Words by Gian Morrondoz and Tony Ongdueco
On October 30, decades worth of environmental rehabilitation at the Masungi Georeserve was fenced off by armed men allegedly employed for land-grabbing by a real-estate company (READ: Masungi Georeserve damaged, threatened with land-grabbing by private company). Yet this comes as no surprise as local protected biodiversity areas have consistently been subjected to environmental degradation, brought about by illicit activities.
What is Masungi?
Masungi Georeserve is a conservation area found in Baras town, Rizal. Its name comes from the word “Masungki”, meaning spiked; this is due to the jagged limestone formations found inside the georeserve. These limestone formations as well as the area’s surrounding rainforests serve as a home to many indigenous plants and animals, such as the purple jade vine and the North Luzon giant cloud rat.
In 1993, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) designated the area as a Strict Nature Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary for proper conservation and to prevent further damages. Three years later, protection efforts were started by the Blue Star Construction and Development Corporation (BSCDC) in agreement with the national government; the agreement was initially intended for housing purposes. In the said partnership, the Masungi Georeserve would be partially developed by the BSCDC for sustainable ecotourism in the area, which eventually conceived the Masungi Geopark.
The Masungi Geopark is a reforestation project of bare lands, covering 2,700 hectares of the Masungi Georeserve. Some portions are located in the Upper Marikina RIver Basin Protected Landscape which puts it under the jurisdiction of the DENR, as stated in Proclamation No. 296, s. 2011. Masungi Georeserve, as a publicly recognized protected area, makes private ownership and the use of these lands to be subjected to specific guidelines. This, however, did not prevent numerous fraudulent claims and the appropriation of the forest’s resources.
A history of attacks
Masungi Georeserve has fought against illegal loggers and trespassers way back in 1986. Because of rising public interest and the rapid urbanization of nearby settlements, Masungi experienced more repressive acts over the next decades. Corporations, poachers, and illegal loggers have continuously harassed Masungi and contested its claims over the 2,700 hectares of protected land.
“We have encountered these as early as the 1990’s when protection efforts started” wrote Billie Dumaliang in an exclusive interview with Perspective, an advocacy officer for Masungi Georeserve.
The battles Masungi fought to protect its forests over the years could be looked at as a manifestation of land-grabbing in the Philippines. Back in 2016, Masungi was subdued by over fifty armed men backed by three prominent families namely Tanchoco, Sulapat, and Lugiano. All of them have illegally put up claims to hundreds of hectares covered by Masungi Georeserve. Masungi succeeded in protecting their land from these men, but the perpetrators were never charged for their crimes.
According to Masungi Georeserve, from a statement on their website, “These families are not farmers nor people in need, not even real Dumagats, but are plain real estate speculators. Despite having no proof of ownership or title, they are being supported by Mayor Tanjuatco of Tanay and certain DENR officials, and tolerated by the local police.”
These armed men opened fire on unarmed Masungi park rangers at least two times and forced themselves into the area. They destroyed the barriers preventing illegal loggers and poachers from entering the reserve. Combined elements of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were present during the said encounter but did not interfere with the destruction of the barriers even though the claimants were not able to present any papers that proved their supposed ownership of the area.
Illegal loggers are regularly apprehended by Masungi park rangers. Despite the presence of evidence, they are rarely convicted. In an incident involving the same families, an illegal logger was caught by park rangers and turned over to the police. The perpetrator was not arrested.
On November 21, Masungi Park Rangers found another case of large scale illegal logging in the northern part of the Georeserve. Park Rangers found more than 70 cut trees and 700 poles of buho. Private armed guards without permits were present and the area, all within the protected area of Masungi, was rife with charcoal pits where the cut trees were burned and processed.
Aside from land-grabbing families and illegal loggers, there are other constant threats to Masungi. At the start of 2020, foreign quarry companies have tried to assert their ownership over a portion of the Masungi Georeserve. Rapid City Realty and Development Corporation (RCRDC), one of these quarry companies, fenced off a quarter of the area and declared their ownership through alleged mining rights the company obtained back in the 1990s.
DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu and Undersecretary Benny Antiporda joined the Masungi park rangers to remove the barbed wire fences that the company erected and they were forced to halt operations. Aside from RCRDC, Quarry Rock Group Inc., and Quimson Limestone Inc. are also under scrutiny for operating in the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape which is illegal under the NIPAS Act. The NIPAS Act aims to protect remarkable public lands that sustain unique features, such as animals, plants and even natural structures such as rivers and mountains.
In a Facebook post from Masungi Georeserve, the trespassers from RCRDC were even reported to be planning a second attempt.
The Green Atom incident
On October 23, an electric utility corporation called Green Atom reportedly fenced off nearly 1000 hectares of land covered by the Masungi Georeserve. Despite specializing in renewable sources of energy, Green Atom were said to have cut down trees that were planted in Masungi years ago, all the while claiming that they were “protecting” the area from illegal loggers. Green Atom then allegedly deployed armed men around the area it fenced off, preventing park rangers from doing their duties. They did all of this without presenting a single permit.
Eventually, Green Atom released a statement on October 26. They claimed that they were protecting the area on behalf of the Dumagat tribe. Masungi Georeserve contacted the Dumagat Tribe residing in the area and wrote in a Facebook post about Green Atom misrepresenting and exploiting the tribe.
Despite the release of a show cause order by DENR, Green Atom has yet to leave the area. A video posted on the Masungi Georeserve Facebook page on November 15, shows goons reportedly hired by Green Atom harassing and threatening to harm and drag the people at Masungi. In addition, they released a statement condemning Green Atom’s unwarranted stay at Masungi. Green atom has not yet addressed this statement.
“God is the Head of the Corporation”
The company in question is Green Atom Renewable Energy Corporation. Established in 2015, it seeks to aid in “the development of Renewable Energy Power Plants in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world.” They specialize in photovoltaic and waste-to-energy plants as seen in their previous projects in Tanay, Rizal, and Naic, Cavite.
According to their website, Green Atom is led by founder and chairman Ret. Gen. Luizo Ticman, a former PNP director who holds an MBA from the Asian Institute of Management, and President and CEO Rex G. Recarro, a businessman with experience in the energy industries in Libya and Tunisia, with the chairman’s son Lemuell as the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). It is a subsidiary of the Rublou Group of Companies, a conglomerate that grew from the former’s butchery business.
However, besides the board of directors, they also claimed that “God is the Head of the Corporation,” and that the company is just a “caretaker to anything that will be in place and will strive to perform its divine duties as a responsible and obedient keeper.”
Despite their so-called divine beliefs, ironically, the elder Ticman and Rublou are associated with various controversies. In a 2013 Inquirer report, then PNP Director Luizo Ticman was among eight PNP officials involved with the “allegedly anomalous purchase of 75 defective rubber boats worth P131.5 million in 2008.” Adding insult to the injury, a report from GMA Network stated that he was one of the 22, with no less than the former First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, implicated in the procurement of second-hand helicopters priced brand new in 2009.
Then, in a 2016 post by the Tanay LGU, 14 personnel of Blue Star Corporation, and another subsidiary of Rublou, were charged with “multiple attempted murder, as well as a violation of R.A. 10591 [Comprehensive Law on Firearms and Ammunition] and Omnibus Election Code of the Philippines,” after engaging in a gunfight with the 80th Infantry Battalion Philippine Army (80th IBPA). Besides also belonging to Rublou, this is the same Blue Star that partnered with the Masungi Georeserve.
The effects of these activities at Masungi were felt almost immediately, not by the land grabbers but the residents of Marikina.
In the wake of Typhoon Ulysses, Marikina suffered heavily from flooding. Although already flood-prone due to the city’s low altitude, illegal activities in the Upper Marikina River Basin Watershed was said to have worsened the effects of the consecutive typhoons.
On November 23, the DILG directed LGUs to coordinate with the DENR to crackdown on illegal logging and illegal quarrying in protected areas. In an interview with ANC, Mayor Marcelino Teodoro pushed for the rehabilitation of the Upper Marikina Watershed and tighter enforcement of anti-illegal logging and anti-quarrying policies. On November 28, senators called on PNP and the Philippine Army to eject land-grabbers in the Upper Marikina Watershed.
However, environmental activists stand at the forefront of defending the environment. They raise awareness and gather support for environmental advocacies, often going toe-to-toe with governments and corporations. This requires immense courage since the country has consistently been hostile towards environmental activists. In fact, the Philippines was the second deadliest country for environmental defenders in 2019 with 113 killed under the Duterte administration alone.
A criminal industry
Because land is scarce in the city, corporations head to provinces and municipalities where bigger and greener pastures can simply be taken. In fact, factbook on environmental issues by Adelphi University detailed how the Philippine government has offered land, even those belonging to farmers and indigenous peoples, to foreign and local investors since 2007, which in turn effectively sponsoring this criminal industry.
This paved the way for large-scale acquisitions achieved through coercive means akin to Cortes and Magellan’s conquests: Lupang Aguinaldo farmers were served trumped-up charges, Hacienda Yulo residents had to save themselves from harassment and arson, and now, the Masungi Georeserve has to deal with fences and armed men.
Land-grabbing cases are David-and-Goliath battles, and the Masungi incident is no exception. In the face of corporations with deep pockets and long rifles, the people at Masungi refuse to back down, but they need more than just a slingshot.
“We cannot do it alone, we need everyone’s help in facing these battles and fighting for this special place,” Masungi Georeserve emphasized.
Simply put, land-grabbing and environmental exploitation at the expense of capitalism neglects environmental preservation, human rights, and the laws safeguarding them in the pursuit of profit.
In line with President Duterte’s recent call for a government-wide probe on corruption, Masungi Georeserve officials urge the President and DENR Secretary Cimatu to take concrete steps dedicated to preserving the georeserve as well as to boost their conservation efforts. They are also inviting the public to visit and volunteer at the georeserve when it opens, to not only fund the project but also to realize the possibilities in conservation and ecotourism.
Photo courtesy of Masungi Georeserve