MANILA (UPDATED) — The fences put up by a company within the Masungi Georeserve, a protected forest area in Rizal province, have been removed, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said Monday.
“As of this morning, tinapos na nila yung pagtanggal nung fence. So wala nang fence doon,” DENR Undersecretary Jonas Leones told ABS-CBN News in a phone interview. “With assistance from our field officers and at the same time yung staff ng Georeserve.”
(As of this morning, they finished removing the fence. So there is no more fence there… with assistance from our field officers and at the same time, the staff of the Georeserve.)
Masungi Georeserve Foundation revealed over the weekend that parts of the protected area they are reforesting were fenced off by a group of armed guards.
A video shared by the foundation showed the guards claiming to be employed by Rublou Inc., a group of companies engaged in renewable energy, meat distribution and real estate.
Billie Dumaliang, a trustee and advocacy officer at Masungi Georeserve, told ABS-CBN News on Monday that while they were able to remove the fence, they are worried that the group will come back as they did over the weekend whenever Masungi Georeserve staff removed parts of the enclosure.
Photos from the group showed that trees were also cut inside the park.
Dumaliang appealed to the government to find ways to prevent it from happening again, especially since armed guards were present when the last incident was discovered. The guards were not able to show a land title, a permit, or a document authorizing them to install the fences.
Dumaliang told ABS-CBN News earlier that the fenced off area is around 1,000 hectares and is part of the Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape and the Masungi Wildlife Sanctuary and Strict Nature Reserve.
Under Proclamation 296 issued in 2001, the Marikina Watershed Reservation was declared a protected area and was renamed Upper Marikina River Basin Protected Landscape. It was granted protection under Republic Act no. 7586 or the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act of 1992. This means the area is “protected against destructive human exploitation.”
Rublou Inc. on Monday issued an official statement stating that the area fenced off is part of an ancestral domain of the Dumagat-Remontados tribe.
It also claimed that the area is not covered by the area set for conservation by the government.
A statement issued by the supposed legal counsel of the tribe gave the same argument.
Rublou also clarified that it or its owner retired general Luizo Ticman is not claiming ownership of the land. Instead, Ticman, who was a former police director co-accused in the chopper scam case, is supposed to be helping the Dumagat-Remontados group.
Dumaliang responded by saying that they have documents and maps proving that the fenced off area is part of the 2,700 hectares covered by the foundation’s MOA with the government.
Asked if it had already reached out to the company claiming the land, DENR’s Leones said they already have information on the company but they need to verify it first. “Although meron kaming reports, may information na kami, di ko pa ma-reveal,” he said.
(Although we have reports, we have information but we cannot reveal yet.)
Leones said they are already preparing a show-cause order for the company, which will then be given around 3 days to respond and provide evidence of their claim on the area.
He explained that it is possible the claimant might be holding a land title but it would probably be spurious or unscrupulously obtained, especially if it was issued after the area was declared a protected land.
He said this happens often, and while they have to recognize the validity of the land title, they will file a reversion case for the land to be returned to the government.
If there is no land title, they can file various charges against the claimant, including illegal occupation, illegally cutting of trees, and violations of the wildlife act in case they harmed animals.
“Kaya lang, kailangan maigting ang ating imbestigasyon para yung case natin na mabi-build, talagang tight case, para talagang ma-penalize yung illegal occupants na iyan,” he said
(We need to closely investigate this so we can have a tight case and for the illegal occupants to be really penalized.)
Leones said it has already instructed the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Officer of Rizal to closely coordinate with Masungi Georeserve management.
“We will be requiring our PENRO to submit a monthly report on the status ng kanilang monitoring ng mga illegal activities doon sa protected area (of their monitoring of illegal activities in the protected area),” he added.
Masungi Georeserve and the area around it has been facing various threats in the past several months. In March, a quarry company installed barbed wires, claiming parts of the protected area. While the DENR was able to immediately remove the barbed wire, the geopark also saw increased incidents of illegal logging and forest burning during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Dumaliang said the spike in illegal activities there during the pandemic is because of various factors.
“The enforcement of laws is lacking. Violators know they won’t get caught or penalized,” she said. She added that many people also go hungry so they end up burning forest land for farming and charcoal-making.
Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, said there have been many cases of critical protected areas being claimed by companies.
He also cited the weak enforcement and lack of manpower from the side of government.
“Kulang din ang suporta na binibigay sa sibiliyan na sumasalo sa gawain ng gobyerno na pangalagaan ang kapaligiran,” he said, adding that it is why they are pushing for an environmental defense law.
(The government support given to civilians taking on the responsibility of protecting the environment is also lacking.)
Dulce said civilian environmental defenders, like those with Masungi Georeserve, should be protected against harassment. He said the environmental ombudsman of the country should also be strengthened or given more powers.