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Minalungao National Park: Nueva Ecija’s best-kept secret

The unique huge forest-covered karst forms wall-like protection to the crystal clear Sumacbao River at the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range in General Tinio, Nueva Ecija.

The 2,018-hectare Minalungao National Park, a place of unique beauty that mesmerize visitors with its unique landscape, sits in the province of Nueva Ecija.

Declared as a protected area through Republic Act 51000 on June 17, 1967, it is accessible by land in Luzon, and is ideal for a quick getaway from the stressful city life.

Minalungao’s name was derived from a conjunction of the words mina and lungao, or mine of gold in caves. While there may not be mines of gold in the cave in Minalungao, it remains as Nueva Ecija’s best-kept secret.

An initial component of the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, Minalungao is mostly grassland of around 1,396 hectares, while some 403 hectares are forested areas.

Around 116 kilometers north of Metro Manila, the municipality of General Tinio, particularly Barangays Pias and Rio Chico, has territorial jurisdiction over Minalungao, and partly shared by Makabaclay in Gapan City, Nueva Ecija.

River of life

The Minalungao National Park is dissected by the Sumacbao River in almost equal halves.

The Sumacbao River flowing between the towering rocks of Minalungao National Park has an approximate width of 10 feet.

Smaller water bodies, such as the Samon, Wakwak, Mantahilan, Ngabngab and Balintingon creeks feed the river with fresh water.

Sumacbao River is the main source of water in the area and is used for bathing and washing, and other domestic use. It also provides water for small farms of sustenance farmers.

The river is also used for transportation through small bancas and bamboo or wooden raft.

More importantly, the river provides an abundant supply of freshwater fish like biya, eel and shrimp.

Donaver M. Guevarra, chief of the Public Affairs Office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Central Luzon, said the Minalungao National Park is a well-known tourist spot in Nueva Ecija and Central Luzon.

“Some visitors came from as far as Region I and from Metro Manila,” Guevarra told the BusinessMirror in an interview via Zoom on July 7.

The unique features of the Minalungao National Park—the river and its natural rock formation—make it an awesome place to visit.

“Just like in Palawan, the river and its abundance, the natural rock formations make it very popular,” he said.

Tourism attractions

The Sumacbao River boasts of crystal-clear, blue-green water, making it suitable for various activities like rafting, river cruise, bathing and swimming, especially during the dry season.

The enchanting limestone rock formations on both sides of the river serves as a wall of up to 16 meters high.

The national park also offers wildlife adventures, such as bird watching and monkey viewing, while on a serene river cruise on a bamboo raft.

One could enjoy nature’s singing-flying creations, while being amazed by some Philippine macaque helping themselves with nature’s abundance of a buffet of vegetation on top of the rocky hills.

Another attraction is the Minalungao Cave tour, a 5-minute trek to the opening of the cave to explore the unique ecosystem.

Meanwhile, the sparsely dense forest cover is ideal for picnic, the excitement brought by the hanging bridge and relaxation with nature, while enjoying the soft sound of flowing water and chirping of birds that thrive in the park.

The towering man-made cross has become a pilgrimage site, with the challenge of hurdling 1,000 steps to reach the cross.

The national park houses the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) office, an information center and a guest house, and other amenities like a shower area, souvenir shops and hotels.

Closed due to Covid

Jimmy Aberin, Community Environment and Natural Resource Officer of Cabanatuan and concurrent Protected Area Superintendent of the Minalungao National Park, told the BusinessMirror that the Minalungao National Park remains closed to the public due to Covid.

Although the PAMB of the national park has already appealed to the Inter-agency Task Force on Covid-19 to allow gradual opening of the park to the public, local officials are not risking the resurgence of the pandemic with the reopening of the parks and other tourism areas.

He said at the same Zoom meeting that hundreds of families, whose livelihoods depend largely on ecotourism, are affected by the travel restriction due to the pandemic.

Biological diversity

According to the protected area suitability assessment in 1994, human activities, such as kaingin (slash-and-burn farming) and charcoal making, unabated and illegal logging within and the adjacent area of the national park pose serious threat to the biological diversity in the area.

With the native and fruit-bearing trees in the park, numerous species of birds have been recorded in the area. There are bats, rats, snakes and various species of lizards, from small ones to the larger monitor lizard, or bayawak.

The brahminy kite, grass owl, Philippine hanging parakeet, rufous hornbill, Eurasian tree sparrow, large-billed crow, barred rail, red jungle fowl, zebra dove, crested myna, brown shrike, white-collared kingfisher, pechora pipit, brown cuckoo dove are just some of the commonly seen birds in the area.

There were also report of sightings of Philippine deer, wild pig, and civet cat in the area.

Lawin Program

Through the Lawin Forest and Biodiversity Protection System, the DENR is able to effectively monitor suspicious activities and quickly respond to prevent environmental degradation.

Raissa Lico, chief of the Protected Area and Biodiversity Conservation Office of DENR-Central Luzon, said as a protected area Minalungao National Park has a very unique ecosystem.

In Central Luzon, there are a total of 24 protected areas, the areas that are set aside for conservation to protect the rich biodiversity that thrives therein.

“Other protected areas are mostly forest while Minalungao is the only one that features a river, the Sumacbao River,” Lico said.

To protect the Minalungao National Park, the DENR implements the Lawin Program. Through the Lawin monitoring system that makes use of a mobile application, Lico said forest protectors immediately learn if there’s an illegal activity so we immediately report to authorities.

Reforestation

Aberin said the DENR continues to reforest the protected area and encourages people to stop their destructive activities like slash-and-burn farming and charcoal mining, which used to be rampant in the area.

He said the residents in the area were tapped by the DENR as National Greening Program partners.

“Right now, about 500 hectares have been reforested in Minalungao,” he said.

According to Aberin, only about 20 percent of the Minalungao National Park are covered with forest, asserting the need to intensify reforestation to protect and conserve the river and the surrounding environs.

Sustenance farming

The Minalungao National Park is also inhabited by humans, making farming as a way of life in the area. With only sustenance farming allowed, ecotourism was introduced and started to gain traction.     Livelihood sources, such as tour guiding; renting out kiosks, swimming equipment, such as kayak and life vests; boating; putting up a sari-sari store and a souvenir shop were made available to the residents.

Some of the people are extracting nontimber forest products like bamboo, and are engaging in trading, processing and manufacturing.

Some of the household members work as drivers, construction workers, tourism staff and local government employees on a contractual basis.

Public Awareness campaign

According to Guevarra, the DENR-Central Luzon led by DENR Regional Executive Director Paquito T. Moreno Jr. continuously conducts public-awareness campaigns in various parts of the region.

“We go to schools and even down to the communities to highlight the importance of protecting and conserving our protected areas and our rich biodiversity, and why it is important not to harm our wildlife,” he said partly in Filipino.

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