In another case of harassment against environmental defenders, five rangers from Masungi Georeserve were “illegally detained, mistreated, and verbally abused” by elements of Baras Police, managers of the georeserve’s Facebook page wrote last December 22.
The rangers reportedly apprehended a “notorious environment offender” who was armed with a machete. The offender was said to be trespassing the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape (UMRBPL).
Upon surrendering the offender to the police, the rangers were shocked that they were the ones jailed instead of the offender.
The georeserve team said that this illegal detainment was due to the offender’s false complaints of suffering from physical injury due to the apprehension. However, this was disproved by a medical certificate, which found no bruises, cuts, or physical injuries indicating that the offender was violently apprehended.
The georeserve team added that their rangers were only released from detention after six days, following a resolution from the provincial prosecutor.
“Their illegal detention has a chilling effect on our rangers and other protected area defenders. The authorities will not defend the environment and neither will they let us,” the team wrote in the Masungi Georeserve’s Facebook page.
Terrorizing environmental defenders
According to Masungi Georeserve’s Facebook post, the said offender illegally owns a resort, and had already received a Cease and Desist Order from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and a closure order from the local government.
In fact, Rizal Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO) sent a team to the Upper Marikina Watershed last May to investigate encroachments including construction of resort facilities.
Masungi Georeserve advocacy officer and trustee Billie Dumaliang said that they noticed resort developments in recent years, despite lacking necessary permits. Vast hectares of the forest were also affected by fires and clearings.
According to a Facebook post last May 30, one resort owner and their goons threatened Masungi Georeserve’s rangers with firearms. Gunshots were even fired to intimidate the rangers.
Then last July 24, two forest rangers were shot in the head and the neck. The Masungi Georeserve team said that the police officers who “[avoided] investigating suspects” in the shooting are also the same ones who illegally detained the georeserve rangers who apprehended an environmental offender.
The georeserve team added that the same offender who was recently apprehended is also the primary suspect in the shooting of the two forest rangers last July.
About a month after the shooting incident, victims Melvin Akhmad and Khukan Maas filed a frustrated murder complaint against the owner of GSB Resort, who has already threatened and harassed georeserve rangers multiple times.
“We are devastated and enraged by this heinous act of violence and attempted murder against forest defenders. We are calling for justice and protection for our team who risk their lives to defend our watersheds and forests 24/7,” the georeserve team wrote.
Meanwhile, in early October, Masungi Georeserve rangers found booby traps and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the same area where Akhmad and Maas were shot. Upon interrogation, persons from GSB Resort admitted to setting up the traps.
“Without a doubt, these were set up to terrorize rangers and prevent them from pursuing the restoration of the forest and wildlife and from patrolling and stopping the illegal encroachment and construction of structures inside the protected area, watershed, and wildlife sanctuary,” Masungi Georeserve managers wrote in their Facebook page.
The Masungi Georeserve team condemns the violence and threats that environmental defenders receive. In a 2021 report by non-government environmental group Global Witness, the Philippines was named as the deadliest country in Asia for environmental defenders for the eighth straight year. A total of 29 killings related to environmental protection were documented in 2020.
Defend the defenders
Masungi Georeserve is a conservation area in Baras, Rizal that is designated as a Strict Nature Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary. Meanwhile, the Masungi Geopark is a reforestation project of bare lands that covers 2,700 hectares of the georeserve.
With portions located under UMRBPL, Masungi Georeserve is considered as an area “protected against destructive human exploitation”, under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act of 1992.
Nevertheless, Masungi Georeserve has constantly been at the receiving end of threats and harassment.
It has fought trespassers and illegal loggers since 1986 – a situation that has worsened along with rapid urbanization. In October 2020, Masungi Georeserve was fenced by goons of a private company that was claiming ownership of the forest without any permits.
With the severe damage that the georeserve suffered, rangers described the scene as a “massacre of the forest”.
Meanwhile, in light of the recent illegal detainment of five rangers, the georeserve team said that despite their requests for help, no authorities took real action to assist them in the fight against impunity and lawlessness. As a result, landgrabbers and environmental offenders continue to threaten the area.
The Masungi Georeserve team said that they have a “lonely fight” protecting the environment. Encroachment and environmental abuse goes unchecked.
“Considering this impunity, rangers are therefore compelled to defend the protected area themselves. We had to install checkpoints and prevent illegal activities including land grabbing, cutting of trees, constructions, and other organized crime,” the georeserve managers added in their Facebook post.
The Masungi Georeserve team continues to call on the authorities for the protection of the environment and the rights of environmental defenders.
“We hope that PNP [Philippine National Police] Chief [Dionardo] Carlos will ensure justice and support for our rangers and the protection of our dying watershed, for the sake of our shared future.” [P]