Down a dark, cramped alleyway in the heart of densely packed Manila, a resistance movement is holding strong.
The movement is focused on protecting a beloved Philippine form of public transport, the passenger truck known as the jeepney — but to reach its headquarters in a nearly hidden lane, it's a good idea to ditch your own vehicle. The lane is so narrow that even the slightest wrong move could result in scratches or a dislodged side-view mirror from hitting a wall.
Outside the office's metal gate is a beat-up jeepney with a sign reading: "Ibasura ang Jeepney Phaseout!" or "No To Jeepney Phaseout!"
Inside, George San Mateo sits eating his dinner. He's a warm, welcoming man sporting a salt-and-pepper goatee, glasses and a newsboy cap. San Mateo, 51, has been a driver for almost three decades and now heads the transport rights group Piston, short for Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operator Nationwide, or "unified nationwide organization of drivers and operators." It's in this role that he's leading the resistance to a government plan to "modernize" old jeepneys and replace them with newer, more eco-friendly models.
"Piston has no problem with modernization because we consider ourselves progressive," San Mateo says. "We are progressive, so we are not anti-development. But the problem with the modernization program ...it is anti-poor and profit-oriented."
Jeepneys have become synonymous with Philippine daily life. The first were cobbled together using parts of surplus Jeeps left behind by American troops after World War II. The Filipinos converted them into transport vehicles that could hold between 15 to 20 people at a time (though not all those passengers may actually fit inside the vehicle).
"The reason why jeepneys became the dominant mode of transport [is] because after World War II, the government did not establish a mass transport system," San Mateo explains.
Though numbers are hard to come by, various estimates say there are somewhere between 180,000 and 270,000 franchised jeepneys on the road across the Philippines, with some 75,000 in Metro Manila alone. Studies have shown they are the country's most popular mode of transportation, taking millions to and from work every day. They're easy to spot on the traffic-choked roads, often painted with bright colors and adorned with flashy ornaments. Many jeepneys sport names or slogans painted in big, elaborate fonts.
The jeepneys are often blamed for heavy traffic congestion because of their indiscriminate stopping and going to let people on and off. They have designated routes but no designated stops, so they operate much like hop-on-hop-off buses.
And while jeepney bodies have changed over time (almost all parts are now made overseas and shipped to the Philippines to be assembled), the vehicles are notorious polluters. While jeepneys can run on both gasoline and diesel, a 2016 study by the Manila Observatory, a nonprofit science research institute, found that diesel-fed jeepneys were responsible for 15 percent of the particulate matter emissions in Metro Manila.
That's why the government of President Rodrigo Duterte plans to take all jeepneys 15 years or older off the roads and replace them with a more eco-friendly, minivan-like version that's bigger, safer and produces fewer emissions. The modernization plan started in January, and the government hopes to have all old jeepneys off the road by 2020.
But San Mateo says placing the blame for pollution solely on jeepneys is unfair in a city with so many other polluting vehicles. He says if the government didn't impose so many fees, fines and penalties on jeepney drivers and operators, they would have more money to maintain their sometimes dilapidated vehicles.
In Metro Manila, a city of 12 million-plus and one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world, jeepneys are second only to walking when it comes to getting around. They're the cheapest option by far, with rides costing an average of 8 Filipino pisos, about 16 cents. Jeepneys are a popular option over the city's light rail system, taxis, commuter buses and even trikes — motorcycles with sidecars — across income levels, but especially for the poor. Despite a fast-growing economy, millions of Filipinos remain below the poverty line.
"Let us remember that jeepney commuters are some of the poorest of the poor in the Philippines," says Mateo. "Our vast passengers are not Uber-riding passengers, these are minimum-wage earners and their sons and daughters."
Jeepney drivers and operators don't earn a lot, either. San Mateo says a driver makes about 500 to 600 pisos, or about $11, for two days of work. Earnings depend on factors such as profitability of the route, passenger volume and seating capacity. San Mateo says top-of-the-line jeepneys today cost about 600,000 to 700,000 pisos, or $11,000 to $13,000. The new model the government wants them to purchase costs 1.6 million to 1.8 million pisos, or between $30,000 and $35,000.
San Mateo warns that the costs to run and maintain these newer models will be passed on to commuters in the form of increased fares.
"That's why there's a deadlock on this," says San Mateo. "So we have no choice but to fight back and launch transport strikes and transport protests."
He wants President Duterte to scrap the current plan and work toward nationalizing the public transport system so drivers might get government help to buy or operate their jeepneys.
"What we want in a modernization program...[is] the framework should be socially just, democratic, public service-oriented and its long-term perspective should be nationalization of public transport," San Mateo says. "But government doesn't want that."
Last year, San Mateo helped organize two strikes: a jeepney drivers' strike in February, which San Mateo was arrested for leading, and a two-day, nationwide transport strike in October. The government has filed a case against San Mateo in connection with the October strike.
"You're poor?" Duterte snapped in a speech, addressing drivers during the October protests. "Son of a bitch, suffer hardship and hunger. I don't care."
Duterte's administration has rebuffed criticism that the plan is "anti-poor," and claims its goal is not to completely phase out jeepneys, but to make them more efficient and profitable. It wants to establish new routes with designated drop-off and load points and restructure and consolidate the ownership of jeepneys.
Riders seem split on the issue.
"It's better for the environment," says Win Tan, who rides a jeepney to work every day to her job as a car rental assistant. "But for the operators, it's not that good."
Cath Volentino is a tax consultant who has been riding jeepneys since she was a kid.
"The government is quite right that people need to have a better ride, but how about those jeepney drivers that can't afford to have a new jeepney?" she says. "It's okay if the government wants to provide for them, but it's quite a hassle."
Jose Gamo, who has also been riding jeepneys since he was a child, says the government's plan could lead to chaos for commuters.
"I think the government needs better time to help the jeepney operators adjust to the change, as well as help the commuters," he says. "Because if you phase out everything, there won't be enough new jeepneys immediately. So you need better planning for transition."
Gamo says he can't imagine a Manila without the jeepneys he knows and loves.
"It's going to be incredibly hard to get around anywhere," he says.
Back at Piston's headquarters, San Mateo says he and his fellow jeepney drivers have no intention of letting that happen.
"We are not yet giving up," he says, "so we are not yet entertaining a post-defeat scenario."