Monday, September 3, 2012, 00:00

Dismal harvest

By Andre Vltchek

Dismal harvest

Dismal harvest

Dismal harvest

Dismal harvest

Dismal harvest

It is not easy to reach the rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras although they are just about 350 km away from Manila. After about 84 km on the North Luzon Expressway, a slow mountain road leads to Banaue town, the base to explore the rice terraces.

It took us about nine hours by car to arrive at the hotel in Banaue. To reach the rice terraces we needed to hire a jeepney (a cross between a Jeep and a jitney, a small bus or van) for the dirt roads and then had to trek across mountain slopes.

But it was totally worth it. We saw one of the most breathtaking rice terraces in the world.

For people in Southeast Asia, rice terraces are a common sight. There are wonderful and amazing rice terraces in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and many other places. The rice terraces of the Philippines Cordilleras, however, are on a higher altitude, 700 m to 1,500 m above sea level. They are cultivated by the Ifugao, an ethnic minority community living on the mountains of the Cordilleras for more than 2,000 years.

In 1995, the Ifugao Rice Terraces were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The UN body called them an outstanding example of an evolved, living cultural landscape that can be traced as far back as two millennia ago in the pre-colonial Philippines and the priceless contribution of Philippine ancestors to humanity.

The Ifugao Rice Terraces consist of five clusters: Nagacadan in Kiangan, Hungduan, Mayoyao, Bangaan, and Batad. Their existence is a testimony to the strong relationship between culture and nature, a proof of engineering genius, creativeness and the determined spirit of the Ifugao.

It is not only about planting rice and irrigation, says Uput Pujawati, a lecturer at the agriculture department of Padjadjaran University in Bandung, Indonesia. It involves cultural aspects, adherence to religious rules, local wisdom, and preservation of harmony between communities, (the) individual and nature.

To enable farmers to grow rice at the high altitude, the terraces have a support system of muyong, privately owned forests, capping each terrace cluster and forming unique micro watersheds. They serve as a rainwater and filtration system and provide irrigation all year round. The forests are managed by customary laws and indigenous knowledge.

During the Spanish colonial period, community lands were assigned to early Spanish conquerors as a reward for their services to the Spanish crown, says an Asian Development Bank report, Land and Cultural Survival: The Communal Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Asia.

But the mountain peoples have continued to control their communal lands through their indigenous land tenure system. During the American occupation of the Philippines, the indigenous communities in the Cordillera region continued to practice their traditional resource management with minimal intervention from the colonial government. The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act, passed in 1997, recognizes communal land tenure of indigenous peoples as a legitimate right and creates a favorable legal environment for it to continue.

The rice terraces are also a testimony to the rugged labor and determination of hundreds of generations of small farmers who worked together as a community to create stunning mountainscapes on difficult terrain. They symbolize a communitys cooperative approach to sustainable agriculture that has survived for two millennia.

The agro-ecosystem is based on the knowledge of the lunar cycles, soil conservation, complex pest control and religious rituals. An example of brilliant land use, it resulted in harmonious interaction between humans and nature. However, once this balance is disturbed the whole system begins to collapse.

Economic forces appear to be pushing in the opposite direction, the ADB report says. In the Cordillera region, new livelihood possibilities are motivating individuals to claim personal ownership over resources that have been commonly owned by their clans or by the community. The opportunity to replace subsistence farming with non-traditional cash crops and even non-farming activities, such as tourism, may be the insidious force that will undo communal land tenure among indigenous peoples.

Another damaging factor is migration to cities. It limits the workforce needed to maintain the extensive rice terraces. The younger people lack the determination to work on the rice fields, conserve the muyong, process various herbs for pest control and restore damaged terraces.

Climate change, natural disasters and changing religious rituals are other corrosive factors.

I think (the) rice terraces are finished, says Loreto In-uyay, an ex-policeman in Banaue. Hapao (an administrative division in Hungduan) is my birthplace. My ancestors were farmers (on the) Hungduan Rice Terraces and they still used old ways of farming. They didnt use animals or machinery to plow the land. We are very proud that Hungduan Rice Terraces are among those that were listed as World Heritage Sites.

However, he says things have deteriorated over the years. Many of my generation found farming with the old system very demanding work, he says. Farmers here plant rice only once a year, so we have very low productivity. Therefore we cannot afford to maintain the World Heritage Sites. For example, we didnt have money to fix the damaged terrace walls. As far as I know, the farmers here do not have solutions yet to fight against earthworms that infested our rice terraces recently.

He also points out that people need money for education. Hapao boasts of high schools but if students want to go to college, they have to go to the provincial capital. In my opinion, for economic reasons, we are better off doing other things, he says.

His wife, Paz In-habiyan, performs local dances and sings for tourists.

Wajan Sudja, an Indonesian fish farmer, says the same thing happened and is still happening in his country.

Nowadays, farmers only consideration is money, Sudja says. They plant anything that makes more money. Conversions of rice fields happened because of the growth of (the) tourism industry in Bali. The real problem is the economic condition of the farmers here.

The Philippine Cordilleras rice terraces were put on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2001. The government has identified the threats and concerns and is trying to address the challenges through efforts by the provincial government and the national agencies concerned.

However, it needs to enlist the people to help the communities work together and ensure the viability of the rice terraces.

The people here want (a) road to be built so (that) it will be easier to move around, says Vilma Immoliap, a Hapao resident who has migrated to Banaue town in search of a job. We are not sure that the government will help people here to protect the rice terraces and ecosystem.

Immoliap says the villagers do not want to abandon rice farming as they value their inheritance. However, they need the government to help with extensive research so that they can still follow their forefathers way of farming and solve problems such as pest infestations.

How to mobilize the younger generation to follow in their ancestors footsteps and keep the legacy for humanity alive is a big question. It needs to be done and as soon as possible. And those who have not visited the Ifugao Rice Terraces had better do it soon before this heritage disappears.