ELEVENTH HOUR: The overlooked story of the Upper Marikina Watershed and its defenders

Published September 9, 2021, 2:04 PM

by Climate Reality Project Philippines

In the dead of the night of July 24, 2021, while the rest of Metro Manila and Sitio San Roque in Baras, Rizal were gradually preparing to sleep, several shots were heard coming from the middle of the forest. An eerie silence soon followed as the community waited for what will happen next. Soon after, the radios of the Masungi Georeserve forest rangers frantically buzzed, bringing the dreadful news: “Man down, man down! Two of our rangers got shot!”

What happened right after is a blur of events as the team from Masungi Georeserve joined law enforcers at the scene of the crime, in the hope to retrieve the wounded forest rangers, not knowing if they are still alive.

Prior to this, forest rangers have received multiple death threats and harassment for standing their ground. The shooting incident is not the lone aggression but a culmination of the tension between the Masungi team and the entities exploiting the forest land for their own profit.

Law enforcement investigating in the area after the shooting incident. (Photo credit: Masungi Georeserve)

The shooting incident could have been straight out of the local drama television series “Ang Probinsyano,” but this is not a fiction story. This is the reality of those advocating for the restoration of some portions of the Upper Marikina Watershed.

The Upper Marikina Watershed, as defined by Proclamation No. 296 (s. 2011), is a protected area under the category of Protected Landscape in accordance with Republic Act No. 7586, the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act, as amended. This critical natural ecosystem provides valuable life-giving services to all of us, particularly to some 20 million residents of Metro Manila and nearby provinces.

However, unlike “Ang Probinsyano” with millions of Filipinos viewers, the fight to protect and conserve 3,000 hectares of the 26,000 hectares of the Upper Marikina Watershed lies in the hands of a small team from Masungi Georeserve with meager support and no spectacle.

Masungi Georeserve rangers that were shot on the head and neck. (Photo credit: Masungi Georeserve)

Small Team, Big Dreams

When the late Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez entrusted the conservation and restoration of some 3,000 hectares of denuded Upper Marikina Watershed to the Masungi Georeserve Foundation in 2017, the goal was clear and simple: plant and maintain trees and heal the forest. However, little did the team know that this also means fighting head-to-head with those who have vested interests to plunder the forest land, despite the clear prohibition of the law.

The team discovered that the fight to restore the dignity of the Upper Marikina Watershed is also a task that is not for the faint-hearted. Through investigation, the team found out that the encroachments and presence of fraudulent claims inside the protected area are part of an organized crime backed by professional land squatting syndicates and even rogue officers selling forest lands. They have since started to manipulate the community by planting fake priests, fictitious leases or titles, and dividing the community by planting wrong information—all for the greed to push the environmentalists against the wall so they give up their vision to restore the denuded forest.

The small team of Masungi Georeserve forest rangers holding the line. (Photo credit: Masungi Georeserve)

The Battle for Our Future Lies in the Periphery

As the world continues to battle the ecological collapse brought about by the climate crisis, the most obvious solution is still waiting for the world’s attention. Nature-based solutions such as reforestation and rewilding could deliver around 30 percent of the cost-effective mitigation needed by 2030. However, for this to be a success, world leaders need to protect those who are working on the ground day in and day out and are vulnerable to the attacks of those who want to exploit the planet for profit.

The story of the Masungi Georeserve defending the Upper Marikina Watershed is not a lone case. According to the international investigative group Global Witness, the Philippines continues to be one of the global hotspots for environmental defender killings. As enforcement and security for those who are doing the hard work to protect the land are delayed, the life of more forest rangers and environmentalists are on the line.

Now more than ever, the world needs to pay attention to the reality and situation of those that are holding the line for the forests. The world can no longer pretend to not see and hear the plight on the ground. If we want to survive this ecological crisis, the spotlight of the battle for our future should be on the periphery.

About the Author: Ruzzel Morales is a Climate Reality mentor and leader trained by US Vice President Al Gore in 2016. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines-Visayas in 2019 with a degree of B.A. (Political Science-Community Development). She is also an alumni of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Academic Fellow at the University of Montana, US under the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center as part of the Global Environmental Issues and Natural Resource Management for Fall 2019.

 
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