JANUARY 14, 2024 Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo Loyzaga joined Cabinet members in a meeting in this file photo taken on January 12, 2024, DENR PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines — The Masungi Georeserve Foundation's contract to conserve a protected area is “void” from the start, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said on Wednesday.

During the Senate hearing on the construction of structures within protected areas, Senator Cynthia Villar asked DENR officials if the Masungi contract is “infinite,” further inquiring whether it is valid or not.

“This is a legal issue and we are aware of the circumstances surrounding the signing of this contract. We have an opinion from the Department of Justice (DOJ) right now that actually says it is unconstitutional,” said Environment Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga, responding to Villar’s ​​encouragement.

Following Yulo-Loyzaga's remarks, DENR Undersecretary Ernesto Adobo said the agency had, in fact, recommended the cancellation of Masungi's memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the DENR.

“The legal grounds for cancellation are what we call an annulment, given the advice of the DOJ,” Yulo-Loyzaga added.

Later in the hearing, Adobo said, “It’s been void from the beginning.”

This, however, intrigued Villar, who went on to ask: “If it is empty, then it does not exist. Why are they still there?

No categorical answer was given to Villar's question.

'Empty ab initio? Unsustainable'

For its part, the Masungi Georeserve Foundation said the DENR’s claim that its contract is “void ab initio (void from the beginning)” is indefensible.

Masungi specifically called this “unsustainable.”

“The contract was validly entered into by the secretary of the DENR, within the scope of its broad powers under the National Integrated Extended Protected Areas System Act, to enter into agreements with non-state actors in the pursuit of conservation. The contract also contains all the elements of a valid agreement,” Billie Dumaliang, director of advocacy at Masungi, told INQUIRER.net in a Viber message.

“The provision of the MOA stating that the intention of the parties is to establish the project area as a perpetual land trust fund is not a grant or donation of land to the foundation, contrary to malicious insinuations. A careful reading of the contract will reveal that we will only be able to manage the project as long as the law or constitution allows, which will still be determined by the conservation courts,” Dumaliang emphasized.

Masungi then insisted that his MOA “remains valid and binding” until the court declares it void.

“The final determination of constitutionality and legality rests with the Judiciary, and not the Executive. We will do everything in our power to ensure we are able to continue to do the important work together with our up to 100 local rangers and thousands of volunteers,” said Dumaliang.

Masungi then added that if the DENR is “really concerned” about the technical aspects of the agreement, it could formally negotiate with them.

READ: Foundation hits DENR for 'irresponsible' report on Masungi

Despite his wishes, Masungi said DENR chief Yulo-Loyzaga did not even give them an opportunity to negotiate.

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“She didn’t even visit the project site to compare fact with fiction,” Dumaliang said.