Cover Breathtaking view on the mountain tops of Guhang

The need to save the Banaue Rice Terraces is urgent lest we lose the magnificent treasure that has been fondly called as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

This feature story was originally titled as The Rice Eaters, and was published in the June 2008 issue of Tatler Philippines

By and large, Filipinos—or Asians, for that matter—are rice eaters, but few realise the task that goes into the production of this staple. Most of is see rice already served on our table or the polished grain ready to cook. We do not see the farmers toiling from dawn till dusk, their feet in mud during planting season and their hands scratched and hardened during the harvest season. And even before this, the preparation of the fields with the help of a carabao, or machines if they are lucky, to turn the soil inside out and upside down. Planting rice is hard work, as it is. More difficult if one had to climb up mountains to do so. Sheltered by the Cordillera Mountain Ranges, Ifugao Province is 348 kilometres from Manila and is accessible by land transportation. It is a world traveller's destination for its magnificent rice terraces found in the towns of Banaue, Kiangan, Hungduan and Mayoyao. Ifugao is home not only to the great rice terraces but to a thriving ancient culture that remains a depository of indigenous knowledge, systems and practices.

There are many small hotels and inns-cum-restaurants in the capital of Banaue, but the Banaue Hotel and Youth Hostel, run by the Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA), is where one can get a good view of the terraces. The hotel is embedded in an impressionist landscape of greens and boasts of modern amenities and a warm and perky staff. From the hotel, guided tours may be arranged. These may include treks on foot trails to Bangaan and Batad, where one can walk through the terraces.

There is a private museum owned by the Luglug family where one can get a glimpse of Ifugao history and culture. In town are many small shops that display Ifugao crafts—wood carvings, attractive hand-woven fabric, basketry for different uses and accessories like charms, pendants, bangles and other jewellery. A visit to the market gives one a glimpse of the people who chew betel nuts—the produce of the province—and the trading that goes on there daily.

EIGHTH WONDER

The Banaue Rice Terraces were carved by hand out of the mountains by ancestors of the Ifugaos 2,000 to 6,000 years ago, when no books about engineering, hydrology, and agro-forestry were available. The forebears of this tribe transformed the rugged, harsh and steep mountainous environment into productive rice fields using the crudest of tools, showing amazing engineering skills and ingenuity. They put in place an ancient irrigation system fed by the rain forest above, tapping from mountain springs and waterways and channelling into canals that run downhill. They also stonewalled the terraces using primitive tools and ancient methods, from the base of a mountain range that extended up to 5,000 feet. To date, the terraces are the best model of sustainable agro-forestry.

Tatler Asia
Above Ancient tools of the farming trade

Fondly known as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Banaue rice terraces were declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site (WHS) in 1995 with the distinction of being a cultural landscape. They were also chosen as a "green globe destination" by the World Travel and Tour Council and conferred the International Historic Engineering Award by the American Society of Civil Engineers. They are also called a symbol of sustainability as, although built centuries ago, it is still being used for the purpose it was created for: the cultivation of rice.

Despite such titles, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) placed the Banaue rice terraces on the World Heritage Site Danger in 2001. They warned that if it is not maintained within the next 10 years, the alarming deterioration will result in its losing its WHS status.

SAD REALITIES

The major factor threatening the deterioration of the rice terraces is the Ifugao people themselves. They show a diminishing interest in their culture and in maintaining their unique legacy. Consequently, the conditions that create this situation are apparent.

Acculturation is one. The influences of Christianity and education, for instance, are weaning the younger Ifugaos away from their customs and their land. When they are exposed to other cultures and places, they assimilate them and move to areas where economic opportunities abroad.

Dependence on the government for the maintenance and repair of the irrigation systems and the terraces has weakened the observance of tribal rituals and communal activities. Traditional agricultural practices, which considered the biophysical elements and sustained this upland technological system, have been replaced and are eroding with the introduction of commercial agriculture.

Outmigration, basically caused by economic pressures, poses a threat to the rice terraces because of the shortage of labour to work the land. Some 25 to 30 percent of the terraces are now abandoned and in danger of wall damage.

Clearly, the Ifugao rice terraces today cannot sustain the people living within its environs. The population is increasing and the people have other needs, such as food supply all year round and the resources to educate their children.

The repair of the terraces is necessary and requires capital which the farmers do not have. On the ground, heavy rains have damaged many rice paddies, necessitating major work and riprapping. Some watersheds have also deteriorated and denuded, needing reforestation.

But there is limited local government resource to respond to the task of restoring and preserving the rice terraces. Funds, equipment, systems and mechanisms, infrastructure support are essential to programme implementation. The fast turnover of local officials who have only three terms brings in new development priorities, not necessarily the same as espoused by the past officials.

New technology and introduction of new species, coupled with biopiracy and unregulated hunting, have had an adverse impact on the biodiversity in the province. Low-level awareness and absence of policies also contribute to the problem.

Furthermore, unregulated development in the terraces is taking place and many rice terraces are being converted to vegetable farming and the lower rungs to residential plots.

SAVE THE TERRACES

The recognition of Ifugao culture by many observers and international communities is one reason why the rice terraces exist today. It is a hard climb, however. In countries like the Philippines, preserving heritage is a lost cause, laments the architect Augusto Villalon, unless preservation is relevant to host communities. On top of this, the preservation of the rice terraces is a Herculean task. It involves not only reconstructing the eroded shoulders of the terrace walls but the crumbling values and age-old traditions that had webbed and glued this magnificent masterpiece for years.

 

Villalon, chairman of the ICOMOS National Committee Philippines, says that heritage must be used as a resource to generate income through community tourism programmes, craft development or harnessing resources for sustainable livelihood. Restoring the terraces and its walls must come together with the establishment of cultural and economic opportunities that would make terrace life viable for the 21st century.

At the ICOMOS meeting in Banue last December (2007), Ifugao officials committed to taking remedial measures to remove the rice terraces from the WHS Danger List. The ICOMOS, the official UNESCO body for cultural heritage matters sees the need to establish additional income-generating opportunities such as community-based cultural and ecotourism programmes.

The Ifugao Culture and Heritage Office and the Save the Ifugao Movement (SITMO) have both undertaken efforts to restore them. Ester Licnachan, the SITMO head, said that they are conducting rice-cycle based ecotourism, where most of the income goes back to the farmers through the services they render during the tours. The Banaue-based NGO Rice has been exporting good quality tinawon rice from Ifugao.

The stakeholders, particularly the villagers, need to be encouraged to revive and preserve the culture and tradition that built the rice terraces. There is also hope that the younger generation will take up the cudgels to preserve the terraces for the benefit of others to come. That would be a fitting tribute to their ancestors, who built the terrace up towards the heavens.


UPDATE: 13 years after this feature story has been published, the Banaue Rice Terraces remain to be in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.