MANILA (UPDATED) — A team from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has recommended canceling a 2017 deal with the Masungi Georeserve Foundation Inc. (MGFI) for the conservation of 2,700 hectares of forested land in Rizal province.
Masungi Georeserve is a popular ecotourist destination in Baras, Rizal. MGFI has said in the past that it has successfully reforested the area, many parts of which were once denuded of trees and forest cover.
However, DENR Legal Affairs Service Director Norlito Eneran said their team found a certain provision of the memorandum of agreement (MOA) that supposedly violates the Constitution.
“We have already submitted our report. We found out that there is indeed a violation of the provision of the 1987 Constitution on the period of the 2017 MOA,” Eneran told the House Committee on Natural Resources, investigating alleged unauthorized and unlawful activities at the Masungi Georeserve.
“There is already a recommendation for the cancellation of the 2017 MOA,” he added, noting that DENR Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga has the authority to “unilaterally cancel” the contract.
The agreement states that the project shall be constituted as a “perpetual land trust for conservation subject to law” and that “Masungi will be trustee and shall continue to so for as long as there is no neglect or violation of the agreement.
The Department of Justice has also issued a formal opinion on the matter, according to Committee Chairperson Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr.
“The Department of Justice has already made a formal opinion, that this contract of 99 years is unconstitutional,” he said.
DENR Calabarzon regional director Nilo Tamoria noted that portions of the 2,700-hectare Masungi Geopark overlap with areas covered by previously issued proclamations and an ancestral domain title. He told the panel that there was “no complete staff” in drafting the 2017 MOA.
“Sixty-seven percent of the total area of the MGFI, the subject MOA, is covered by the CADT [Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title] … It overlaps with the CADT of NCIP [National Commission on Indigenous Peoples]. It also overlaps with the previous issuances. First the proclamation for the training camp of Special Action Force of the PNP. Proclamation 1355. The proclamation 1158, the lot 10, where the core of the Masungi Karst is there. That proclamation was issued in 2006 by Pres. GMA [Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo], reserving that Lot 10 as the site of the New Bilibid Prison,” Tamoria said.
“Iyong preparation ng 2017 MOA, walang input ang DENR as to the technical description of the area to be covered… No record in the Region 4A and even in the central office as to the complete staff work regarding the formulation. We’re not aware when it was signed, and where it was signed… The complete documentation, especially on the aspect of the technical description, ay wala po kaming participation,” he added.
Some lawmakers called on the DENR to cancel the MOA with MGFI. The panel invited Yulo-Loyzaga to the next hearing.
“Magdesisyon na kayo. Huwag nyo na kami antayin. Kung tama naman ang desisyon ng inyong secretary, we will support you. ‘Pag mali naman, we will take the appropriate action,” Barzaga told the DENR.
Earlier this year, the Bureau of Corrections sent personnel to Masungi Georeserve to survey the area for a planned facility in the protected ecotourist destination.
The NCIP has also claimed that MGFI displaced indigenous peoples from the area. MGFI has denied the allegation.
In a statement, MGFI maintained that the 2017 agreement which granted it “perpetual land trust for conservation” is not against the law.
“Strictly speaking, the objectives of conservation activities will not allow development, exploration or utilization of natural resources. This is why MGFI forwards that the 2017 MOA should be read as an agreement for a perpetual land trust for conservation, and not a perpetual license,” it said in a statement.
MGFI also reiterated that it is involved in conservation activities, which is different from “exploration, development and utilization”.
Partnerships and agreements for said purpose, according to Section 2, Article XII of the 1987 Constitution, shall only be allowed for a period not exceeding25 years, and renewable for not more than 25 years.
“The Masungi Georeserve Foundation reiterates its stand that, pursuant to the principles of the parol evidence rule, the 2017 MOA should be read in its entirety, and should not be reduced to a single phrase, i.e., “perpetual land trust,” it said.
“Otherwise, the 2017 MOA will not only disregard the premium given to the intent of the contracting parties or ignore the most basic rules on interpretation of contracts, but will also diminish the express constitutional provisions in relation to environmental protection and conservation,” MGFI added.
In the last few years, the area where Masungi lies has become a popular destination for tourists due to its scenic mountain vistas and cool climate. Many commercial establishments have cropped up in this area, which is also known as the Marilaque Highway, to cater to the influx of tourists.