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This picture taken on Jan 18 shows jeepneys during rush hour in Manila. NOEL CELIS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MANILA-Bernardo de la Cruz casts his eyes around the nearly silent workshop where he used to toil overtime hand-painting custom decor on jeepneys, the singularly Philippine minibuses facing the scrap heap.

These rolling art galleries adorned with images of everything from Batman to babies, as well as disco lights and chrome wheels, have for decades provided cheap transport for millions.

But pollution and safety concerns have led to a modernization program, with jeepneys 15 years or older to be taken off the streets by 2020.

"This is an act of treachery against fellow Filipinos," said de la Cruz. "This is a uniquely Filipino product. We were born with it."

When he began 45 years ago, there were hundreds of artists giving the vehicles their famously boisterous paint jobs. Now there are estimated to be fewer than a dozen left.

He has seen orders decline from a high of up to 80 a month in the 1980s to just one or two now.

His canvas is being replaced by eco-jeepneys, powered by electricity or lower-polluting diesel motors.

Riders of old jeepneys currently have to climb in through a hatch in the rear, cramming into the benches inside with no respite from the heat and roadside pollution.

On borrowed time

The jeepney"s successor is being billed as a big improvement.

It has doors, individual seats, air conditioning, and enough height to stand up.

But it will be mass-produced and look just like a public bus.

Skipping over the jeepney"s bespoke production process in small workshops means a loss of the individual style and flair that made them global symbols of the Philippines.

"It"s one of the most genuine forms of modern folk art that we have," said Bernie Sim, a Manila-based graphic designer and co-author of a 2014 book on jeepney art.

French fashion designer Christian Louboutin launched a jeepney-themed handbag collection last year, while Swedish furniture giant Ikea painted a jeepney in its signature blue and yellow to announce plans to open a Philippine store.

But the vehicles, which were first made from leftover US jeeps after World War II, have been on borrowed time for years.

Jeepneys are highly polluting, and the Philippines is desperate to improve air quality in its traffic-clogged cities.

What"s more, their drivers usually ignore traffic rules and the vehicles have few safety features.

On top of that, Manila ushered in internet-based ride-sharing services in 2014, and three years later, President Rodrigo Duterte said the jeepney must evolve or disappear.

"I cry quietly"

"They have all but stopped making jeepneys," said 52-year-old jeepney artist Vic Capuno, based in San Pablo town south of Manila.

As a result he and a colleague at Armak Motors now paint just three of four jeepneys a month.

De la Cruz worked on nine in the last year. He"s the only painter left at Manila"s Sarao Motors, once the country"s biggest producer.

Two of his siblings were also jeepney artists, but they died from diseases he believes were caused by years inhaling fumes from the paint.

Yet he is still passionate about the vehicle"s importance in Philippine history.

"When the jeepney disappears a piece of Filipino culture will also die," de la Cruz warned.

His jeepney designs, still seen on the streets for now, chronicle the rapidly changing landscape of his home-Las Pinas-from a farming and salt-making backwater into a highly urbanized area. "It"s a pleasing sight," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE - PRESSE

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