Anyone who’s tried communing with nature at the Masungi Georeserve would agree it’s quite a memorable experience. The energizing limestone landscape, being in the rainforests of Rizal, and the different plant and animal species that populate the area make every visit rewarding and rejuvenating.
Allowing nature enthusiasts and lovers of the great outdoors to continually enjoy this wildlife sanctuary is the mission of the park’s dedicated team of forest rangers. These rangers are tasked to maintain and nurture Masungi and protect it from exploitative activities like illegal logging and quarrying.
It’s no walk in the park, says Masungi rangers Kuhkan Maas, John Paul Magana, and Monica Inonog, about the job. On top of the physically challenging work they do almost on a daily basis, they face serious risks and threats in the line of duty. Recently, the team—represented by Maas, Magana, and Inonog—was recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) - World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) 2022 International Ranger Awards. They were among 12 honorees from around the globe, a list composed of groups and individuals.
Defend and protect
According to conservation area manager Inonog, the efforts of Masungi’s forest rangers—and there are around 100 of them—are largely focused on restoration activities. Wet months are dedicated to tree-planting while the dry season is devoted to forest maintenance, ensuring that seedlings are protected against invasive plant species. “Importante na kapag nagti-tree planting, nasisigurado nating napapangalagaan at nababalikan ang mga punla,” Inonog says.
Other forest rangers, meanwhile, are tasked with landscaping, gardening, or trail guiding—which is basically educating visitors about environmental protection and conservation.
The Masungi Georeserve is also at the moment manning a reforestation site called the Masungi Geopark Project, which is under a special MOA with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). This effort aims to rewild and reforest a 2,700-hectare area that’s part of the Upper Marikina watershed.
“We have ranger stations placed there to deter illegal activities,” says Inonog. “Dati, doon dumadaan ang truck ng illegal loggers at kung saan maraming encroachment ng resort. So yung mga rangers namin talagang nakabantay doon nang 24/7.” She says they have people manning the 17 ranger stations in these protected areas.
For this reason, the Masungi rangers practically spend most of their time in the forest, away from their families. “Yung mga forest rangers bihirang makauwi. Kahit holidays, talagang dito sila sa bundok nakatira,” Inonog tells us. “Kami namang mga officers nakakauwi siguro once a month. Pero mahirap din umuwi kasi ang isip namin nasa trabaho pa din, nasa mga kasamahan namin. Nandun na po talaga ang buhay namin.”
The rangers live very simple lives in the geopark. Since there’s no electricity, the only electronic gadgets they have are radio communication systems. “Ang pastime namin doon ay makapagkuwentuhan, makapag salu-salo tuwing kakain,” Inonog says, smiling.
Violence and threats
It’s not an easy task guarding Masungi. Maas, who has been working in the area for over ten years, will forever remember one rainy night in July of last year. He was on patrol duty at Bayog Ranger Station with Melvin Akmad, another comrade. He had just taken his break when they heard a rock hit the wall of the barracks.
Anticipating another rock would follow—which could shatter the station’s jalousie windows—Maas told Akmad to turn the lights off, and then they both hit the ground and ducked. What followed were not stones but a series of gun shots. “Parehas kaming tinamaan ng kasama ko,” Maas tells ANCX. “Sa leeg ako tinamaan, [si Melvin] sa ulo.”
When the gunfire ceased, Maas and Akmad called for help thru radio, which was how the other rangers were able to respond and bring them to the hospital.
The threats didn’t end with the gunshots, says Maas. After they filed a complaint against the resort owners encroaching on the protected area, the rangers discovered booby traps while doing their forest restoration activities.
John Paul Magana, Masungi Geopark Project’s reforestation manager, says he was also attacked by an illegal resort owner and his men. “Yung pakiramdam ko noon para akong nasa gitna ng mga leon at gusto nila akong sakmalin,” recalls the Forestry graduate from Southern Luzon State University.
“Lalung lalo na yung isang resort owner, sinisigawan ako sa loob na ng perimeter namin. May fence yun, nag ‘over the bakod’ sila, tuluy-tuloy tapos sinisigawan ako. May dalang itak,” Magana tells ANCX. “Yung iba namang mga kalalakahihan, may mga mahahabang sibat na matutulis ang dulo. Grabe ang takot at kaba nung mga oras na yon.”
He also received numerous death threats. “Kesyo propesyunal ako, hindi na daw ako makaka-renew ng license ko. May time pa na kumalat sa community na malapit na daw maubos ang oras ko dito sa mundo,” Magana recalls to ANCX.
Magana’s family naturally feared for his life. He couldn’t forget the time he spoke with his mother who was almost in tears asking him to resign from work. He admits he felt scared too but he says he did not let fear overcome him.
“Hindi ko ipinakita o ipinaramdam sa mga magulang ko, sa kapatid ko na natatakot din ako,” he says. “Kasi nga being a leader, being a supervisor to other forest rangers, ako ang sinusunod nilang lahat, kailangang ipakita ko sa kanila na I’m strong enough to lead them.”
The fight goes on
Inonog says they continue to do their work as forest rangers despite the challenges and threats because they know bigger things are at stake.
“Nung nag-aaral pa ako, akala ko kapag nagti-tree planting ako sa mga school-initiated activities, nagagawa ko na ang parte ko para sa kalikasan,” says the hotel and restaurant management grad from Centro Escolar University. “Pero nung nag-join ako ng Masungi, nakita ko na meron pa pala akong magagawa para labanan ang climate change nang sa gayon hindi na maulit ang nangyari noong bagyong Ondoy at Ulysses.” Inonog knows she and her comrades play very important roles to ensure the lowlands would not suffer the serious impacts of typhoons.
Magana stresses that forest conservation doesn’t only mean protecting the trees and the topography of the area; it includes all its living inhabitants. “Kapag prinotektahan mo ang kagubatan, kailangan mayroong holistic approach or multiple ang ating targets. Lahat ng movement natin dito ay may impact sa bawat nilalang na naroroon sa paligid na sa kalaunan ay maaring magdulot ng domino effect,” says the licensed forester.
Inonog, Magana and Maas say they are happy and inspired with the recognition from the IUCN-WCPA. Magana, however, says the award belongs to their whole team who’s been tirelessly and bravely doing their part in protecting the Masungi.
Inonog says the award means a lot to them because their efforts and sacrifices are being recognized by environmental advocates around the world.
She also says they are hoping the new DENR Secretary Ma. Antonia ‘Toni’ Yulo-Loyzaga would be able to help protect the Masungi forest rangers from danger by cancelling the permits of destructive quarries and illegal structures in the watershed. She says these are only under suspension at the moment.
Inonog adds that the forest rangers would also like to request the support of the police and local government in defeating organized crime inside the Masungi landscape and the surrounding watershed.
“Hinihiling namin ang patuloy na suporta sa adbokasyang ito ng ibang [leaders ng] LGUs kagaya nina Mayor Vico Sotto ng Pasig, Mayor Joy Belmonte, at Mayor Marcy Teodoro sa ginagawang restoration at reforestation activity dito sa Masungi,” she adds.
The Masungi rangers say this advocacy entails a lifelong commitment for everyone so the georeserve and watershed can be our natural defense against calamities. “Ngayon tayo dapat gumawa ng hakbang,” says Magana, “hanggang hindi pa huli ang lahat.”