Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras: Understanding the Complexity One Step at a Time

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It was only last year (I hate to admit this!) that I finally came face to face with the Philippines’ world-renowned rice terraces. I can only think of few places I have been so far that are as picturesque and awe-inspiring as the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras – they breathe the history of the Ifugao. The incredible mixture of purely man-made terraces, the mountains, the muyongs, traditional hamlets, and other visible cultural artefacts in the region certainly does not disappoint.

Batad Rice Terraces during post-harvest season as seen from the top. Photo: Patrick Duvanel

Batad Rice Terraces during post-harvest season as seen from the top. Photo: Patrick Duvanel

Ticking off this world heritage site can be very tricky. There are a lot of rice terraces in the Ifugao province. Though all are declared National Cultural Treasures under the all-encompassing title of Ifugao Rice Terraces, there are only five specific clusters that are inscribed as World Heritage Sites in 1995. These are the Batad, Bangaan, Mayoyao, Nagacadan, and Hungduan. These select rice terraces were able to pass UNESCO’s strict requirements due to the “well-preserved blending of the physical, socio-cultural, economic, religious, and political environment” in creating an exemplary evolved, living cultural landscape.

One misconception Filipinos have (and I’ve seen this perpetuated a lot in social media and networking platforms) is the generalized and erroneous notion that the Banaue Rice Terraces in the town proper is a world heritage site. Sadly, it is not! This is even made worse by Banco Sentral ng Pilipinas wrongfully citing the Banaue Rice Terraces as a Unesco World Heritage Site in the current 20-peso bill.

Most Filipinos are famiilar with the Banaue Rice Terraces. This cluster, however, is not a WHS.

Most Filipinos are familiar with the Banaue Rice Terraces. This cluster, however, is not a WHS.

Spending a weekend in Banaue with family and some friends, I was able to visit Batad and Bangaan in a day. As these two rice terraces clusters are along the same route, maximizing the opportunity to see both then became more of an undeniable obligation than being merely a right.

How big are the terraces again? Some are as high as 10-feet tall.

How big are the terraces again? Some are as high as 10-feet tall.

The Batad Rice Terraces, the smallest among the five clusters, appear to be the most popular with its amphitheatre-like appearance. Given its steepness, it virtually looks like a horizontally-lined cliff from a far. Some of Batad’s terraces are even stone-walled to prevent erosion and landslides. A larger exponent of this dry-stone walling technique can be seen in the Hungduan Rice Terraces, the largest of the five clusters. The oldest of these walls in Hungduan are dated to be from 650AD, making them the oldest stone structure across the archipelago.

How about waking up everyday to this view? :p

How about waking up everyday to this view?

The practice of rice terracing is not exactly unique to the Philippines. Just this year, the Hanni Rice Terraces in Southern China, for example, have also been designated as a WHS. Nevertheless, the unparalleled features that make the Ifugao Rice Terraces stand out are their altitude (reaching as high as 1500 metres from the base) and steepness (at 70 degrees maximum angulation). More so, these rice terraces are the oldest and largest continually used rice terraces in the world. The American Society of Civil Engineers named the Ifugao Rice Terraces as a Historic Engineering Landmark for water supply and control. In 1997, the same group came to the Philippines and formally declared (through a marker) the rice terraces as the 8th Wonder of the World (Thanks to former Tourism Secretary Mina Gabor for sharing me this information).

Bangaan, on the other hand, is recognized for having the best preserved rice terraces cluster that “backdrops a typical Ifugao traditional village”. Indeed, the most noticeable component of Bangaan would be the intact central hamlet. Instead of stones, the walls of Bangaan Rice Terraces are made of mud. As much as Batad is unanimously being hailed as the best, I actually found Bangaan to possess a better character; the experience, more authentic. I guess this impression stems from the fact that this cluster is much more colourful with varying shades of green and brown, together with the silvery reflections of its water-fed paddies – a phenomenon of natural beauty that I never saw in other rice terraces clusters (i.e., Batad cluster, Guijob cluster, Bayo cluster, Sagada cluster, etc).

The colors of the fields of Bangaan Rice Terraces

The colors of the fields of Bangaan Rice Terraces

The agricultural complex of the rice terraces is an ingenious work of art that allows sufficient irrigation to the terraced pond fields, and water storage method in an elaborate farming system. A unique irrigation network of earthen dikes, sluizes, canals, and bamboo pipes keeps the terraces adequately flooded. The humble muyongs (forest caps) that act as the main watersheds for the rice terraces are strictly protected areas as well. This culture of farming has been recognized by the Food and Agriculture Organization as an outstanding example of “worldwide, specific agricultural systems and landscapes (that) have been created, shaped and maintained by generations of farmers and herders based on diverse natural resources, using locally adapted management practices” and thereby declared the entire Ifugao Rice Terraces as a pilot for the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) in 2002.

Slow food and goods mobility largely describes the rice terraces communities as well.  Goods must be hand-carried from the nearest markets to the Batad village. It takes around 2 hours to do this. This guy is carrying a live pig. Gotta be macho :)

Slow food/goods mobility largely describes the rice terraces communities as well. Goods must be hand-carried from the nearest markets to the Batad village. It takes around 2 hours to do this. This guy is carrying a live pig. Gotta be macho!

It has to be bore in mind that, as a continuing cultural landscape, the rice terraces should be seen and understood in relation to its environment (mountain landscape) and the traditions of its people (rituals, farming practices, beliefs, etc.). Key to better appreciation can be achieved by going beyond the tourists’ viewing points, and taking the effort to walk on terraces’ walls (only then will you realize the size of these structures) and interact with the locals of the immediate communities. Interestingly, the Hudhud Chants of the Ifugao, which is traditionally sung during planting and harvesting seasons, are also recognized as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity – another testament on how rich the culture truly is. If you want to read more about the hudhud, please check the previous post.

Until the inscription of the Bali’s Subak System in 2012, the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras were the only properties in the World Heritage List that are dedicated to the production of the single most important crop in the world, rice.

The traditional Ifugao hamlet in the middle of the Bangaan Rice Terraces.

The traditional Ifugao hamlet in the middle of the Bangaan Rice Terraces.

What is then the assessment?

The rice terraces, however, also became victims of the disruptive nature and effects of modernization. The Ifugao Rice Terraces (this includes the 5 WHS) have been listed twice as one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World by the World Monuments Watch in 2000 and 2010, respectively. These were in response to the two waves of massive abandonment of the rice terraces by local farmers. In the aim to find greener pastures, farmers fled to the cities leaving the rice terraces unattended and crumbling. At the same time, the indigenous local rice strain that adapted to thrive in such high altitudes was also substituted with “more productive” and “easier to produce” cash crops, creating a serious shift in the integrity of this cultural landscape.

Given the alarming status of the world heritage Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, the properties were also placed in the World Heritage In Danger List in 2001 until significant improvements and reparations were finally secured in 2012.

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras represent the larger entirety of the Ifugao Rice Terraces – the five sites are the best embodiment of the rice terraces’ Outstanding Universal Values. The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras will always have a special place in humanity as it was the first set of properties to be assigned as world heritage sites under the cultural landscape category upon inscription. Indeed, these are a magnificent feat of human ingenuity, creativity, and resourcefulness amidst harshly mountainous, uneven terrains.

A Bul-ol, the Ifugao god of harvest, and other wooden crafts by the people of Batad.

A Bul-ol, the Ifugao god of harvest, and other wooden crafts by the people of Batad.

For Filipinos, with the farming traditions and the people’s lifestyles largely unchanged, these ancient rice terraces are an enduring portrait of the ways of life of the Ifugao for over 2,000 years.

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