Ann is creating a new standard for the parks, conserved, and protected area system in the Philippines to be self-sustaining, civically engaging, and innovatively designing shared experiences that engender a love of nature and place and the desire to protect it.
The New Idea
Nature reserves all over the world are important strongholds of biodiversity, forests, and clean water. They are also the places where seeds of loving our natural world are planted and deeply rooted. Ann is able to zero in on the powerful intersection of both soft and technical approaches to protect natural reserves that are prey to so many forces that intentionally or unintentionally exploit it. In Masungi Georeserve, she weaves together an approach that is cultivating a love of place and nature en masse that spurs not only a movement of citizen advocates, but also creates financial sustainability in order to sustain operations, enforcement, and protection of the place.
Ann catalyzes the primacy of soft power in protected area management, lending fresh approaches in addressing an old but growingly wicked problem. Masungi Georeserve is a milestone in enabling local communities and ordinary citizens to protect one of the last standing watersheds that directly beneﬁts and protects the National Capital Region (NCR) of the country, the home to over 24 million people and the Sierra Madre Mountain range which is amongst the richest biodiversity corridors for species, genetic, and habitat diversity in the world. Ann’s core conservation strategy is to make visible what has otherwise been invisible in the Philippines: the decades long practice of government selling forested lands – which persists primarily because these vast lands have long been unseen, unknown, and unexplored by citizens. Ann is changing this by unlocking visibility on the ground, which she achieves through a unique combination of low-impact geo-tourism that showcase “spider-webs” designed to highlight unique landscapes, flora and fauna; adaptive and strategic enforcement through storytelling and partnerships; and, a youth and citizen-led movement to cultivate a love and desire to protect our remaining wild places
The Philippines is one of the few megadiversity and hotspot nations in the whole world. The country is home to 70-80% of the world’s plant and animal species, yet at the same time, is subject to large-scale destruction of habitats and biodiversity loss, putting it on the map as a top priority hotspot for global conversation. Systematic degradation, logging, illegal quarrying, and mining, due to hand-in-gloves collaboration between enforcement agencies and exploiters, is a growing crisis in the Philippines. This loss of biodiversity, depletion of natural resources, and deforestation are impacting the livelihoods of people and industries dependent on the natural resources, and also has huge implications on the climate crisis. The country also faces a complex mix of governance challenges that pose a primary impediment to addressing the constraints related to inclusive growth and jobs, human capital, and resilience.
Metropolitan Manila, the nation’s capital and one of the densest metropolises in the world, is victim to countless ﬂoods, air pollution, and lack of clean water. The absence of an intact watershed to service Metro Manila has largely been a cause for the worsening environmental and human conditions in the area. The Masungi Georeserve’s conservation easement and the Masungi Geopark Project, their restoration project within the Upper Marikina Watershed, are a very important resource of clean water and could provide protection from the worsening perennial ﬂoods. However, as with most protected landscapes in the country, the Upper Marikina Watershed for the longest time has been a “paper park”, which means it has a legal designation as a protected area, yet it does not have the actual capacity for management. The Philippines has an 80% ﬁnancing gap for conservation, and a ratio of 1 ranger per 4000 hectares. Rangers also experience compounded dangers as 120 rangers in the Philippines died from 2020-2021, with homicide being the leading cause and a quarter of rangers losing their jobs due to the pandemic. While it has been declared a protected area since 2011, the watershed is currently only 10-20% forested. Problems include illegal quarry permits and illegal land-grabbing activities that in turn result in incompatible land use within forestlands.
Ann combines conservation, preservation, aﬀorestation, education, and eco-tourism, with active involvement of experts, practitioners, scientists, engineers, and newer technologies to monitor the area-based management, which is privately led. She has also involved and employed local communities, gaining their trust and providing them with livelihoods, and sharing the goal of saving Masungi with the general citizenry through social media campaigns. She has been able to forge good working relationships with the national and local governments to warn them in case of any illegal incidents that endanger illegal occupation and loss of land.
Ann spearheads a three-pronged strategy to saving Masungi and the movement to ensure its protection against many complicated and powerful interests:
· Low-impact geotourism that lends visiblity to the area. The trail emphasizes revealing the unique geographic characteristics of the landscape and lends itself to better appreciation of the landscape, rallying support for conservation. It also doubles as a resourceful way of monitoring areas by establishing regular presence in the reserve which discourages illegal groups and environment oﬀenders.
· Storytelling, social media, and technology such as drones and cameras, not just for incidence monitoring, but also to convey real-time data-driven narratives of events and activities that are accessible to every Filipino through social media. Ann has been very creative and resourceful in telling the story of Masungi, enabling her to land collaborations with national agencies like the Department of Education, the Philippine Senate, the Philippine Congress and the Philippine Military, as well as international NGOs like UNESCO and the National Geographic Society, to get access to technology and learn how to use imagery and words in sharing the plight and wins of Masungi. The strategic use of stories and experiences has garnered Masungi a following of over 200,000 citizens who have successfully rallied behind Masungi in a range of initiatives such as stopping illegal quarrying and logging, education through tree planting and nurturing, and campaigns to support rangers and build awareness on rare endemic and native flora and fauna.
· A youth and citizen-led movement that enables the foundation to resource smartly for nature by involving diﬀerent sectors and expertise in its activities and education. While typical forest protected areas largely involve forestry and science graduates locally, Masungi is formed by scientists, management practitioners, tourism experts, educators, and engineers. It is supported by artists, designers, lawyers, government leaders, enforcement practitioners, technology practitioners, and others. Masungi’s operations are currently fully ﬁnanced by tourism operations, a first in the country, and has a ranger to area ratio of 1 ranger to 27 hectares. Despite over a year with a pandemic that has caused increases in environmental opportunism and the lack of tourism operations, no lay-oﬀs have occurred, and the reserve is still able to continue its conservation operations.
Although Masungi has managed to retain its ranger activity, the lack of geotourism has threatened the reserve. In response, Ann and her team ramped up the foundation’s data-driven storytelling strategy and was able to strategically create and lead a multi-stakeholder Upper Marikina Watershed Coalition composed of over 60 groups that not only protected the Georeserve, but also the more than 26,000 hectares of watershed that the reserve is a part of. Her work has resulted in a signiﬁcant restoration and push for enforcement in a critical watershed that aﬀects the lives of 20 million Filipinos residing in the capital of Metro Manila and nearby provinces, a much-publicized and growing pillar of inspiration for other movements protecting landscapes in the country, and a source of citizen-led science activism and education.
Ann’s story with the Masungi Georeserve conserved area began when she was just a young kid. At the age of 7, Ann’s father began eﬀorts into restoring and reforesting the area and she had multiple memories of seeing the area become a haven to disappearing Philippine ﬂora and fauna as they fled from urbanization and rapid developments. As she grew older, she noticed that despite the area becoming protected by law, entire mountain ranges were still being quarried and threatening the local biodiversity. She made deliberate choices such as taking up a management degree despite her interest in the natural sciences, joining the debate club, exposing herself to various social issues, because even before college she knew that these skills would help her establish something that would save Masungi.
Upon graduation from college as a Management student, she went into real estate development. This endeavor was not a divergence from the goal of establishing a reserve to protect Masungi. For Ann, this was a strategic choice in order to as learn from property development and management how to address the sustainability issues that plagued protected areas. Equipped with real estate know-how, Ann began presenting her proposal of a Masungi reserve to different local geology departments, universities, and natural heritage organizations—none were responsive. While her father was traveling to Paris, Ann tagged along and presented her application to have Masungi become a geopark, which led to UNESCO Philippines’ and national agencies guidance
and support. So, in 2015, Ann founded the Masungi Georeserve Foundation just two years after graduation. Today, Masungi Georeserve is an award-winning conservation eﬀort due to its innovative approach of marrying creative experiences for eco-tourism, tech-enabled forest protection, and monitoring, and educational experiences for any sector to be able to have a buy-in in conservation.
Ann’s battle for Masungi is far from over. On a regular basis, she has to ﬁnd ways to reconcile conﬂicts over the land due to illegal quarrying or increasing militarized presence. She hopes that in the long-run, Masungi Georeserve will become a model in eﬀective protected area management that can bring sustainable livelihoods, unlock each citizen's contribution to conservation, safeguard communities from increasing natural disasters through eﬀective resource management, and create more wildlife corridors to be launched all over the Philippines.