Protect our forest protectors
Yet another sector is crying for help due to budget woes and government inattention further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic: Forest rangers who are responsible for protecting and guarding 7.6 million hectares (18.78 million acres) of the country’s forest cover.
The sorry state of the country’s forest rangers, many of them indigenous people who work as “volunteers,” prompted Palawan-based nongovernment organization Centre for Sustainability Philippines to sell artworks last month in order to raise money to provide allowances for the Batak and Tagbanua communities that protect the 41,350-hectare Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat, one of the oldest and most diverse forests in the Philippines.
Earlier, in January, about 200 of the “bantay gubat” guarding the forested area of Ipo Dam watershed in Norzagaray, Bulacan, refused to return to work after failing to receive their salary from September to December 2020. Manny Cruz, a member of the Dumagat indigenous people and head of Ipo Dam’s forest rangers who have been watching over the watershed since 2013, said this was not the first time their salary was delayed. There was also no contract, which, according to Cruz, was the least the government could have provided considering the high risks involved in their job, including dealing with trespassers and armed henchmen of illegal loggers.
Their job is so dangerous, in fact, that the Philippines was named the second deadliest country for environmental activists in 2019, according to a report by international NGO Global Witness. “The Philippines has become even deadlier for activists since 2018, having been consistently named as one of the worst places in Asia for attacks against defenders,” it said, with the number of murders increasing from 30 in 2018 to 43 in 2019. “The relentless vilification of defenders by the government and widespread impunity for their attackers may well be driving the increase,” noted Global Witness. The murders in 2019 included that of Bienvinido Veguilla Jr., 44, a forest ranger of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources who was hacked to death while trying to arrest suspected illegal loggers in El Nido town.
Despite the dangers that come with the job, however, many of these forest rangers are not even regular government employees, and thus do not have health benefits, accident insurance, or hazard pay. Environment science website Mongabay.com noted that actual funding for the government’s biodiversity action plan was only P4.95 billion in 2019 out of the P24 billion required, and the P19-
billion gap has impacted the job security of forest rangers. Among those adversely affected were rangers employed under the government’s Tamaraw Conservation Program (TCP), whose budget was slashed to P2.7 million in 2019 — a meager amount meant to cover the wages of its 24 rangers and three office staff who earn less than the minimum wage. Last year, TCP had to let go of four rangers because its P4-million budget was cut by 10 percent as the government diverted funds to the COVID-19 response.
The low pay and lack of job security for the country’s forest rangers, the frontliners in protecting the country’s precious natural resources, have long been lamented but rarely heard. Consider this: New rangers earn about P6,000 monthly while more senior ones earn up to P11,000 monthly — barely enough for their daily food and transportation needs, much more if they have a family. Compare that to the P29,000 base pay for policemen, among the most pampered government workers under the Duterte administration.
In 2019, Buhay Rep. Lito Atienza filed House Bill No. 2597 seeking to increase the minimum base pay of forest rangers from Salary Grade 4 (P13,807) to Salary Grade 18 (P42,159), plus the granting of employment benefits including subsistence allowance, overtime and hazard pays, and compensation for work-related injuries. “Our forest rangers have endured hard work and low pay. Many of them have even sacrificed lives in the line of duty. They deserve these long-overdue benefits,” Atienza said. The bill is still stuck at the House of Representatives committee on civil service and professional regulation.
Given the work that they do and the risks they face, forest rangers are indeed unsung heroes, as Inquirer columnist Gideon Lasco wrote in a column in October 2019. Their deep love for the forests is rooted in their cultural heritage, but “… they are underpaid and outnumbered, receiving little support and protection even as they face threats of violence and death.” The climate crisis already at hand makes it even more imperative for the government to provide these environmental heroes the support and protection they deserve, in recognition of their indispensable work as guardians of the country’s remaining natural wealth.
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