Passions and Obsessions

Masungi: Can our young government officials help save our forests?

At an environmental champions’ lunch at Masungi Georeserve, the presence of concerned agencies gave us reason to (cautiously) hope

The ‘environmental champions’ against the breathtaking backdrop of Masungi Georeserve

Canada Ambassador Peter MacArthur and Second Secretary Peter Wright (in blue) lead the walk.

THE promise of interesting company was enough to entice me to drive to Baras, Rizal on a thankfully overcast morning. Last August 26, a Friday, the Embassy of Canada in the Philippines, led by its amiable Ambassador Peter MacArthur and Second Secretary Peter Wright, and the Masungi Georeserve Foundation, stewards of the breathtaking and award-winning protected Masungi karst landscape and watershed area, led by the Dumaliang family, had invited a few folks to lunch.

Ben and Ann Dumaliang of the Masungi Foundation, DENR Undersecretary Juan Miguel Cuna, Climate Change Commissioner Robert Borje, Canada Ambassador Peter MacArthur, DILG Undersecretary Atty. Margarita Gutierrez, Billie Dumaliang, and Canada Embassy Second Secretary Peter Wright

It was a gathering of “environmental champions,” led by the maverick Dumaliang sisters Ann, a National Geographic Explorer, and Billie. It was to be an open discussion on “how to collectively address the conservation of the Masungi karst landscape, the restoration of the surrounding watershed”—which is essential to keeping lowland areas like Marikina and Pasig from flooding—“and the protection of environmental defenders,” the latter being a serious concern in the light of threats to the lives to Masungi’s forest rangers in the last few years.

The turn-out at the lovely Silayan pavilion inside the Georeserve, with a beautiful view of green hills and the mountain peak shaped like a king’s profile that is Masungi’s logo, was impressive. The program, hosted by Daphne Oseña-Paez, included a welcome by Ann and the Ambassador, himself the son of a forester who noted the effects of climate change on countries with natural attractions, like Canada and the Philippines. The good news was that the Canadian government was donating some P124 million more in environmental aid for forests and mangroves in the country.

Scientific experts drew a picture of Philippine forests and terrestrial wildlife that was both impressive and alarming. Atty. Jose Andres Canivel of the Forest Foundation Philippines, who was there with chairperson Edwina Garchitorena, noted how less than 25 percent of the Philippines had remaining forest cover, at 7.014 million hectares, and how “resilience and ecosystem services” were the guideposts for conservation and sustainability. Wildlife Biologist Nikki Realubit of the NGO Buhay Ilang Research, Education, and Conservation, Inc., a Masungi consultant, discussed the findings of the baseline assessment held during the Masungi Georeserve Expedition in January of this year.

According to the Forest Foundation Philippines, less than 25 percent of the Philippines has forest cover, at 7.014 million hectares

One thing to be (cautiously?) optimistic about was the presence of young government officials who committed to moving the conservation agenda forward. Undersecretary for Plans, Public Affairs, and Communication of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Atty. Margarita Gutierrez took note and vowed to coordinate with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to bring the concerns down to the barangay level.

Masungi has, in fact, already endorsed the appointment of new DENR Secretary Ma. Antonia “Toni” Yulo-Gonzaga, who has an excellent reputation for her scientific approach to conservation; her representative, DENR Undersecretary Juan Miguel Cuna, read her message on her behalf.

The highest-ranking government official in attendance was Sec. Robert E. A. Borje, commissioner and vice-chair of the Climate Change Commission (CCC), whose office will definitely be critical in seeing to it that watersheds like Masungi stay protected. “The challenge is to focus on several key issues, and find out what the low-hanging fruits and priorities are,” he says. Borje says the relatively “young” team at the CCC—he himself is 50—is prioritizing engagement with local government units, because “that’s where things happen. We have the policies in place, but we have to encourage more participation.”

The thrust, Borje says—which, incidentally, is the only way conservation projects will “click” among grassroots communities—is “buhay at kabuhayan,” life and livelihood. “My mom is a barangay captain,” reveals this 20-year career diplomat who focused on climate change, sustainable development, and disaster preparedness and resiliency during his work in Washington and New York, and also served with the Philippines’ Maritime and Ocean Affairs Office and the Mindanao Economic Development Council. “When she found out I was appointed, she told me to go to the barangay because it’s important that people known about crisis management—malapit ba ito sa atay nila? (Is it close to their liver?) The logical leap from climate change to disaster risk management is not immediate. It’s important for policy makers and coordinators to make issues interesting, so stakeholders and those affected are moved.”

‘Malapit ba ito sa atay nila? (Is it close to their liver?) The logical leap from climate change to disaster risk management is not immediate’

Jeff Mancera of UP Manila shows Canada Ambassador Peter MacArthur (right) and other guests some interesting leaf patterns during the short hike.

The affair ended with a delicious lunch and a quick walk along Masungis’s Discovery Trail, where we spotted a monitor lizard and crossed a hanging bridge, the Sawa. Jeff Mancera, an assistant professor from the University of the Philippines–Manila’s Department of Biology, pointed out some very interesting plant life. The Ambassador gamely photographed the plants and hiked part of the trail.

The event brings much positivity, despite the unsettling news a few days later that the local DENR office had renewed the contract of one of the biggest quarrying companies in the Baras area. As Sec. Borje said, the current administration has already identified climate change as a “governance issue.” Here’s hoping our new batch of government leaders walk the talk, and truly make the connection between political will and environmental crisis.

About author


She is a writer, editor, breast cancer and depression survivor, environmental advocate, dog mother to three asPins, Iyengar yoga instructor and BTS Army Tita. She edits part-time for a broadsheet, but is headed towards a full-time vocation as an online English writing coach and grammar nazi.

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