Masungi Georeserve: DENR claims at Senate hearing 'libelous, irresponsible, baseless'

The Masungi Georeserve Foundation, Inc. (MGFI) released on Monday, Nov. 21, a statement denouncing the claims made by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) during the Senate hearing last Nov. 16 regarding the legality and integrity of the georeserve, citing them as "libelous, irresponsible, and baseless."

"We are deeply disappointed that after investing our own resources and risking our lives to help the government protect and restore the Masungi landscape, it now claims, five years later, that the Masungi Geopark Project (MGP) Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) signed with former DENR Secretary Gina Lopez in 2017 is “illegal”, “infirm”, and “disadvantageous to government," the MGFI statement read.

"As correctly observed by the Senators in the same Senate hearing, the MGP MOA is valid and binding unless otherwise declared by the court. It was entered into by virtue of the DENR Secretary’s broad powers under Section 10 of Republic Act No. 7586 to enter into agreements with the private entities or non-government organizations to carry out the mandate of the law. Thus, the DENR must honor and fulfill its obligations under the contract," it added.

The MGFI's statement came days after the Senate's plenary session on Nov. 16, wherein Senator Cynthia Villar, who is also the Chairperson of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Food, read portions of the report of the DENR in response to Senator Raffy Tulfo's inquiry on the state of the Masungi Georeserve.

What was said at the hearing?

The DENR's report alleged there were "legal complications" in relation to the MOA signed between the DENR and Masungi Georeserve in 2017.

"The MOA constituted a perpetual land trust between the DENR and MGFI, allowing the later to hold a vast track of land in perpetuity. This is in direct contravention to Sec. 2 Art. 12 of the Constitution which limits the terms of agreements for the use of natural resources to 25 years, renewable for under 25 years, not for a perpetual period," read the report.

"The lack of diligence that led to the omission of any provision over financial transparency and financial gain to the government in pursuit of the eco-tourism business of Masungi is grossly and manifestly disadvantageous to the government as it results to loss of millions of Special Use Agreements in Protected Areas (SAPA) fees as mandated by Section 5 of the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (E-NIPAS) Act as amended," it added.

The report also alleged that the MGFI did not secure a certification of precondition from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) prior to the execution of the MOA, and the Georeserve development plans were not harmonized with the management plan and zones of the Protected Areas Management Board (PAMB) in accordance with its implementing rules and regulations.

These noted irregularities were said to have "caused conflict in the supervision and management of the area by the PAMB and Masungi Georeserve."

"The MOA has been used as a carte-blanche authority by the Masungi to install fences, block roads, install checkpoints, conduct eco-tourism business, build and demolish structures, and summarily evict occupants in the protected area; all without due process and without prior permit or prior PAMB clearance," read the report.

Further, it said that Masungi did not coordinate with the local government units (LGUs) of Baras, Tanay, and Antipolo in Rizal regarding their plans, and that indigenous groups and other long-time residents in the area were deprived of access to their homes.

The report also mentioned Resolution No. 02-2022, dated March 1, 2022 and issued by the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape (UMRBPL), and the Protected Areas Management Board (PAMB) recommending the cancellation of the 2017 MOA of Masungi and the DENR "for being void as it is violative of the 1987 Constitution for allowing to hold the land forever."

Senator Tulfo made follow-up remarks questioning the DENR regarding its actions to protect the area from armed intruders.

Masungi's response

The MGFI maintains they are a "duly registered non-stock, non-profit foundation which conserves the karst landscape through research, engagement of rangers, and educational experiences that make people lovers and champions of nature."

They said the "perpetual trust" provision in the MOA "applies to the conservation character of the project which is in accord with the policy of the state."

"Perpetual conservation is precisely the essence of protected areas. Contrary to malicious insinuations, the MOA is not a gift or grant of land or benefit to Masungi. Masungi is merely a Trustee and Overall Project Manager who could be replaced if it violates the MOA," explained the MGFI.

The foundation insists it does not rake in profits, and pursues no business.

"Conservation fees go to reforestation, rewilding, protection and maintenance. The MGP MOA expressly disallows compensation to Masungi and restricts the use of income for purposes other than conservation, which is exactly what the E-NIPAS law specifies," they said.

The MGFI stated the Indigenous Cultural Communities (ICCs) are some of their "truest allies in conservation and resisting destructive activities including quarrying and land grabbing."

They mentioned their lengthy dialogues with the DENR, the NCIP, and concerned ICCs in 2021 to formalize their partnerships concluded in the MGP's application for the certification precondition (CP).

"However it is the DENR that is holding up the CP process by refusing to provide a mandatory endorsement letter despite multiple requests from Masungi, the ICCs, and the NCIP," they added.

As for the UMRBPL and PAMB recommendation to cancel the Georeserve park's MOA, the MGFI said it "has no leg to stand on," as they alleged it was "hastily crafted, apparently, to make way for the quarries, swimming pool resorts, the Provincial Environment and Natural Resource Officer (PENRO) and police general who built large structures inside the protected watershed."

They added they were not informed, or given the right to present Masungi's side on the issue.

Masungi also did not evict indigenous people or genuine farmers, they said, saying the "'protestors' in a video being spread by the quarries are in fact employees of swimming pool resorts and rest houses which infringed upon the protected area."

In terms of security, the foundation said since the DENR, the LGUs and the local police were not taking action at the time, they were compelled to install their own emergency checkpoints and ranger stations "to stem rampant encroachment and development deeper in the fragile watershed."

They said they sought to partner with these government bodies but they received no reply.

Overall, the MGFI said the DENR's statements were "irresponsible" as they "gravely undermine urgent reforestation and rewinding work, demoralize Park rangers, and embolden environmental criminals and syndicates."

"Worse, they put the lives of park rangers and conservationists who fight a lonely battle to defend the watershed, into even greater danger," they added.

The MGFI also addressed other issues regarding payment of fees to the DENR, the joint venture agreement between the DENR and Blue Star Construction and Development Corporation on government property within the georeserve, and the E-NIPAS Law among others.

Open to cooperation

Despite the foundation's qualms with the DENR's statements, MGF said they applaud the DENR's cancellation of some Mineral Production Sharing Agreements (MPSAs) inside the Upper Marikina Watershed.

"The country is grateful to the DENR officials who did the right thing and terminated the quarries. Flood-weary Filipinos can now breathe a sigh of relief," they said.

The MGFI said the MPSA cancellation announcements showed DENR Secretary Ma. Antonia "Toni" Yulo-Loyzaga "has her heart in the right place."

"We take this opportunity to reiterate our earnest cooperation in mission to save our environment, our request for her to convene the oversight committee and finally appoint a Project Manager in accordance with the MOA," said MGF.

They also extended their invitation to the DENR Secretary to see the foundation's work and the real state of the watershed.

The MGFI's full statement can be viewed on their official Facebook page.