The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) on Friday vowed to protect the Masungi Georeserve in Baras, Rizal from illegal claimants.
Meanwhile, a resolution filed at the House of Representatives calls for an investigation on the alleged illegal encroachment into the Masungi Georeserve.
In a related development, Senator Risa Hontiveros Resolution No. 231 urging the Senate to conduct an inquiry into incidents of violence, land-grabbing, illegal logging, and quarrying within the Masungi Georeserve and the rest of the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape (UMRBPL).
In an interview, DENR Jonas Leones said DENR officials, including those already retired, would be held liable if found involved in the illegal claims.
Benjamin Dumalya, president of the Masungi Georeserve Foundation, reported that some 300 hectares of the 2,700-hectare forest reserves have already been occupied by illegal claimants.
DENR Region IV-A (Calabarzon) executive director Nilo Tamoria said about 30 illegal claimants have presented land surveys which are currently being verified while the cases were still pending before the courts.
Secretary Benjamin Abalos Jr. said a police detachment would be set up to ward off further encroachment into the protected area as some armed men were seen roaming around the place.
Abalos said the police would conduct foot patrols “and make rounds here and this will serve as benchmark while we are fixing the problem.”
“We need to protect this (Masungi Georeserve) for the Filipino and for every Filipino,” he said.
Four congressmen filed a resolution seeking House inquiry into the attacks by armed men against the Masungi Georeserve forest rangers in July 2021 and February 2022.
House Resolution 411 was filed by Rizal Reps. Emigdio Tanjuatco III, John Duavit, Jose Arturo Garcia Jr., and Juan Felipe Nograles.
“Last September 18, more than 30 armed men were encamped along the Marikina-Infanta Highway, between the Kaliwa and Marikina Watersheds. The men were allegedly associated with Sinagtala Security Agency Services,” the resolution stated.
The lawmakers also cited the reported construction of illegal fences along the premises of Masungi, restricting access of the farmers and residents into the state-owned property.
“More alarmingly, indigenous peoples in the area have allegedly been displaced due to these illegal construction,” the lawmakers said.
Masungi Georeserve is a conservation area situated in the Southern Sierra Madre range in the municipalities of Baras and Tanay, Rizal that surrounds the geological formations of the Masungi Rock and is part of the Marikina Watershed Reservation. It is home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna.
The management contract was awarded by DENR to Masungi Georeserve Foundation Inc. through a memorandum of agreement. Upon brief review of the MOA, it granted perpetual trust over parcels of land covered by Presidential Decree No. 324 and the Greater Masungi Karst in favor of the corporation.
This raised questions in relation to Sec 2 Article 12 of the 1987 Constitution, and has shown various inconsistencies with E-NIPAS (Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System) Act.
“Since the incident, Tanjuatco said he has been regularly monitoring the Masungi situation and closely coordinating with the Rizal Provincial Government, Environmental Agencies, LGU and the Philippine National Police.
“We, in government, have a duty to defend the interest of this conservation site as it is a protected area established under Republic Act 11038 or the Expanded Integrated Protected Area Systems Law. We cannot take our environmental defenders for granted,” Hontiveros said.
The volunteers and employees of Masungi Georeserve Foundation Inc. have also reportedly been threatened and harassed by groups allegedly engaged in illegal quarrying, logging, and land-grabbing in the UMRBPL, culminating in the shooting of two park rangers in 2021. Such incidents prompted Hontiveros to file Senate Resolution 806, which ought a Senate investigation into the matter.
Meanwhile, Abalos said they are awaiting the guidance of the DENR regarding Masungi Georeserve incidents.
“We can’t just act as we could be charged in court. I am also warning the security agency that they can’t just enter any place as they need to get a permit from the chief of the police,” Abalos told reporters on the sidelines of his visit to the protected area, together with DENR and Philippine National Police (PNP) officials.
Abalos also said they already sent a letter to the Sinagtala Security Agency, which employs the security personnel who allegedly encamped within the area’s vicinity, to get its side on the issue.
“The police is here to make sure there is peace and order. The DENR is here to give us direction and of course, members of the media are here to give attention to what really is happening here. Thus, no one should illegally occupy this area. Let’s help one another,” Abalos said.
The PNP will implement a sustained police presence at the Masungi Georeserve, PNP chief Gen. Rodolfo Azurin Jr. said.
“Our security is tight. We are also constantly coordinating with the DENR and local government unit,” Azurin said.
He added that an investigation is also underway to identify possible violations of those responsible for the alleged deployment of the armed men.
“What we are advocating for is to avoid any tension or violence from arising,” Azurin said.
Included in the probe is the alleged harassment and assault on one of Masungi Georeserve’s caretakers.
Azurin said PNP personnel will be deployed to do 24-hour patrols in the protected area.
On Sept. 17, the Rizal police responded to a report claiming that 30 armed men encamped in the vicinity of the Masungi Georeserve and were preparing to occupy huge portions of land inside the protected area.
The Sinagtala personnel claimed they have a survey plan under the name of one Beatriz Sonquipal that was reportedly issued by the DENR regional office in the early 2000s.
The foundation, however, said the survey plan is not proof of ownership.
The Masungi Georeserve was declared a protected area in 2011 under Proclamation No. 296 but a number of settlements were put up, including houses and resorts.
Reports said there are individuals and groups interested in the area due to its mining potential.