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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

It’s DENR that puts business first, conservation second

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“Ventures that restore and enhance the environment deserve incentives and an enabling environment to scale their impact”

(Note: In response to our May 29 column, Anna Reyes of the Upper Marikina Watershed Coalition wrote a rejoinder explaining her group’s stand on the issue.)

I am compelled to respond to the article, “Business first, conservation second?,” which leveled unfair and unsubstantiated accusations against the Masungi Georeserve Foundation (Masungi).

Masungi is doing crucial work that should be supported, not baselessly maligned.

Masungi is a duly-registered non-stock, non-profit organization dedicated to protecting this natural treasure at no cost to the government.

It is perplexing to label the thankless and dangerous work of conservation as “lucrative.”

Unfortunately, the same unfounded approach is being used by DENR Secretary Antonia “Toni” Yulo-Loyzaga, who leveled baseless accusations while refusing to dialogue or visit the site to substantiate her claims.

The real profiteers are the large-scale quarries, land grabbers, and their government backers.

Their orchestrated smear campaign against a respected, award-winning conservation organization like Masungi highlights their desperation to maintain the status quo and protect their lucrative interests.

Masungi’s work should be supported, not maligned. Let the record be set straight: If one has visited Masungi, he or she will know that the restoration works exist and are effective.

No less than the Natural History Museum of the Philippines and various scientists have attested to the conservation gains in the areas managed by Masungi.

Before and after pictures on camera and satellite imagery will show a barren landscape in 1996 and a thriving forest in 2022, while the areas beside Masungi have shown increased degradation and urbanization.

Up to 100 local rangers are employed and up to 2,000 hectares are constantly being monitored. Geotourism serves as Masungi’s vehicle for conservation, not the other way around.

The pricing model for Masungi’s visitor experiences is necessary to fund ongoing restoration efforts that receive no DENR funding.

The geotourism initiative is non-invasive, low-impact, and supports conservation through thoughtful, small-scale nature experiences.

Note that the Philippines has an 80 percent funding gap for biodiversity conservation and protected areas, and the management gap is equally alarming. Only an average of one government park ranger guards 4,000 hectares of protected area.

Except for the Tubbataha reefs, no other protected area in the Philippines is regarded by experts as best in class management models.

Meanwhile, the facilities operated by Masungi for geotourism and sustainable events are on titled government properties covered by the 1997 Joint Venture Agreement and the 2002 Supplemental Joint Venture Agreement between DENR and Blue Star Construction and Development Corporation.

These properties are separate from the denuded protected area entrusted to the Masungi Georeserve Foundation for conservation under the 2017 Memorandum of Agreement.

Masungi has always sought alignment with stakeholders, including the DENR. The NGO has no outstanding tax liabilities, as confirmed by the Bureau of Internal Revenue in a congressional hearing.

The allegations of unilateral violations and illegal commercial interference are false.

Masungi’s Discovery Trail has favorable resolutions from the Masungi Rock Management Council (local Protected Area Management Board at the time of development) and a Certificate of Non-Coverage from the Environmental Management Bureau.

Unfortunately, politicians who want to open up the area to harmful development, including prison facilities, destructive wind farms, and quarrying, seem to be reneging on their own commitment to protect the area.

Ultimately, our primary concern should be the DENR’s failure to uphold its obligations under the agreements with Masungi and Blue Star.

By refusing to convene the Oversight Committee or designate a DENR Project Manager, the DENR has undermined and handicapped the Masungi Geopark Project.

Moreover, the DENR has not supported Masungi against criminal syndicates and allowed the PAMBs it chairs to issue endorsements and permits for environmentally harmful development, such as controversial swimming pool resorts akin to those near the Chocolate Hills.

The orchestrated attacks on Masungi discourage others from pursuing conservation and geotourism, driving them towards environmentally damaging enterprises.

Ventures that restore and enhance the environment deserve incentives and an enabling environment to scale their impact. Rather than attacking their noble efforts with innuendos and no due diligence, we should support groups like Masungi, taking financial and operational risks to preserve our natural heritage.

The project is an inspiring example of sustainable conservation through geotourism.

I urge your readers to look past the disinformation and recognize the important work being done by legitimate environmental stewards. We need more of this, not less. (Email: ernhil@yahoo.com)

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