards fenced off is part of the ancestral domains of the Dumagat-Remontado tribe, and not of Masungi Georeserve. The company further claimed that they were protecting the forest from illegal loggers.
However, their activities in the area say otherwise. Besides the incidents of fencing and the chopping down of trees, it was also reported that the guards had built for themselves a wooden hut near the fence, which was made of logs from the sanctuary itself.
In addition, Dumaliang disputed the company’s claim, saying that the georeserve team has documents to prove that the area is a reforestation site entrusted to them by the government.
The fences were immediately dismantled by the Masungi Georeserve rangers and a team from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on October 25.
Dumaliang told the Perspective that the armed men from the said company remained in the area.
“There are reports that they still have men in the vicinity. We also discovered the company has fabricated many things pertaining to this incident, and as per our latest encounter, they still couldn’t present any valid documents to show [that] their actions have any ounce of legitimacy,” Dumaliang wrote.
She added that in order to respond to future threats, the georeserve increased their ranger stations and checkpoints. They also purchased a drone for further monitoring. However, Dumaliang noted that enforcement must be improved by the assigned agencies in the area.
Safeguarding a sanctuary
The issue with Rublou Inc.-Green Atom was just one of the many land-grabbing attempts that threatened the georeserve. These incidents have been happening since the 1990s. Dumaliang said that the Masungi Georeserve encountered encroachments at an average of every two months just this pandemic.
“Many times, these encroachers are unscrupulous, leaning on outright deceit or fraud to pursue their aims,” she wrote.
Located in the rainforests of Rizal, the Masungi Georeserve started as a joint venture project between the DENR and Blue Star Corporation in 1996, with the goal of restoring an illegally-logged landscape. Therein, conservation efforts are done in order to employ a balanced coexistence of man and nature.
DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu tasked Rizal Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO) to increase security in the georeserve’s vicinity. However, Dumaliang claimed that the proactive enforcement in the area is still very weak.
“Many times I have seen investigations that are lacking or severely defective, or complicity take the side of the violator instead of the environment, just so no action could be taken. Then, there are very few that even result in cases and convictions or even penalties. Hence these violators are emboldened and just repeat,” she added.
The Masungi Georeserve team also asks the public to be vigilant, so that violators are convicted and so that such environmentally-damaging activities will not happen again. They also called for the government to put a stop to the rampant land speculation in the georeserve and in all other forests and watersheds in the country. [P]
Photo from Masungi Georeserve / Facebook