High environment officials are ignoring pleas to evict big-time landgrabbers from Upper Marikina Watershed.
Instead, they’re easing out protectors of remnant forests and 60-million-year-old limestone heritage.
Watersheds are off-limits to commerce, agriculture, and residence. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) must enforce that.
But in Rizal province’s Marikina Watershed, officials break environmental and red tape laws, and consequently public trust.
They abet quarrying, erection of mansions and picnic resorts, forest chainsawing, squatting, and road paving. Deadly floods that those illegalities cause on millions of dwellers below mean nothing to them.
Congress and the Ombudsman must censure their gross negligence.
Seventy scientists and academics, civic and youth heads, lawyers, and artists begged President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. last June 5 to dismantle the land-grabbing gangs.
“We call upon our leaders to intervene and help address the real problem at hand: continued watershed deforestation, exacerbated by unabated operation of syndicates,” they said.
Only one-fifth of forests remain in the 26,126-hectare Marikina Watershed, they said. With adjacent 27,608-hectare Kaliwa Watershed Forest, “the two have the greatest impact on the country.”
“Support the Masungi initiative,” they referred to a 3,000-hectare portion that a foundation has been rewilding for seven years.
Masungi Georeserve Foundation (MGF), they said, has:
• “Rescued 2,000 hectares of forestland previously held by syndicates – not farmers or tribesmen as trumpeted by syndicates – and returned it to the watershed where it rightfully belongs;
• “Achieved the cancellation of large quarries threatening irreparable damage to the ecosystem;
• “Opposed encroachments by swimming pool resorts and land speculators, preventing further watershed degradation;
• “Thwarted five major forest invasions, covered by national media;
• “Convinced a claimant to return 165 hectares for conservation;
• “Rescued ancient Masungi limestones – a national geological and biodiversity treasure – and transformed it into a globally-acclaimed conservation model; and
• “Received in Sept. 2022 the UN Sustainable Development Goals Action Campaign ‘Inspire Award’ out of 3,000 global nominees.”
On June 7 the Presidential Action Center referred the petition to DENR Sec. Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga. “Expeditious action is requested [under] R.A. 11032, Ease of Doing Business and Efficient Government Service Delivery Act of 2018, enforced by the Anti-Red Tape Authority,” Malacañang said.
MGF president Ben Dumaliang also wrote Yulo-Loyzaga on June 19. He recounted the serious mauling of unarmed Masungi park rangers by landgrabbers’ thugs in Feb. 2022. As well, Yulo-Loyzaga’s press statement that she’s “reviewing the Masungi contract” by which predecessor Sec. Gina Lopez (now deceased) assigned the rewilding project in 2017.
Designate once and for all a DENR project manager, Dumaliang wrote. That’s to operationalize the Masungi oversight committee that the DENR secretary chairs, with MGF and an environmentalist as members.
Loyzaga-Yulo made Usec. for policy planning Jonas Leones replied. Leones in turn relayed the swimming pool resorts and road concreting issues to Usec. for field operations Juan Miguel Cuna. Cuna passed it on to the Southern Tagalog regional director in faraway Calamba, Laguna.
The seventy petitioners and MGF’s Dumaliang got no action.
On the night of Aug. 26-27 gunshots were fired at the Masungi park ranger stations. At daybreak, several 9-mm and 45-caliber shells were recovered. Two strangers fled the approaching rangers.
Later that morning a group of men associated with two known watershed land claimants entered the reforestation nearest the highway and toppled trees.
In another Masungi portion, titled to the Republic of the Philippines, a police sergeant continues to reside.
This, in defiance of Interior Sec. Benhur Abalos’ barring of armed trespassers there in Sept. 2022. A new structure is being built near one of a dozen unlicensed picnic resorts inside the watershed.
Dumaliang reported all these to Yulo-Loyzaga on Aug. 27. No action to date.
Certain DENR geodetic engineers, cartographers, technicians, and lawyers have issued “lot surveys” to 30 land claimants inside the watershed. The surveys cover 1,774.71 hectares – 40,682 basketball courts, nearly half of Manila.
Using the surveys and backed by politicos, claimants sell or lease out plots. Two police generals have erected mansions. Picnic resorts divert river flow into swimming pools. All have no building or occupancy permits.
DENR officers falsely promise that special land patents will soon be issued under P.D. 324, Oct. 1973. That P.D. previously excluded from Marikina Watershed 1,728.746 hectares of hillside Barangays Pinugay and Kayumbay in Teresa and Baras towns, Rizal.
But two subsequent edicts repealed P.D. 324:
One, The Forestry Code, P.D. 705, May 1975, reverts as inalienable forest land all slopes 18 percent or steeper, except those occupied for at least 30 years. Since P.D. 324 was only a year-and-a-half old then, there were no 30-year occupants.
Two, Presidential Proclamation 1636, Apr. 1977, “Declaring as National Park, Wildlife Sanctuary and Game Preserve” 146,310 hectares of Rizal, Bulacan, Laguna and Quezon mountaintops. No dwelling, hunting, tree cutting, commerce, destruction of vegetation, and wildlife habitat disturbance. Covered were Marikina and Kaliwa Watersheds.
Still, DENR officers encourage encroachments.
On Oct. 6, 2022, Dumaliang already requested Yulo-Loyzaga to convene the Masungi oversight committee. The latter left the issues for Congress to act on.
“The department is currently preparing for these (congressional) hearings. We anticipate your cooperation and hope that the hearings will provide an opportunity to resolve any issues surrounding the Masungi Georeserve if they exist,” Yulo-Loyzaga wrote four days later.
DENR misleads watershed claimants to believe they have occupancy rights under the long-repealed P.D. 324, thus placards like this inside Masungi
Jarius Bondoc is an award-winning Filipino journalist and author based in Manila. He writes opinion pieces for The Philippine Star and Pilipino Star Ngayon and hosts a radio program on DWIZ 882 every Saturday. Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8 to 10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).
The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LICAS News.