After darkness descended on his patch of forest, Khukan set out to do one more patrol before his shift ended to make sure the place was clear. The men from the nearby resort often snuck in at night to claim more space, and he didn’t want to find another barbed wire fence or felled trees in the morning. It was July 24, just after 8 p.m.
It started to rain as he made his way back to the rangers’ station. He was drifting off to sleep in his bunk bed when, suddenly, he heard something hit the roof. By the sound of it, he could tell it was huge. It couldn’t have been fruit falling from a tree. Someone had hurled a stone at the station, he thought.
He quickly told Melvin, his fellow park ranger on the top bunk, to turn off the light and come down. They both crouched on the floor. That’s when they heard the gunshots. The bullets went through the walls. One hit Melvin in the head. Another went straight into Khukan’s neck, below his left ear.
“The first thing I thought of was my family. I couldn’t just die like that because I have a young child,” 31-year-old Khukan told VICE World News. He asked that he and his fellow rangers be referred to only by their first names for their safety.
Khukan radioed the rangers in the other stations, who rushed to help him and Melvin. The nearest hospital was an hour’s drive away. Because of the pandemic, rooms were full and hospitals required lengthy COVID-19 protocols. It took a full day before the wounded rangers received surgery to take out the bullets.
When the news reached sisters Ann and Billie Dumaliang, co-founders and managing trustees of the Masungi Georeserve Foundation in the Philippines, they panicked.
“This is the worst thing that happened in Masungi’s 24-year history. I thought we had lost them,” Billie told VICE World News. “I was thinking, this is probably the end, because we’d always say that if one of us got killed because of the work, then we’d rethink everything.”
With 29 killings reported in 2020, the Philippines is the deadliest country for environmental defenders in Asia and the third-deadliest in the world, according to Global Witness. Logging is the main driver of environmental defender killings in the country, the NGO said in its 2021 report.
Jutting out from the lush greenery, Masungi’s limestone karst peaks mirror Manila’s skyscrapers across the valley below. The watershed overlooks the metropolis of 14 million people, and conservationists have touted its crucial role in mitigating floods from typhoons and monsoon rains that have gotten stronger in recent years due to climate change.
Overseeing the 2,700-hectare park in Rizal province has put Ann, Billie and their team of about 100 park rangers on a collision course with private interests wanting a slice of the vast protected area the government entrusted to the foundation.
With 60,000 trees planted and counting, the Masungi team has helped turn the once-denuded mountain face green again through decades of conservation and reforestation work. But now, loggers, quarrying companies, resort owners and other opportunists have become more aggressive in staking purported claims over portions of the national park.
“The first thing I thought of was my family. I couldn’t just die like that because I have a young child.”
The Bayog ranger station, where Khukan and Melvin were shot, borders a full-fledged resort complete with swimming pools and cottages. Occupying protected land, the resort appears to be eyeing expansion, sending men to fence off more territory and tap into waterways from the reforestation site, Billie said.
It baffles Masungi’s caretakers that some of these “land grabbers,” as the sisters call them, carried government permits despite a law passed in 1992 that prohibits the exploitation of the 26,000-hectare Upper Marikina Watershed that encompasses the Masungi Geopark.
The most insidious intruders have clear links to powerful interests, the Dumaliangs said. Several times over the last two years, park rangers found portions of the reforestation site suddenly closed off by barbed wire fences. Hundreds of trees were cut. When the rangers tried to dismantle a wire fence in October 2020, men with long firearms emerged from huts built overnight, insisting they were on private property. Their alleged boss claimed he was taking care of the land—1,000 hectares of it—on behalf of an Indigenous group.
Masungi’s park rangers, who are not armed, have since continually received verbal threats along with an occasional flashing of guns from men on the other side of wire fences.
“All we have are our gardening tools,” Romeo, a park ranger and member of the Indigenous Dumagat-Remontado tribe, told VICE World News. “We’re doing our work taking care of nature, yet they want to drive us away.”
Thankfully, the media-savvy Dumaliang sisters have succeeded in drawing public attention to the park’s troubles. The country’s environment secretary visited the area a few times and warned action against violators.
Yet it has not stopped the threats to Masungi’s rangers and managers from becoming more frequent and menacing.
“If we don’t catch you there, then we’ll go after your girlfriend. We’ll watch her for you while you cause trouble there in Masungi. If you don’t leave Masungi or if you cause more trouble, we’ll make trouble for your girlfriend. A pity, she’s a beauty,” reads a recent series of text messages received by the park’s reforestation manager and shown to VICE World News.
A month later, another message: “Weren’t you leaving Masungi? You’re really trying our patience. Remember, we know your weakness!”
In May, a group of rangers heard two gunshots while they were tending a recently recovered bit of land.
The sisters say they know the sources of these threats.
“The park rangers befriended these people who did it,” Ann told VICE World News. “I reached out to them myself, explained the situation and even offered help to find a way through. We’ve given them maximum tolerance and consideration.”
And then the shooting happened.
Khukan was at the Bayog station that night because he volunteered to take the post, according to Ann. The intimidation was getting to some of the rangers and, as their leader, Khukan put himself on the frontline.
“We’ve been saying it again and again that our rangers are being harassed. Our lives are in danger,” Ann said. “Which part of that is so hard to understand, when personalities like this are 300 meters away from us?”
Khukan and Melvin have since filed a frustrated murder complaint against the owner of the resort, and several associates on August 13.
In a social media video posted on August 17, Arnel Olitoquit, owner of GSB Farm, denied the accusations of frustrated murder and land grabbing. He claimed to be “an ordinary man without wealth or influence.” He said Masungi Georeserve is the one trying to steal his land, and its rangers are harassing his resort’s employees.
Neither Olitoquit nor GSB Farm responded immediately to VICE World News’ requests for comment.
In November 2020, Typhoon Vamco caused severe flooding in Manila, submerging entire districts and killing several people. Experts blamed the deluge on runoff from the Sierra Madre mountain range, which a more robust Upper Marikina Watershed could have prevented.
Decades of deforestation has left the watershed—the Sierra Madre slopes adjacent to the metropolis—prone to erosion. Bereft of trees, it could no longer absorb much water, exacerbating the effects of typhoons and monsoon rains on the cities below. The impact is made worse by climate change. Reforestation could turn this around.
In a televised Senate inquiry, Ann urged the government to bolster efforts to restore the watershed, and spoke about the obstacles to the foundation’s work.
The authorities then pledged support and protection for Masungi. Official visits and a military sweep of the area followed. But as the floods receded, public attention shifted, and the efforts on Masungi thinned out.
“We’ve been saying it again and again that our rangers are being harassed. Our lives are in danger. Which part of that is so hard to understand, when personalities like this are 300 meters away from us?”
The encroachments and harassment continued, and the Masungi team kept reporting incidents to the authorities. They were promised action each time, but the follow through has been frustratingly slow.
Knowing they’re up against “syndicated activities and organized crime,” Ann’s sister Billie said “there seem to be elements and entities that are trying to frustrate our efforts and projects.”
“It’s alarming that one of the establishments within the protected area is owned by a former provincial environment officer,” she added.
Earlier this year, the environment department ordered GSB Farm to explain allegations that it had illegally built a resort on protected land. The local government shut the resort down on May 30. In a Facebook post the next day, GSB Farm said it was complying with the order by requesting the mandatory government permits for building structures in protected areas.
On July 14, the interior department recommended criminal charges against several alleged law violators in the watershed area, including GSB Farm.
The environment department’s office in Rizal province is looking to press the charges “next week,” a representative told VICE World News in a text message on September 14. The office’s legal team is just checking if all the necessary documents and data are in, the representative added.
When they’re not roving the forest or planting new trees, Khukan and the other rangers guide trekkers through trails around the 400-hectare georeserve, the portion of the geopark that’s open to ecotourism.
An hour-and-a-half drive from the city, the Masungi Georeserve is a popular weekend getaway for adventurers. Guests are treated to sightings of rare plant and animal species, including the splendid Purple Jade Vine. Ecotourism helps fund the conservation effort and keep it on people’s social media feeds.
The Masungi team is fortunate compared to most conservationists in the Philippines, the Dumaliang sisters said. The average ranger coverage of the country’s protected areas is one ranger for every 4,000 hectares, according to the UN Development Programme. Masungi has at least 80 of its 100 rangers on duty roving the 2,700-hectare geopark at any single time.
“I know we’re doing the right thing.”
Khukan became a Masungi park ranger in 2012, when he left his hometown in the restive Mindanao region to flee violent conflict. The calm and natural beauty in the geopark contrasted starkly with the chaos back home, where he had worked as a bodyguard for a local official.
“When I started working in Masungi, I told myself I’d last long here,” Khukan said. Planting trees, pulling weeds, building trails and accompanying trekkers wasn’t a bad way to live at all. It took him three years to learn the local language, but his colleagues helped him and made him feel at home. Now, he is one of the leaders, training and guiding new rangers.
“I have come to love our work here in Masungi,” he said.
When he was shot, Khukan didn’t want to tell his mother back in Mindanao, but she found out through the other rangers. “She cried and cried for two days, so when I felt a little better, I put on a smile, took a selfie, and sent it to her to let her know I’m alright.”
After the surgery, Khukan couldn’t work for a month. His wife asked him if he thought working in Masungi was still worth the risk.
“Don’t be afraid, I told her. There’s danger, but I can take care of myself,” Khukan said. “I make sure to smile when we talk, to reassure her.”
Regular police patrols around Masungi started recently, after some park visitors helped connect the managers with the right officers. The team is grateful for the patrols, Billie said, but it’s too early to tell if it’s enough to keep intruders out.
Khukan, meanwhile, is back in the field.
“We’re determined to keep working because we’re not doing anything wrong here at Masungi Georeserve,” he said. “I know we’re doing the right thing.”
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