[Entrance of Iwahig River Firefly Watching Tour three months after it was closed by Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) in April due to the said unpaid rents of Iwahig Community Eco-Tourism Multi-Purpose Cooperative (ICEMCO) to the BuCor seen by Commission on Audit (COA)]

The Iwahig Community Eco-Tourism Multi-Purpose Cooperative (ICEMCO) is frustrated over the Bureau of Corrections’ (BuCor) final decision to terminate their agreement on the continuous operation of the firefly watching tour in Iwahig River for failing to pay P2.8 million as rent and profit share.

ICEMCO chairman Manuel Socrates said it was a sad decision made by BuCor director general Nicanor Faeldon because their cooperative is not guilty of any wrongdoing.

“Nakakalungkot nga ‘yong pangyayari sapagkat naniniwala kami na wala naman kaming naging kasalanan pero hindi nila kami binigyan ng pagkakataon na maikonsidera ang aming pakiusap na sana maipagpatuloy pa ‘yong operation ng firefly watching. Wala na talaga kaming pag-asa — hindi na kami pinagbigyan sa aming kahilingan na ipagpatuloy ang aming operation kaya tinuluyan na naming isara,” Socrates said.

ICEMCO’s joint venture agreement (JVA) with BuCor was terminated after Faeldon got hold of a Commission on Audit (COA) report that stated its failure to remit rent and income share since 2008.

In a recent visit, Faeldon said ICEMCO can no longer continue operating the firefly watching tour because it refused to settle the P2.8 million.

“Hindi na makakabalik kung sino man ‘yong dati doon. You cannot do that to the government, ako naman ang pagagalitan ng sambayanang Pilipino kung pababalikin ko. I cannot answer for the entire country if I will continue their operation so, that’s final, they cannot go back,” Faeldon said.

Unpaid rent and profit shares

Socrates said the operation of the firefly watching community-based sustainable tourism (CBST) project in Iwahig was not under any agreement with BuCor since 2008.

When he became part of the cooperative in March 2017, he took the initiative to have a lease agreement with BuCor which happened in 2018.

He said the agreed rent was P25,000 per month and a share of P10 for every boat that will be used in the tour. They started remitting in May 2018 to April 2019.

“Yong sinasabi nila na hindi kami nagbayad, bago kasi na-perfect ang aming agreement with the Bureau of Corrections with officer-in-charge Valfrie Tabian, nag-submit kami ng proposal offer kung magkano ang babayaran namin. Ang offer namin is P10,000 per month at meron P10 production sharing,” he said.

But when the agreement was finalized, BuCor did not change the P25,000 to P10,000. It also did not mention the agreed mode of payment for the P270,000.

On the payment of the arrears, Socrates said it was agreed that ICEMCO will pay P270,000 to cover the 2009-2017 unpaid years.

“Sabi nila, paano ‘yong prior years na hindi kayo nagbayad? Ang sabi namin, dahil during that time hindi pa naman kami kumikita, we are willing to pay 270,000 covering mga previous years na di kami nagbayad dahil walang kontrata. Kahit hindi association, kahit hindi pa during my time, sabi ko sige willing kami magbayad provided na babayaran ‘yan within two years — from 2018-2019. Kasi sabi ko wala naman kaming sapat na pera para bayaran,” he added.

Socrates said he signed the contract on assumption that the P15,000 in the P25,000 will cover the P270,000 until it is paid.

However, he did not say if he clarified this with BuCoR.

“Noong lumabas ang final draft ng aming kontrata, hindi na naging P10,000. It was 25,000 per month at P10 pa rin na production sharing. Pumirma ako sa kontrata, all the while, akala ko palibhasa wala na ‘yong P270,000 — in-assume ko na ‘yong additional na P15,000 per month will cover ‘yong two years. Na pumasok na ‘yong P270,000 na dapat namin bayaran,” he said.

He said they were advised to make the request formally to reduce the rent in December 2018 when BuCor officials visited the river.

Socrates said they were shocked to receive the cease and desist order (CDO) in March 2019 from the office of its legal division chief, Atty. Fredric Anthony Santos.

They wrote several letters of appeal for the sake of the employees of the firefly watching tour, but BuCor had already made its final decision.

BuCor opens Iwahig River to new operator

In his visit on August 5, Faeldon announced that they are looking for a new investor to operate the firefly watching tour.

As of now, however, his office has not received any formal proposal.

“Once the joint venture agreement reaches my office, I can make the decision within one hour. Meaning, when I see that it is not viable, I will just disapprove it,” he said.

Faeldon also wants the operation of the CBST to continue due to the affected boatmen.

But the operation has to be in accordance with government policies and covered by a JVA, he said.

“I haven’t received any proposal yet. But I am guaranteeing any entity that would want to joint venture with us on this that it is really open because we want that activity to continue. Meron din naman affected na ibang mga boatmen so we want them to continue their livelihood — but again, we want a management that could really manage it. Hindi puwede ‘yong ganoon lang kasi aawayin tayo ng sambayanan. It’s not going to happen again,” he said.

On the other hand, Socrates is uncertain if the boatmen of the cooperative will join the new management after the closure of the firefly watching CBST project.

“Sa totoo, hindi na ako interesado sa kanila. Bahala na sila kung ano’ng gagawin nila basta kami naghahanap ng bagong business opportunities para ang aming kooperatiba ay hindi naman mamatay at para makapagtuloy pa rin kami ng negosyo,” Socrates said.

ICEMCO needs to pay P2.4 million

Faeldon said the ICEMCO still needs to pay the P2.8 million it owes the BuCor and COA will monitor the payment.

But Socrates said they no longer have any obligation to settle with the corrections bureau, adding he has no idea how the amount was computed.

“Hindi kami magbabayad kasi wala nga kaming obligasyon. Anong babasehan namin para magbayad? Kasi wala naman talagang dokumento, walang agreement sa ICEMCO at sa BuCor na kami dapat magbayad ng P270,000? How much more kung maniningil pa sila ng P2.8 million? Saan kami kukuha ng pera? ‘Yong kaunti namin na pera ay ibinigay na namin sa aming personnel na nawalan ng trabaho,” he said.

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is one of the senior reporters of Palawan News. She covers agriculture, business, and different feature stories. Her interests are collecting empty bottles, aesthetic earrings, and anything that is color yellow.