Nature and Biodiversity

The battle for Masungi, a last ‘ark of biodiversity’ in the Philippines

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Moving mountains ... Ann Dumaliang and rangers face attacks as they protect Manila’s fragile uplands. Image: Masungi Foundation

Anna Bruce-Lockhart
Editorial Lead, World Economic Forum
  • Nestled near the city of Manila lies Masungi Georeserve, a protected nature and tourism site under threat from harmful development.
  • Unique limestone crags and fragile forest serve as a filter for essential waterways, protecting Philippines cities from flooding.
  • Masungi is home to Ann Adeline Dumaliang, an environmental defender and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.
  • Watch this video interview with Ann Dumaliang, as she describes the challenges of protecting the land.

In the heart of the Philippines, nestled among the lush forests and dreaming crags just outside the city of Manila, lies the Masungi Georeserve - a haven of biodiversity.

The reserve is a protected geotourism site known for its ancient ‘karst’ terrain - limestone rock formations which serve as a filter for vital waterways. Situated upstream from the capital, the rock acts as a vital watershed that regulates the flow of water all the way down to the city of Manila and onwards to Manila Bay.

The watershed is critical when it comes to disaster risk mitigation. "Flooding events have happened because of the deforestation in these parts,” says Ann Dumaliang, co-founder and trustee of the foundation which manages Masungi.

Masungi's majestic crags form a vital watershed for the region. Image: Masungi Foundation

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Masungi: 'It's like a little brother'

Ann works closely with her sister, Billie Dumaliang; the sisters having spent much of their childhoods in the reserve accompanied by their father, an engineer and conservationist, who was working to restore it.

Via a model of privately driven conservation, Masungi has transformed into a showcase for sustainable reforestation and geotourism. Growing along the limestone cliffs, the forest is home to more than 400 documented species of plants and wildlife, many of which are rare and endangered.

“It’s a very intimate place to me. When people ask me, I say it's like a little brother,” says Ann.

Reforestation in the Philippines

Forests have recovered since the millennium due to conservation. Image: ResearchGate

But the commitment of the park's management has come at a price. The Dumaliang family have suffered sustained harassment, mostly by armed groups connected to business interests. Masungi’s rangers have been subjected to violent attacks.

A report by international watchdog Global Witness ranks the Philippines as one of the most dangerous countries in Asia for environmental defenders - and the fifth most deadly country globally.

“In 2021, two of my rangers almost died because someone shot them while they were sleeping in the ranger stations,” says Ann. She motions to the side of her head: “One bullet was here, the other one was here. Had they moved just a single centimetre in a different direction, I could have lost them both.”

A further threat comes from online campaigns designed to reduce support for Masungi’s conservation projects. These involve fraudulent claims by several groups seeking to develop the land for profit. Disinformation is distributed to decision-makers whose trust and collaboration are vital to the future of the reserve.

The Dumaliangs’ personal details have been published online.

“There is a toll and a capacity adjustment needed when you are being attacked by online trolls,” Ann says. “And it’s a distraction: we have to go double time in the field correcting this disinformation, instead of focusing on restoring the landscape.”

A delicate balance

In tropical forests around the world, conservationists fight to shield habitats from commercial developers and to find compromise with local communities, many of whom rely on the forests' resources to survive. It's a delicate balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability, one which requires sensitive collaboration between several sectors, both local and global.

One of several actors working to tackle deforestation is the Tropical Forest Alliance. In partnership with the World Economic Forum, the TFA convenes governments, businesses and civil society to coordinate efforts towards deforestation-free supply chains.

"People are acting in ways that incentivize them to cut forest down, exploit forest resources and take resources out of those areas," says Jack Hurd, Executive Director of the TFA and co-head of Nature at the World Economic Forum. "This exists from the Philippines to the Congo Basin, as well as portions of the Amazon.

"The challenge is, really, how do you address issues of illegality in the forests at the same time as allowing further investment to come into those places as part of a sustainable economic development model?"

Have you read?

Forests: the Indigenous view

At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos earlier this year, Ann Dumaliang spoke to governments and policy-makers about the urgency of protecting forest ecosystems and the need to include Indigenous perspectives in decisions that affect them.

You can see her panel discussion with primatologist Jane Goodall and youth advocates Hisona Silva and Marie-Claire Graf in this Davos session:


Q&A with Ann Dumaliang

While participating in the Annual Meeting in Davos, Ann Dumaliang talked to our editors about the dangerous work of protecting Masungi and its place in the restoration of biodiversity in the Philippines. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Masungi geo-reserve is famous for its karst rock formations. What makes them so vital to the region?

Ann: “Karst is a rock formation made by calcium carbonate and shaped into pinnacles by rain over millions of years. It’s home to a diverse array of life. The landscape itself serves as an aquifer, to water, with all of these underground drainage systems that allow water to stay clean. It’s literally filtered before it comes out into the communities that rely on it.

“The rock also serves as a biodiversity corridor connected to what is known as the Upper Marikina watershed. This flows from the rivers of Marikina and passes all the way down to the city of Manila and on to Manila Bay. It’s very critical when it comes to disaster risk mitigation. Flooding events have happened because of the deforestation in these parts.

“There is a study by the World Bank on the ecosystem value of having Masungi’s watershed restored. And that alone shows massive benefits. Having this area restored is equivalent to about 10,500 dams. And you can imagine how expensive that is. And that's just in terms of siltation-control capability. Imagine what this forest can do when it comes to food production, water security, clean air, the leisure and the mental health support that it can give to people. It becomes an ecosystem and a lifeline that could support more forms of life.”

What kinds of wildlife and plant species are unique to the reserve?

Ann: “Karst landscapes are referred to as ‘arks of biodiversity’ when it comes to the forms of life it serves as a sanctuary for. In Masungi we have over 30 species of discovered bats, including the first record in our province for a flying fox. We have a unique subspecies of snail - hypselostoma latispira masungiensis - that you will only find in Masungi and no place else.

"There is a beautiful purple vine that has only been discovered in 2015, and it's only known to exist in four different locations, with the most profuse blooms found inside Masungi.”

What about the human life in Masungi? Who are the people working to protect it?

Ann: “We engage up to 80 forest rangers in the conservation work that we do. They do the triple work of protecting the environment, maintenance work and, of course, educating our guests. They live on the land, many of them 24/7, just to make sure these areas are kept safe. It’s necessary because there's nothing quite like having boots on the ground when it comes to quick incident response and really being in tune with what the landscape needs.

“The tourism and education aspect is critical. When people come to Masungi, go on the trails and the rangers tell their story about how they got into conservation, what their relationship with the land is, their hope is that our visitors also grow to love the place and understand why it's worth fighting for and protecting.

“We always say in conservation: you can't protect and act for something that you do not understand and you do not love. But when you have that experience of lingering through the place and getting to know its nooks and crannies, and understanding the life that exists inside, then suddenly it's something more personal. And that's very powerful.

“We wouldn't have been able to overcome five land-grabbing attempts and the three quarries that were recently canceled if not for our visitors who really use their voice to call for accountability.”

The high trails in Masungi Georeserve, where tourism is key. Image: Masungi Foundation

What are the main challenges that Masungi’s conservationists face?

Ann: “Sometimes you have companies or people with commercial interests coming into these very sensitive protected areas pretending to be farmers or pretending to be Indigenous people, but they're actually there for business, trying to develop it for incompatible land uses such as resorts, or to quarry the mountain and to sell land for commercial purposes, and to get these areas converted and legalized for use later on.

“Right now there is an attempt to build a wind farm inside the area we've already restored. A wind farm will require massive land-clearing for roads, and the structure itself in the heart of the landscape and will endanger airborne species in what is meant to be a sanctuary for them.

"So we have all of these talks about carbon credits and energy transition, and in theory, a wind farm covers this, right? But we need to make sure that they end up in the right places, because otherwise we're just contributing to the destruction of vital life-giving ecosystems and wasting investments of both government and non-government actors.

"There are attempts to cut trees and develop the area because the land values have grown since the pandemic happened. A national prison facility was proposed for construction in the protected area."

How can the international community help threatened ecosystems like Masungi?

Ann: “We can't rely solely on governments to solve the climate and biodiversity crises. As civil society, young people, companies - we are co-actors, we are co-pilots. And we have to take it upon ourselves to do the best that we can, so that urgent action happens as soon as possible.

“And there’s so much we can do. Civil society, in the age of social media, can build up awareness, incident response, and galvanize movements for good at little cost and in little time. This is important for the Philippines, which is the social media capital of the world.

"Corporations have a great deal of power and influence. They can innovate fast. It's in their DNA: finding opportunities, researching, capitalizing on those opportunities, affecting everyone in their value chains in the process. Companies can, for instance, choose to invest in projects that support genuine long-term climate solutions instead of ones that hurt protected ecosystems, and they can choose not to buy supplies from quarries that threaten critical landscapes.

"What governments can do is enable innovative conservation models to flourish, partner with them, and ensure that protected areas are actually protected.

"On top of the above, for a climate-vulnerable country like the Philippines that relies on aid, business investment and technology from partner countries, it’s important to have the support of the international community. The international space is harder to manipulate, and that’s a leverage that can be lent to communities and environmental defenders at the frontlines. Being located elsewhere also has strengths. It means you aren’t vulnerable to political attacks and experience less safety risks than to those on the field, and are therefore in a better position for truth-telling and mobilizing.

“The great thing is, because we're so single-minded in what this is about, the movement to make sure Masungi is protected is 10 times - no 1,000 times - greater than the movement to destroy it.

“I can see people actively resisting participating with groups who cause a strain on Masungi. I can see silent actors in government trying to lend their support, even if their chief area of concern is not in the environment.

“So as much as there are all of these challenges, I definitely see the best in humanity working on protecting the watershed. And that keeps me very motivated, very hopeful about the #SaveMasungi campaign and the future of this landscape.”

Masungi: 'It's like a little brother'A delicate balance Forests: the Indigenous viewQ&A with Ann Dumaliang

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