The fight to #SaveMasungi

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The georeserve is widely known as a tourist spot for its scenic trails, but it is also an award-winning conservation area that preserves numerous animal and plant species, including new organisms that have been discovered within its domain. However, it is no stranger to encroachment, quarrying and land grabbing by private firms that refuse to respect its protected status. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — On April 27, the Masungi Georeserve posted alarming photos on its social media accounts of fires raging at the upper Marikina watershed, urging authorities to act. It was the first burning incident the group published this year.

“It looks like the smoke signalled illegal clearing and something will now be built inside the protected area,” the Facebook post said. “Under environment law, ‘engaging in kaingin or any manner causing forest fires inside the protected area is illegal.’”

The next month, Masungi continued its appeal for action as the blaze proceeded to ravage its forest cover. Masungi told CNN Philippines in May that at least ten hectares of land have been damaged by the fires. The burned expanse has since increased to 16 hectares, where around 32 species of trees and 29 species of animals including birds, amphibians and mammals were earlier sighted, Masungi Managing Trustee Billie Dumaliang said two months later.

On May 30, a different incident occurred. Masungi said it was informed that local government officials shut down illegal resort development activities at the site. The private entity responsible for the resort development was different from the firm behind the 16-hectare forest fire, Masungi later found out.

Meanwhile, the forest fires continued in segments, Masungi observed, and in June, the group reported another attack: more land clearing with young trees cut down at the side of the mountain. Photos showed a patch of land stripped of trees with some logs even gathered and arranged like a pyre ready for burning. Masungi called it a “tree massacre.”

“Confirming what could be seen in aerial images, these burnings and clearings were done in patches and consolidated in a systematic manner,” said the group. “This was not a small-scale event.”

On June 26, Masungi said it conducted an inspection of their area while accompanied by officials from the Department of Interior and Local Government and the police. DILG Asec. Manuel Felix, also a representative of the Anti-Illegal Logging Task Force, confirmed large-scale cutting of trees in 16 hectares of the watershed.

He also observed new structures in the deforested sections, "dwellers" who claimed to be farmers, illegal construction of a resort, and private entities occupying parts of the burned zones.

"Notwithstanding repeated warnings issued by government, armed guards and illegal structures still proliferate in the area," Felix told CNN Philippines in a statement on July 9. 

The DILG later released a statement on July 12, saying it had recommended to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment the filing of administrative and criminal charges against "concerned government officials and private entities" that continue to violate environment laws in the protected watershed.

CNN Philippines sought comments from the DENR in Rizal but has not received a response.


In 1993, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources proposed that Masungit Rock and its vicinity in Baras, Rizal be declared as a Strict Nature Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary, effectively prohibiting mining, exploration and any development activities that would upset the area’s ecological balance.

The Masungi Georeserve was created in 1996 to restore the sanctuary’s forest spaces and in 2015, the Masungi Georeserve Foundation was formed to sustain these conservation efforts. Two years later, the DENR tapped Masungi to restore 2,700 hectares of deforested land in the upper Marikina watershed, Kaliwa watershed and Masungi Wildlife Sanctuary.

The reserve is located in the Marikina Watershed Reservation which was declared a protected area in 2011 and is now known as the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape.

The georeserve is widely known as a tourist spot for its scenic trails, but it is also an award-winning conservation area that preserves numerous animal and plant species, including new organisms that have been discovered within its domain.

However, it is no stranger to encroachment, quarrying and land grabbing by private firms that refuse to respect its protected status.


Dumaliang said the site faced at least five major encroachment incidents in the past year. A major incident means a private entity was behind the attack, she explained.

In February 2020, Masungi formally launched the #SaveMasungi Movement Against Quarrying after Rapid City Realty and Development Corp. fenced off sections of the reserve without permits. Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu personally visited the site the next month and announced the suspension of the quarry.

In October, another company by the name of Rublou Inc. and its subsidiary Green Atom Renewable Energy Corp. installed fences and armed guards around hundreds of hectares in the protected land. Masungi staff documented confrontations with the armed personnel who refused to leave the site.

Rublou later released a statement saying it was protecting the area to help an indigenous tribe that claimed Masungi was occupying its ancestral domain. Supposed members of the tribe later sued Masungi, challenging its jurisdiction, but a regional trial court in Morong, Rizal junked the civil case in April due to “lack of legal capacity to sue," which meant the complainants did not have the authority to represent the indigenous group.

Masungi later met with the tribe and they are currently in talks about a long-term partnership, Dumaliang said.

She said attacks against the reserve occur yearly and the number continues to increase even in the middle of the pandemic.

When Luzon was hit with travel restrictions to contain the coronavirus, Masungi moved its entire team of more or less a hundred to work in the conservation site in Baras to continue their hands-on work — meeting and educating communities about conservation and guarding the watershed.

While tourism profits plunged in 2020, Masungi was able to maintain its staff without retrenching. Dumaliang explained that since they are a privately managed group, they can be flexible in making decisions and managing their funds, despite the lack of income from guest visits for nine months.

“We’re confident na [that] later on we can recover through the resumption of tourism,” said Dumaliang in a CNN Philippines interview. “We’re lucky we were able to manage our finances sustainably. It’s all about priorities.”


Though Masungi stands by its working relationship with the DENR, it said there is a need for stricter enforcement of the law on protected areas in the georeserve, with more security services a priority.

“If I were to suggest legislation or policy, it is policies that support implementation of the law that will ensure speedy, transparent and honest enforcement actions for the watershed,” said Dumaliang. “We need political will to restore and protect the watershed.”

Dumaliang also proposed giving incentives to the private sector — to civil society organizations and non-government organizations — to support conservation projects.

Last year, Masungi was able to save at least 1,000 hectares of forests against destructive operations and was able to plant 59,000 native trees. Amid the health crisis, the group provided donations to 200 families, distributed COVID-19 information kits to upland communities, and facilitated medical consultations for park rangers and the elderly.

Masungi’s projects continued to receive recognition on an international scale. Among its recent awards were the Vanity Fair Changing Your Mind Travel Award and the Global Water Partnership “Water Changemaker Award.” The organization was also a finalist for the Win Win Gothenburg Sustainability Award and the World Travel & Tourism Council “Tourism For Tomorrow” Award.

Masungi also recorded another achievement in the discovery of a new subspecies of microsnail living in its rocks, in partnership with scientists from the University of the Philippines-Los Baños.

With tourism gains remaining slow, and quarrying attacks gaining steam, Masungi stressed that the fight to save the watershed is pressing on.

“We are asking our leaders, our citizens to really come together to make a serious effort towards protecting one of the nearest protected areas and one of the most critical watersheds to Filipinos,” said Dumaliang.

“We have to show that we can protect this area and when we do, we can show we can protect all the other areas of biological and ecological significance in our country,” she added.