It was a Sunday when Gina Lopez first came to the Masungi Georeserve, fresh from a trip and a delayed flight in the wee hours of the morning, coming from Mindanao. It was the first time in years they had gotten word for a visit from a DENR secretary. Ann Dumaliang, Masungi’s project officer, was there to receive the official party that arrived at 8 am., and the woman that burst from inside didn't look like she needed any rest—in fact, she was immediately paces ahead on the challenging trail through the georeserve, making good on her time, enough to sit on the top of a hill named Tatay to belt out the lyrics to “I Believe I Can Fly.”
She was immediately paces ahead on the challenging trail through the georeserve, making good on her time, enough to sit on the top of a hill named Tatay to belt out the lyrics to “I Believe I Can Fly.”
Sec. Lopez had come after receiving word of the #SaveMasungi movement to investigate the situation, along with the history and organization behind the movement. “She was already rushing to check on our work and meet the [indigenous] communities. She wanted to know that everyone was benefiting from the project," Dumaliang says, "She was very sharp with her questions, but it didn't scare us because these were valid concerns.”
The Masungi Georeserve is a privately managed conservation project in Baras, Rizal, that has gained fame among young audiences through its savvy use of social media (see: #SaveMasungi). It’s a nature park that sits on rehabilitated land that suffered from years of illegal logging and professional squatting, practices that it sometimes still has to fend off.
Internationally, there are regulations—and precedence—that help mediate a sustainable future for privately protected areas. But, locally, we have less experience with this kind of regulation. "You'd think that it would be simpler, no? But DENR doesn't work that way. The current systems and regulatory functions in DENR make it a hotbed for corruption and laxity,” Dumaliang says.
"Even if Gina can't change the policies immediately, what she does is important because she's always on the ground, and it allows her to she call out whoever she can to fix what isn't being fixed. She's filling the gaps. She uses her position as secretary to hold people accountable, on the spot. Her consistency and track record have encouraged civil sector and private support. She has increased confidence in the government. In our case, she was able to convince us to invest more in protecting surrounding areas and providing more livelihood opportunities. "
"Even if Gina can't change the policies immediately, what she does is important because she's always on the ground, and it allows her to she call out whoever she can to fix what isn't being fixed."
After Lopez’s involvement, the Masungi Georeserve, a substantial privately funded project, moved towards taking a greater responsibility for the surrounding area and communities, signifying what was potentially the country's first steps towards a push for UNESCO geoparks, land trusts, conservation development, and the active participation of the private sector.
At the time, it had only been a few weeks since her appointment in August 2016. “[We want] active and consistent participation and implementation of our partnership with the Central Office, built on integrity. Providing the efficient government support and interventions needed so we can continue to scale our impact for livelihood, protect the area, and create models for the Philippines. There is private-sector investment and participation, public support and community engagement. If political will is there, there is so much potential for impact.”
The day after her first visit to the area of Masungi, Lopez had set a meeting to discuss the quarrying situation in a nearby community involving the contamination of potable water. The community had been waiting for months; she did not wait for more than a day. "She left her security behind, just to make sure she had enough time to meet the neighboring communities," Dumaliang says. "This woman knew how to walk."
On her last visit to Masungi, it was a mere two weeks before the rejection for her appointment at DENR. It was another Sunday (“she always worked Sundays”). Lopez sat at the resting point right before the trail through the Georeserve to have a long sit-down with the team. There was no singing today. Just a somber, calculated discussion on how to move forward. For people like Dumaliang, whose work had just begun, Lopez had made the dream was clearer than ever.
Lopez sat at the resting point right before the trail through the Georeserve to have a long sit-down with the team...a somber, calculated discussion on how to move forward.
“Having the conservation of our resources as its utmost compass is still the dream,” she says. “The existing function of DENR mandates the department to both protect and utilize resources—it is ambiguous on which is supposed to be prioritized. In the years before Gina, it wrongly served the latter more. There are many globally tested conservation models that can be pursued for our country’s situation: conservation development, land trusts, Geoparks, national parks, etc. We still dream of having the Philippines globally at par with other countries on these.”