MANILA, Philippines – A mountain forest that is one of Metro Manila’s main sources of water is now at the mercy of illegal logging and burning after around 20 of its forest guards left their posts in January.
The reason? They have grown tired of waiting for the government to pay them for 15 months of work.
Manuel Cruz, the 45-year-old Dumagat leader of the bantay-gubat (forest guards) says that he and his men were not paid their wages for 3 months in 2013 (October-December), 9 months in 2014 (February to October), and 3 months in 2015 (January-March).
He and 22 others patrol the 6,600-hectare Ipo Watershed in Bulacan, an area of mountain forests that is part of the larger Angat Watershed system that provides 97% of Metro Manila’s water needs. In short, these forest guards help protect Metro Manila's water supply.
Cruz and company are supposed to be paid by the MWSS, a government agency in charge of providing water to Metro Manila through water concessionaires. MWSS, through Presidential Proclamation Number 391 in 1968, shares management responsibilities over Ipo Watershed with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
“'Yun ang hiling namin sa kanila, sa madaling panahon bayaran [kami] kasi inabot nga kami ng ilang panahon na ganyan. Talagang nagtiis kami, nagtrabaho na parang lumalabas walang kasiguruhan,” Cruz told Rappler on January 26.
(That is our appeal to them, for us to be paid because we have waited so long. We really endured, we worked despite the uncertainty.)
Monthly records of wages due them were given to Rappler, showing the number of days they worked per month. Each guard was supposed to have received P350 to P480 per day, depending on their role (team leader, supervisor, worker, patroller).
Roger Encarnacion, the DENR Tabang officer (or Community Environment and Natural Resources Officer), says that the allotted budget for forest guards is roughly P85,000 per month putting the total amount of unpaid wages at around P1.3 million.
With more than a year’s worth of salaries withheld from them, most of the forest guards are in “silent protest.”
“They are there in their stations, but they do not patrol because, of course, they’ve lost hope of getting their wages,” said Encarnacion.
Without the full force of the forest guards, the Ipo Watershed is now more vulnerable to illegal activities.
“Bumabalik na naman ngayon ang illegal. Hindi na namin ma-identify kung saang lugar nanggagaling ang mga tao sa loob kasi napakarami na ng daan,” said Isagani Navalte, DENR Tabang’s chief of forest protection.
(The illegal activities are coming back. We can no longer identify where they are coming from because there are now so many trails.)
At present, only a skeletal team of 5 DENR personnel patrol the 6,600-hectare forest.
“Napakalaking kakulangan 'pag wala ang bantay-gubat. Napakalaking tulong 'yan sa amin. Marami kaming nagagawa. Sabihin natin hindi naman totally napigil, at least na-control 'yung illegal kaingin, illegal logging, illegal squatting, illegal charcoal-making,” he explained.
(It’s a big loss without the forest guards. They are a big help to us. We are able to accomplish a lot. We were able to, if not totally stop, at least control the illegal kaingin, illegal logging, illegal squatting, illegal charcoal-making.)
Ipo Watershed remains one of the most problematic watersheds in Luzon. The combined factors of poverty in the area and accessibility of the forests has heightened illegal activities.
In 2015, for example, the forest guards were able to confiscate P630,000 worth of illegally-harvested lumber and charcoal.
In fact, the 3 months in 2015 for which they have yet to receive their wages were their most productive quarter ever, netting P446,828 worth of illegal goods.
This was the outcome of 14 operations in which they seized 389 pieces of lumber and 17 sacks of charcoal from illegal loggers.
These operations are no walk in the park.
Forest guards patrol for 2 to 3 days, walking as much as 20 kilometers each day through foreboding forest trails rain or shine, or in the dead of night.
They encounter wild animals or, worse, armed illegal loggers.
Forest guard Jordan Celestino says he was shot at while destroying a charcoal oven he had discovered while on patrol duty.
“When illegal loggers are cornered, they will fight. They have shotguns. They are difficult to go up against,” said Navalte.
Guarding a critical watershed entails hauling heavy logs of lawaan and yakal from rivers. Illegal loggers often float the logs through rivers as a means of transporting them out of the forest.
“Ang aming mga pamilya ang umaasa. Halos tuwing umuuwi kami ng bahay tinatanong kami, o kamusta na? Ang sagot namin, may pag-asa naman,” said Celestino.
(Our families depend on it. Every time we go home, they ask us for an update. We tell them there is still hope.)
Far from the ravaged mountain forests of Bulacan, MWSS Administrator Gerardo Esquivel sits in his newly-renovated office along Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City.
He refused to be recorded by Rappler during the interview but allowed notes to be taken.
Asked why the forest guards had not yet been paid, he admitted: “It was an oversight. Mali ako doon (I was wrong there).”
The agency, he says, has been overtaken by “paper-shuffling.”
Another reason are the “inconsistencies” spotted by water concessionnaire Manila Water in the list of forest guards awaiting payment.
MWSS, whose function is to oversee Manila Water and Maynilad, gets its watershed protection funds from the two concessionaires.
Esquivel wrote to DENR to clarify the inconsistencies. Encarnacion told Rappler he would respond to Esquivel about the discrepancies.
But Encarnacion wonders why problems with just a few forest guards should affect the pay of the rest.
“If in the list of forest guards, some should not have been included, then their pay should just be deducted. The forest guards with no problems should be paid. It’s unfair to them,” said the DENR officer in a mix of English and Filipino.
To this, Esquivel says MWSS would start processing the salaries of the guards whose records check out. He tells Rappler he would make sure they are paid on the week of February 8.
Why is a water company given the responsibility of hiring guards to protect a forest almost a hundred kilometers from its main service area?
Many Metro Manileños may not realize the crucial role forests play in bringing fresh, clean water to their faucets.
Forests in the Ipo Watershed are a critical component in the water cycle replenishing Metro Manila’s reservoirs of water.
As Maynilad itself states in a 2013 report, Ipo Watershed “is a natural reservoir for water coming from Angat Dam and Umiray River as well as its own catchment areas. Ipo ensures sustainable water supply in Metro Manila and adjoining provinces.”
Esquivel is fully aware of the importance of watershed protection. In fact, in a November 2014 workshop, DENR and MWSS forged a 5-year-plan for the rehabilitation and protection of Ipo Watershed.
Maynilad and Manila Water were to shell out P700 million (P350 million) for the 2014-2017 plan, says Esquivel.
DENR officer Encarnacion says it was agreed during the workshop that the 2013 and 2014 backwages of the forest guards would be sourced from the P700 million.
“Up to now, it’s already 2016, there’s no such funds coming from the MWSS,” he said.
Way back in 2011, the MWSS had an impressive-sounding “Water Security Legacy Roadmap,” which proposed the creation of an “integrated watershed management system” for 5 watersheds: Angat, Ipo, Umiray, La Mesa, and Marikina.
MWSS then committed to “invest significant resources to properly train and equip the watershed’s foresters” and to “work closely with the Dumagats.”
Despite the recognition of how important their role is to all these plans, the 23 forest guards have yet to receive their wages.
In total, these 3 projects cost almost P50 billion.
In comparison, the amount needed to pay 23 forest guards for 5 years is miniscule: P5.1 million if you stick with their current monthly rate.
It’s obvious watershed protection has taken the backseat in MWSS priorities. Esquivel said there is not even a division in the corporation dedicated to monitoring the watersheds.
They’ve tried creating one but are still awaiting the go-signal of the Civil Service Commission.
Meanwhile, the almost 3 million households serviced by Maynilad and Manila Water pay an Environmental Charge – 20% of the basic charge and Foreign Currency Differential Adjustment in their monthly water bills.
This fee covers “desludging and other environmental-related costs,” according to the MWSS website.
DENR officer Encarnacion pegs the environmental fee collections at P190 million a month.
“Where does that fee go? It should go to protecting the source of the water,” he said.
The 5-year plan is still not operational. The boards of the two concessionnaires have not yet greenlighted it, says Esquivel.
“There are still a few operational issues, hindi pa masyadong malinis (it’s still not a clean plan),” he says.
Meanwhile, the forest guards are waiting for grand plans on paper to become as real as the work they've put in. The rapidly diminishing watersheds are waiting too. – Rappler.com