This article has been updated to include actions taken by Masungi and government interventions in the situation.
Conservation initiative Masungi Georeserve is in danger—again. The wildlife sanctuary reported the “invasion” of armed men on a portion of the protected area via a Facebook post on Sept. 18. This comes only weeks after reports of illegal occupation and trespassing surfaced along the same stretch of land.
Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) secretary Benjamin Abalos visited Masungi and addressed the situation today, Sept. 23.
He denied that there was an armed encampment, despite firearms having been confiscated by the police days before. He claimed that vehicles were in the area because of an auto repair shop and that the men had left to find someplace else to park.
His statement seems to completely negate Masungi’s claims of land grabbing, intimidation, and trespassing.
DILG is waiting for guidance from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), according to the Philippine News Agency. It has sent a letter to the security agency allegedly encamped in Masungi for its side.
The Philippine National Police said it will provide a “sustained police presence” in Masungi, which will include 24-hour patrols.
Timeline of the alleged invasion
The post detailed that at least 30 men, allegedly armed and from a security agency called Sinagtala, have illegally occupied and encamped themselves along kilometer 48 of the Marikina-Infanta highway. The occupation was said to have started last week, and the number of illegal occupants are also said to have grown in number.
The men claim that they’re operating under legal precedent due to a survey plan signed by a Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) director from the early 2000s. The occupiers are also allegedly trying to take over parts of the protected area and “sell them to third parties.”
Representatives of Masungi asked these men to produce any official evidence of ownership (like a deed or title) and information details (like names and contact information), which the men refused to supply.
As of Sept. 19, the Philippine National Police (PNP) was in the process of confiscating “illegal” firearms from the occupiers. Arrests were not made.
Masungi Georeserve released a press statement on Sept. 20 detailing the timeline of events and a request for action from the national government.
In the same statement, Masungi outlined its “reliefs” to diffuse and resolve the situation. First, the “immediate arrest, prosecution, and removal” of the occupiers for possession of illegal firearms, illegal entry, trespassing, and breaking the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) law. The NIPAS law is a system of management and integration of protected ecologically rich areas, which the conservation falls under.
Second, that the DENR appoint a “competent, trustworthy, and passionate” project manager to help the georeserve resolve pertinent issues and challenges in order for Masungi to continue in a sustainable manner.
Lastly, the conservation area called for DENR to crack down on the illegal activity and possible anomalous acts regarding the current issues faced by Masungi and prosecute those responsible.
On Sept. 22, Masungi released a video taken on Sept. 17 that shows the georeserve’s team documenting the situation in the occupied area. No dialogue regarding the occupiers’ claims were recorded, but the video shows the Masungi team being harassed by a group of people, including an alleged retired mayor and a woman wearing a shirt with the Office of the President’s seal on it.
The post’s caption detailed the events of the encounter including unrecorded portions of the conversation that were said to have taken place.
“The attempt [at a] peaceful discussion was to document and verify their claims on the land, ask for a show of proper and valid documents and help them understand that the lack of such documents makes their occupation—an armed one, no less—is unjustified and unlawful,” the caption read.
“Not a single document, valid or not, was shown. Instead, we were met with repeated aggression even as we tried to reason and de-escalate the situation,” the post continued.
As for the armed men who occupied the area, they were fined a mere P1,000 due to not having their firearms licenses on hand. According to the Philippine National Police, “no crime was committed” after they inspected the area.
On Sept. 23, DILG Secretary Abalos held a live briefing on the situation. He denied the reports of an armed encampment and announced that occupiers have departed from the area.
“Walang armed na encampment. Ang nakikita rito ay ang mga kotse na nakaparada dahil sa talyer na dito,” said Abalos.
(There is no armed encampment. What was seen here were parked cars due to an auto repair shop here.)
Abalos continued by saying that the parked cars have since voluntarily departed after finding a new space to park. The police officer next to Abalos also denied the presence of the alleged 30 armed men, saying that there were only 14 men present as of his last count.
A persistent threat
Sadly, this isn’t the first time Masungi Georeserve and its advocates have been put in danger.
Just last year, two Masungi rangers were shot by unidentified assailants. In December 2020, there were reports of illegal squatting and intimidation by armed guards in an effort to deter the conservation area’s reforestation efforts. In February 2020, 500 hectares of the georeserve’s protected land was illegally fenced off by a quarrying company.
In 2019, global watchdog Global Witness also named the Philippines as the deadliest country for environmental defenders and land activists. Prior to 2019, the country was named the deadliest in Asia for the same reason.
Crimes against the environment are still piling up with no end in sight. Land grabbing, intimidation, and violence against environmental defenders must be met with prosecution. Decisive action must be taken by the government in order to protect the environment and those who defend it.