The road less traveled by the feisty women defenders of the Masungi Georeserve is fraught with danger, but the rewards are immeasurable
Today is International Women’s Day, and what could be more fitting for this occasion than to train the spotlight on the women who put their lives on the line for Mother Nature herself. And isn’t it also serendipitous that I’d be on the way to where these women were on board a Sedona Orange Ford Ranger 4×4 Wildtrak from Las Pinas City.
Just like how The Beatles sang it, the road to Masungi was nothing short of “long and winding”, and most of it was unfamiliar. From my home to Masungi Georeserve in Baras, Rizal Province, I drove the Ranger Wildtrak on various types of roads, from the south Luzon expressway to the old national road, to C6, then onto the rolling hills of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range. Add to that the bumper-to-bumper traffic typical of Saturday drives, the 60-km trip took over two hours.
The drive was tedious, yes, but surprisingly not that exhausting, as the Ranger Wildtrak offered a remarkably comfortable and stable ride, its humongous 12-inch touchscreen in the center stack helped me cover all the blind spots. The lane-keep assist helped “put me in my place.” The hill start assist and hill descent control gave me the confidence to tackle the mountain range.
The subjects of my destination also kept my excitement levels up. The Masungi Georeserve is nestled on the foothills of the Sierra Madre in Baras, Rizal, and that’s where the women forest rangers were waiting for me.
Why did I choose the women forest rangers of Masungi? I read that in the Philippines, only 3 percent of primary forests remain due to rampant deforestation, mineral extraction and poor environmental enforcement. According to the Global Water Partnership, the area within Masungi Georeserve east of Manila is a microcosm of these problems in a highly sensitive karst landscape which serves as a natural filter for vital waterways. The Masungi Georeserve also plays a key part in averting landslides and floods by restoring the natural ability of the watershed to regulate water for upland communities and lowland cities of Pasig, Marikina and Quezon.
GWP continued that while the georeserve has been restored after 20 years of protection, its surrounding mountains remain desperately threatened by land trafficking, slash-and-burn farming, charcoal-making, and illegal logging, exacerbated by decades of institutional problems such as the lack of resources, corrupt practices and neglect. This has led to the forest being cleared and for clean water supply in the local communities of almost 40,000 people to be diminished.
In the middle of this storm of issues besetting the Georeserve are its women rangers. Just like the environment and ecology at Masungi, they are also receiving threats and various forms of harassment.
It was 4 p.m. when I arrived at the Georeserve, and I was welcomed by park rangers Mariz and Cecille at the entrance, and then by communications and project associate Renz Perez. He introduced me to conservation area manager Monica Louise A. Inonog, 30, and park ranger Jolina Velasco dela Cruz, 23, who shared their experiences and insights on being part of a group that has helped defend 3,000-hectares of mountain forest characterized by unique limestone formations and remarkable biodiversity, day in and day out. Solid as they may seem, limestone formations are sensitive to environmental threats. It’s also in Masungi where one can come up close with the Karst Terrain. A rustic garden is also home to various plant and animal species.
The team of Masungi defenders—mostly composed of women—are headed by sisters Ana and Billie Dumaliang, trustees of the Masungi Georeserve Foundation Inc (MGF), while 50 percent of the 100 Masungi Georeserve defenders—made up of the conservation area manager and park rangers—are women.
Monica said that as a female conservation area manager, she didn’t experience any discrimination. “I was fortunate enough to be part of an organization led by two women leaders Billie and Ann. As a conservation area manager, my decisions and instructions are delegated to park rangers, but I never experienced any kind of discrimination. I am happy with the culture in this organization—whether you are young or old, male or female, they don’t look at your gender or age.”
Jolina, who has been a park ranger for over 5 years, said, “As women, we were able to prove that we are more than what society dictates upon us. We know how to be defenders of nature, and we can do more if we do it as one. And since most of us here are women, it’s comforting and reassuring that we understand one other.”
As a park ranger, Jolina’s responsibilities include guiding visitors along the trails. This gives her the chance to educate visitors as they move along. She tells visitors what to expect inside the Georeserve, and why its protection is important. Jolina’s skilled and enthusiastic storytelling has helped Masungi get additional support from visitors. According to Renz, through public support, Masungi has been able to prove that, through collaboration with key stakeholders, it is possible to achieve a number of wins for the environment. Park rangers like Jolina often join researchers, bird watchers, botanists, and other environmental experts. Jolina says that her interactions with the experts has also helped educate herself.
Harassment as motivation
Threats and harassment are par for the course, and the forest rangers use such adversities as motivation to intensify their advocacy.
“As a woman, I’ve experienced harassment from people with selfish interests. I wanted to give up at the time, but with the help of my colleagues, the support of my family, and my love for nature, I continued with the advocacy,” Jolina said.
She added that some threats upon her were so grave and traumatizing that she had to change to her work uniform only when she arrived at her workplace.
The Masungi Georeserve, which the MGF has conserved and rehabilitated for over two decades, is once again in the news, as the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) has floated the plan to relocate its facilities to the area. The MGF denied conceding to BuCor’s plan to convert 270 of the area’s 400 hectares into its new headquarters, stating that the MGF “stands firm and continues to urge the government to reconsider plans to build BuCor facilities inside the georeserve.”
On this issue, Monica voiced her sentiment: “Our team in Masungi is appealing to Filipinos, most especially to President Bongbong Marcos, First Lady Lisa Araneta Marcos, and Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo Loyzaga to intervene in various issues being faced by Masungi Georeserve. We understand the responsibilities of BuCor to construct facilities for persons deprived of liberty, but I hope BuCor can find an alternative place for the facilities that will not sacrifice protected nature.”
The days and lives of the Masungi forest rangers—both men and women—are, indeed, a microcosm of our own struggles as a species to maintain the fragile ecological balance in this planet. There is strength in numbers, that is true. But if such numbers were even doubled in strength, imagine the transformative power such a combined force can do for us, and for the world. That’s what the women forest rangers ultimately want and need: Women and men united for a common cause. All of us are living in the same environment, anyway. So why go our separate ways?
Tourism as an eye-opener
Being an advocate for the environment doesn’t always require lifting the heavy stuff. In fact, as I discovered shortly after my visit to Masungi, that tourism activities can also serve as eye-openers to the needs of the environment—albeit in a fun way. One trip I did a few days after was to Camp Hiatus in Tanay with a group of friends (men and women) for a bit of camping and trekking. Of course, the Ford Ranger Wildtrak helped me get to the site (which involved a river crossing), and our group partook of delicious plant-based dishes from vegan restaurant Greenery Kitchen (courtesy of Ford Philippines’ women’s month campaign).
Finally, I was able to try the real-world capabilities of the new Ford Ranger Wildtrak 4×4. The first time I got behind its wheel was in late July last year, on a specially designed track at ArcoVia in Pasig City, where I was made to drive the pickup on various tracks and challenges.