Ipo Dam forest rangers on strike over salary delays

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Forest Ranger Manny Cruz (Photo courtesy of Fredd Ochavo)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 22)— At the age of 52, Manny Cruz is still going around the forested area of Ipo Dam watershed in Norzagaray, Bulacan. Along with over 200 “bantay gubat” or forest rangers, he has been looking after the watershed since 2013.

Manny heads the forest rangers for Ipo Dam.

A member of the Dumagat indigenous people, Manny is dedicated to protecting their ancestral land.

Forest rangers like Manny help in maintaining and protecting forests that are crucial in ensuring a stable water supply for millions of Filipinos. They are the guardians against illegal logging, kaingin or charcoal making. They also help in planting trees.

But in January, Manny and about 200 forest rangers refused to go back to work after failing to receive their salary from September to December 2020. Manny said they only got their salary for May to August last February 6.

Ang pinasweldo lang sa amin ‘yung four months, kaya madaling salita, nagwelga ako na hindi muna pumasok ng January hanggang ngayon po,” Manny told CNN Philippines.

[Translation: The only salary they gave us was for the four months, so in short, I went on strike and did not go to work from January until now.]

Photo courtesy of Fredd Ochavo

He said this is just the only thing they are asking in exchange for a risky job.

A report by Global Witness, an international NGO, said the Philippines has the world's highest number of land and forest defenders killed in 2018. Manny and his co-forest rangers had their share of encounters with armed illegal loggers or trespassers.

“Kung sa delikado talagang delikado, may nahaharang kami illigalista na lumalaban pa sa amin na hindi ganun kadali, ang nangyayari sa amin, disgrasya ang inaabot,” Manny said. “Ang illigalista may armado ‘yan. Nangyari ‘yan 2017 o 2018, totally nadisgrasya, naharang kami sa parteng Rizal. Una wala naman kaming isyung baril, ang kalaban ho dahil ilgalista may baril ‘yan. Ganyan kasalimuot ang aming pagpapatrol.”

[Translation: It’s really dangerous, we encounter people who do illegal practices who challenge us, and we sometimes figure in accidents. These illegals, they are armed. It happened in 2017 or 2018, we were blocked in Rizal. We don’t have issues with guns, but our enemies, they have guns. That’s how complicated our patrolling is.]

Roman Corpuz, watershed management division manager of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, said they were not able to release the remaining salary due to the implementation of the enhanced community quarantine to avoid mass gathering.

But Manny lamented this isn’t the only time that their salary has been delayed. He is asking those in charge to come up with a better system and put everything in writing.

Sa mahigit isang dekada na pinagtiisan ko… hindi ko na kaya," he said. "Pagdating sa pakikipag-usap, parang lagi na lang lokohan, puro drawing na lang, kaya yun ang aming hinihiling ipasweldo ang four months namin saka mag usap ng panibago. Dapat may kontrata na yan.”

[Translation: For over a decade I’ve suffered through this, I can’t take it anymore. When we talk, it’s like we’re just fooling ourselves. That’s our only wish— to get our salaries. There should also be a contract.]

Corpuz admitted that the delay has been an issue for some time. MWSS has asked 35 forest rangers to go back to work while they fix the system.

Aside from the timely release of salary, Corpuz said they are also working on providing forest rangers with additional benefits. They are also looking at assigning a body to oversee the forest rangers.

“‘Yun po ang inaayos ngayon together with Maynilad, Manila Water and DENR para po mapabilis ang proseso mas maayos na compensation system,” Corpuz said.

[Translation: That’s what we’re working on with Maynilad, Manila Water, and DENR— to expedite the process for a better compensation system.]

Corpuz added the proposal for the new system is already on the table, and if approved, will take effect by mid-2021. Manny said he already heard promises before, but expressed hope those in charge will keep their word this time.