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BARAS, Rizal—The drones flying overhead confirmed suspicions that a nature and wildlife sanctuary here has four drilling rigs for a wind farm project.

Masungi Georeserve Foundation cofounder and conservationist Billie Dumaliang told the BusinessMirror that they occasionally use drones to inspect hard-to-reach areas, monitor entrances, tree-cutting activities and instances of fires within the Georeserve.

top04 021124The Masungi Reserve eco-tourist area, nestled at the entrance of the Sierra
Madre mountain ranges, is part of the delicate karst terrain system and is
integral to the Upper Marikina River Basin protected area.

“Na-spot namin na merong drilling rigs [We spotted that there are drilling rigs on the southern side of the Masungi Rock Formation]. They were bringing in some equipment and materials,” she said, highlighting the powerful use of drones that were able to zoom in on the area, exposing the wind farm project initiated by Rizal Wind Energy Corp. (RWEC), a subsidiary of Singapore-based renewable energy company Vena Energy Holdings Ltd.

The Masungi Georeserve management sought clarification by engaging in a dialogue with the representatives from both companies about the project’s nature and intentions, and, Dumaliang said, “that’s when we found out about the plan.”

The plan “was to build around 12 wind turbines within the Masungi Karst Conservation Area,” Dumaliang said.

top02 021124“You can develop a place, you can introduce enhancements, but only to enhance the character of the place and not to destroy or change,” said Masungi Georeserve Foundation cofounder and
conservationist Billie Dumaliang.

However, Angela Tan, head of corporate communication at Vena Energy Group, clarified to the BusinessMirror via email email that “we are only conducting a study on the potential of wind energy in Tanay [Baras], Rizal.”

Tan emphasized their collaboration with government authorities and commitment to complying with relevant laws regarding protected areas.

Yet, Dumaliang pointed out the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Administrative Order 1993-33, asserting “even studies for a wind farm should not have commenced in the first place.”

Nevertheless, in November 2023, during a Senate hearing on the said “study of the establishment of windmill farms” in Masungi, Sen. Raffy Tulfo noted that, based on Proclamation 1636 series of 1977, Masungi Georeserve, situated in the rainforests of Baras, Rizal, was officially declared a wildlife sanctuary.

top05 021124The JC Vine (Strongylodon juangonzalezii), among the numerous flora identified by researchers, is reportedly found in only four to five locations across the Philippines.

“Bakit po pinayagan ang isang wind farm na magtayo dun po sa Masungi conservation area na meron pong ancestral domain issue [Why was a wind farm allowed to be built in the Masungi conservation area despite the presence of an ancestral domain issue]? Vena Energy is what I’m talking about that was given permit by PAMB [Protected Area Management Board] to put up their structures,” asked Tulfo.

Tulfo also cited the DENR AO 33 dated May 10, 1993, stressing that Masungi was declared a strict nature reserve and wildlife sanctuary, with no subsequent administrative orders superseding the said declaration.

The DAO states the area is closed to mining location, exploration, development and exploitation and other activities which might adversely affect the habitat and the ecological balance in the area.

Yet, according to Sen. Cynthia Villar, the budget sponsor of the DENR, the PAMB did not issue a permit for the energy company to operate in the area, but only to conduct a study on the potential of wind energy.

top03 021124The breathtaking view from the “Sapot Ni Ric” on top of the limestone park inside Masungi Georeserve in Baras, Rizal. This eco-tourist area, nestled at the entrance of the Sierra Madre mountain ranges, is part of the delicate karst terrain system and is integral to the Upper Marikina River Basin protected area.

When the BusinessMirror asked about Dumaliang’s perspective on Senator Villar’s statement that it was just a study, she responded, “That’s what they [company proponents] will say; that’s what they will probably say to the public.”

Dumaliang told the BusinessMirror that company executives told them “they were already in the advanced pre-development stage.”

“They already had investments into the project and groundwork already in place,” she added.

Dumaliang said that based on the conversations they had between Vena Energy and RWEC, “they really have the intention to push through with the project.”

She expressed concern that allowing a study without clear rejection at this stage could potentially pave the way for large-scale commercial development; and permitting a study allows entities to speculate and invest money, making it more challenging to reject the project at later stages.

“What we see on the ground tells otherwise, that they are actually already preparing towards commercialization,” Dumaliang said.

She highlighted the potential risks of placing such projects in areas rich in biodiversity and heritage, worrying that it could lead to unintended problems.

“So, to be clear, we’re not against development. In fact, sustainable development is one of the key pillars of Masungi, and that’s what we’ve shown,” Dumaliang said.

But, she added, “You can develop a place, you can introduce enhancements. But, only to enhance the character of the place and not to destroy or change.”

25 years of conservation at risk

MASUNGI Georeserve has transformed from a once-a barren landscape, plagued by the incessant hum of chainsaws and encroachment from land speculators, into a flourishing secondary forest over the past two decades.

Since the late 1990s, the foundation body of Masungi Georeserve said it has zealously protected and conserved the area.

However, Dumaliang expressed serious reservations about the potential environmental impacts of the wind turbine project within the Karst ecosystem.

“You will lose all of the gains of 25 years of conservation and protection, not just by Masungi, but by the other communities there that have also been protected for tourism or other purposes,” she said.

Dumaliang noted the destructive nature of the construction process, even before the installation of wind turbines begins. The need for wide road networks to transport the massive turbines could result in habitat destruction, similar to the consequences observed in the Panay natural park near Boracay Island.

“It’s really devastating because, in that national park in Panay, due to construction, they had negative impacts on endangered species like the Bleeding Heart Pigeon and the Philippine Deer,” Dumaliang recalled.

Construction-related silt also contaminated waterways, affecting the delicate Karst ecosystem that filters water for downstream communities.

Indeed, Masungi Georeserve, situated within the Sierra Madre Mountain Range, plays a crucial role in rehabilitating more than 2,700 hectares of deteriorated watershed regions through the Masungi Geopark Project.

Threat to wildlife?

THE second major concern raised by Dumaliang involves the potential threat to wildlife posed by the wind turbine blades.

“Being a biodiversity sanctuary, Masungi should prioritize the well-being of its resident birds and bats,” she said.

She questioned the responsible site selection process, asking aloud, “Why Masungi? That’s not responsible site selection. So, that’s what I have said to the company.”

She challenged the company’s claim of sustainability. “You can’t say that you’re a sustainable company, responsible company, if you’re choosing to build in a location that isn’t appropriate.”

Preserving nature, heritage

MEANWHILE, Dumaliang told the BusinessMirror that Masungi Georeserve is gearing up for a campaign, yet to be officially launched, but already gaining traction among senators.

“Sen. Raffy Tulfo really took interest in the issue and firmly stated that such development should not have taken place in Masungi,” Dumaliang said.

She acknowledged the backing of other senators, including Sen. Koko Pimentel and Sen. JV Ejercito, who demonstrated awareness of the locations and associated problems.

“We’re thankful to the Senate in general for taking cognizance of the issue and to the senators who have taken a stand,” she said.

As the campaign gained momentum, Dumaliang hinted at a strategic approach, drawing on lessons from past campaigns: “It’s really making sure that all different sectors are involved in the campaign.”

“We’re creating alliances for this campaign—from the environmental community to the scientific and even the cultural community because this is not just about nature; it’s about cultural heritage,” she said.

When it comes to the impact on culture, Dumaliang likened the project to placing a massive wind farm on ancient landmarks like the pyramids or Machu Picchu: “This is more ancient than dinosaurs and predates human existence. So, imagine doing that to the heritage.”

Home to rare species

MASUNGI Georeserve is a 10-kilometer limestone spine dating back to the Paleocene Age, the era following the extinction of dinosaurs, Dumaliang said.

According to the late geologist Rolando Peña, this limestone formation is the largest exposed rock of its kind in the Philippines from the Paleocene Age that holds paramount geological importance.

“That’s why, geologically, it’s very important for research, for learning about what life was like in the Philippines during that time,” Dumaliang said.

She added, “It gives us a sense of our natural heritage and even anthropological or geological heritage of our country.”

Masungi Georeserve derives its name from the Tagalog term “sungki-sungki,” inspired by the uneven and jagged rock formations resembling teeth. These formations, also referred to as corals and limestone, are composed of calcium carbonate that makes them prone to rapid dissolution due to the acidity of rain.

The limestone formations within Masungi Georeserve are part of the karst ecosystem, as elucidated by Dumaliang. She described the karst ecosystem as comprising caves, sinkholes and limestone formations.

“This type of ecosystem is recognized as an arc of biodiversity due to its natural barriers, which protect against disruptions, invasive species, and changes to the original biodiversity,” she said, adding that Masungi Georeserve, being a part of this unique karst ecosystem, is home to various species that are rarely found elsewhere.

For instance, the JC’s Vine (Strongylodon juangonzalezii), named in honor of Juan Carlos Tecson Gonzales, a zoology professor at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, was discovered by Annalee S. Hadsall, Michelle D.R. Alejandro, Ariel R. Larona and Ivy Amor F. Lambio in 2015.

These researchers identified a thriving population of the JC vines within the conservation area of Masungi Georeserve, a rare plant distinguished by its striking blue-green flowers, found in only four to five locations in the Philippines.

Masungi Georeserve also serves as a habitat for the Hypselostoma latispira masungiensis, a subspecies of snail dependent on karst ecosystems, discovered within its limestone formations.

“We have the highest count [47] of snail species in the Philippines. In this small study area alone, there will inevitably be more,” Dumaliang said.

In terms of bird species, Dumaliang revealed that Masungi Georeserve boasts around a hundred, most of which are endemic to the country, including endangered species like the Philippine Serpent Eagle, Philippine Hanging Parrot (Colasisi) and Philippine Bulbul (Hypsipetes philippinus).

Moreover, the Georeserve is a nesting site for large bats, specifically Flying Foxes, with 30 bat species identified.

Tourism as a conservation tool

DESPITE ongoing threats, Dumaliang remains optimistic about the future of Masungi, stating, “While the pressures are getting stronger, we have also become stronger and more resilient over the years.”

She believes that the forces of nature and the communities will continue to grow and will continue to persist in their pursuit indefinitely.

“While it’s challenging and risky, we remain hopeful for the future,” she said, emphasizing the significance of tourism experiences as a primary tool for their initiatives.

She highlighted how skepticism often transforms into support after people witness the conservation efforts firsthand, expressing a desire for such transformations to happen more frequently.

Dumaliang acknowledged the challenge of balancing conservation with tourism, emphasizing that the focus still leans towards conservation. Sustainable tourism and sustainable development serve as their means to attain the conservation objectives.

Contrary to the industry trend, “It’s more tourism for conservation than conservation for tourism,” she said.

Dumaliang emphasized the importance of involving the public through tourism as a vital means of fostering a deeper connection with Masungi, inspiring individuals to actively participate in its preservation efforts.

“We cannot stand alone in this cause. We have to engage as many people as we can,” she said, adding that the experiences and memories formed in Masungi can instill awareness and motivate people to actively protect the area.

According to Dumaliang, the Masungi Georeserve Foundation has achieved a level of financial independence by generating its own funds and minimizing dependence on external sources.

“That’s why we also need to continuously innovate. We need to be able to offer new experiences and really world-class experiences to our guests to be able to sustain our work,” she concluded.

Image credits: Bernard Testa

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