After 2 years, Bulacan forest guards paid for a year of work
Clad in a worn cap and carrying all his IDs, Cruz counts bills amounting to P65,400 – the equivalent of 9 months of salary in 2014 – before carefully placing them inside a white envelope on Monday, February 23.
The payment for 3 months of work in 2013 would be paid to him later that afternoon at the cashier of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) office in Quezon City.
In the same room are other forest guards – all sun-weathered men in their 40s or 50s, some of whom have a hard time signing the claim forms, having held a bolo more often than a pen in their lives.
"Malaki ang aking pasasalamat dahil sa naging kakulitan natin eh talagang nagpasweldo naman," Cruz told Rappler after receiving his pay.
(Our gratitude is great. Because of our persistence, the MWSS paid up.)
The event was so momentous for some that they even brought along their wives and children who waited outside the lobby while the men lined up at the cashier.
The forest guards rented vehicles from Bulacan to Quezon City. Some spent the entire journey enduring the heat of the sun in an open-air truck.
Cruz, the leader of the bantay gubat (forest guard) association, had persisted for two years to make sure he and his men are paid for the gruelling work of a forest guard.
For the 15 months of work that had gone unpaid, the forest guards monitored a 6,600-hectare mountain forest with little protective equipment, risked their lives confronting illegal loggers, and confiscated hundreds of thousands of pesos worth of illegal forest products.
Cruz contacted everyone he thought could help bring attention to their plight. His doggedness even led to an audience with Bulacan First District Representative Victoria Sy-Alvarado.
Despite their efforts, the forest guards were still not paid by January, compelling them to abandon their posts in the Ipo Watershed.
Since then, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reported an increase in illegal activities inside the watershed such as illegal logging, squatting, and charcoal-making.
Such activities endanger the ability of the watershed to continue generating water for Metro Manila. The Ipo Watershed is part of the greater Angat Watershed system that provides 97% of the mega-city’s water needs.
In the beginning of February, MWSS Administrator Gerry Esquivel admitted to Rappler that the non-payment of the salaries was an "oversight." He promised to pay the forest guards after looking through documentation of their work.
Finally, 12 out of the 15 months of work were paid for on Monday. The 3 remaining months of work are expected to be paid for by the DENR regional office in Bulacan, said Cruz.
Back to Ipo
Encouraged by the MWSS following through with its promises, Cruz said he and his men will return to their jobs of guarding the watershed.
"Ituloy namin ang aming trabaho. Eh kami naman, any time naman kami. Ngayon, balik sa bantay gubat ulit, balik sa Ipo uli," he said.
(We will continue our work. We are ready any time. Now, we will go back to guarding the forest, back to Ipo.)
Most of the money now in the hands of the forest guards will likely go to paying debts accumulated through the years.
Cruz, for instance, owes his people's organization P53,000.
Bantay gubat leader Manny Cruz explains what he will do w/ 9 months worth of overdue salary paid today by MWSS pic.twitter.com/apbG5hYQfg— Pia Ranada (@piaranada) February 23, 2016
The rest of his salary will be used to pay for the needs of his family and, perhaps, even a small celebration during the upcoming fiesta in their village.
"Piyesta pa naman sa amin sa [Pebrero] 28 kaya, kahit papaano, sana makaluto naman ng kaunti siguro," Cruz told Rappler.
(It's fiesta time for us on February 28 so I hope we can cook something special.)
But his battle is not yet over. Cruz, his men, and their families will continue following up on the 3 months of work rendered in 2015 that would likely be paid after elections this May.
Cruz also said he is pushing for the signing of a contract between the MWSS or DENR and his group of forest guards.
"Ang problema na lang eh sa ngayon wala 'yung kontrata. Kasi hindi naman din kami lulusob sa gubat na wala kaming pinanghahawakang papel ngayon," he said.
(The only problem now is there is still no contract. We cannot enter the forest without holding a piece of paper for assurance.)
MWSS Deputy Administrator for Finance Boyet Andin said that the government agency also has plans to "institutionalize" the bantay gubat system.
A framework for improved watershed management by the MWSS and DENR, who share responsibilities for the watershed, is set to be finalized this March, he said.
In the framework, the MWSS, with the help of water concessionaires Maynilad and Manila Water, will be providing P100 million to cover the one-year piloting of the management plan.
The plan involves the hiring of 144 forest guards, a big increase from today's 23 forest guards. – Rappler.com