Philip­pines’ rice ter­races face mod­ern threats


It is fi­esta time in the famed rice ter­races of the north­ern Philip­pines, and young men in col­or­ful tribal cloth­ing pound an­cient rhythms on brass gongs as wild boars squeal ahead of slaugh­ter.

The an­nual fes­ti­vals, held in re­mote moun­tain com­mu­ni­ties af­ter the plant­ing of the rice that is at the core of their ex­is­tence, are a vi­tal way of pass­ing cen­turies-old cus­toms to the new gen­er­a­tion.

Those tra­di­tions are the soul of the Cordillera ranges, one of the Philip­pines’ most spec­tac­u­lar re­gions where Ifu­gao tribes­peo­ple are cus­to­di­ans of World Her­itage­listed rice ter­races.

But the stepped paddy fields, built 2,000 years ago and the high­est in Asia, as well as the Ifu­gao’s tra­di­tional life­styles, are fac­ing un­prece­dented threats amid the re­lent­less forces of moder­nity.

“There is a dan­ger of th­ese beau­ti­ful ar­eas turn­ing into ur­ban jun­gles,” Edi­son Molanida, World Her­itage sites manager for the na­tional gov­ern­ment’s cul­ture com­mis­sion, told AFP.

“One of the main threats is the rapid pace of devel­op­ment in the area. And by rapid pace, we mean un­man­aged devel­op­ment.”

In its de­scrip­tion jus­ti­fy­ing World Her­itage sta­tus, the United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion (UNESCO) de­scribes the re­gion as “a living cul­tural land­scape of un­par­al­leled beauty.”

On misty morn­ings, when the first rays of pale or­ange sun­shine fall across the stone walls that fol­low the moun­tains’ con­tours, the ter­races look like gi­ant stair­cases climb­ing to the heav­ens.

UNESCO also praises the Ifu­gao peo­ple for hav­ing re­mained in har­mony with na­ture for so long, such as by us­ing herbs in­stead of pes­ti­cides, es­chew­ing fer­til­iz­ers and gen­er­ally show­ing great care for limited nat­u­ral re­sources.

The ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem, which taps wa­ter from moun­tain­top forests and shares it eq­ui­tably through­out the com­mu­ni­ties, is hailed as a “mas­tery of en­gi­neer­ing.”

A gen­er­a­tion or two ago, many of the Ifu­gao vil­lages and the life­styles of the peo­ple who lived in them largely re­sem­bled those of cen­turies ago.

Large ar­eas of the five listed dis­tricts, home to roughly 100,000 peo­ple and a day’s drive from the cap­i­tal Manila, to­day re­tain many of the as­pects cel­e­brated by UNESCO.

Change Afoot

But rad­i­cal change is un­der­way. Once pic­turesque vil­lages are ac­quir­ing the chaotic trap­pings of typ­i­cal poor Philip­pine towns, in­clud­ing ugly multi-story build­ings made of cheap con­crete, pol­lut­ing diesel ve­hi­cles and ram­shackle tin­roofed shanties.

In­tro­duced pests, in­clud­ing

gi- ant In­done­sian earth­worms, are caus­ing ma­jor dam­age to the struc­tures of the ter­races, caus­ing some to col­lapse.

In May­oyao, one of the re­gion’s most scenic vil­lages, lo­cal of­fi­cials say the worms, as well as snails orig­i­nally brought in as a food for pro­tein, are the big­gest dan­gers to the ter­races.

Tele­vi­sion and the In­ter­net are sim­i­larly erod­ing tra­di­tional work ethics, which are vi­tal to main­tain­ing the la­bor-in­ten­sive ter­races.

“When our par­ents told us to go and work, we’d obey,” Mar­garet Lic­nachan, 38, a rice farmer and mother-of-four, told AFP as she sat in the stone court­yard of her May­oyao home.

“But to­day, our chil­dren refuse to go and work in the ter­races. They are lazy.”

Molanida, the World Her­itage sites manager, de­scribed the “aban­don­ment of the rice grow­ing cul­ture” by sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of Ifu­gao as one of the big­gest dan­gers for the re­gion.

“If the younger gen­er­a­tion are no longer in­ter­ested in the rice cul­ture and move to cities, or adopt mod­ern life­styles, who will be left to tend to the ter­races?”

Lo­cals Op­ti­mistic

In a lengthy in­ter­view from his moun­tain­top of­fice over­look­ing the ter­races, May­oyao Vice Mayor Jimmy Pad­chanan in­sisted lo­cal el­ders were work­ing hard and suc­cess­fully to con­trol the march of moder­nity.

“We can not deny the ef­fects of mod­ern­iza­tion on our cul­ture,” Pad­chanan said.

“But it is not all bad. We are blend­ing old so­ci­eties with the new, while main­tain­ing many of our val­ues.”

Pad­chanan said he was con­fi­dent the rice ter­races and an­cient tra­di­tions could sur­vive the on­slaught of the 21st cen­tury.

“The May­oyao rice ter­races will con­tinue to be handed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. The rice ter­races shall en­dure for as long as the May­oyao are here,” he said.

Lo­cals also pointed out they had a right to de­velop and en­joy mod­ern so­ci­ety, and should not have to live in fos­silized com­mu­ni­ties.

Stand­ing in tra­di­tional tribal clothes dur­ing a re­cent fes­ti­val, May­oyao el­der and rice farmer Mario Lachaona spoke pas­sion­ately about pre­serv­ing cus­toms but cau­tioned against over­ro­man­ti­ciz­ing the old days.

“Life be­fore was so hard,” said Lachaona, 68, a wiry fa­ther of six and grand­fa­ther of 18.

“Ed­u­ca­tion was not good. There were no roads here so we had to walk long dis­tances to buy foods. We could not sur­vive on just the rice we grew.”

Lachaona said his grand­chil­dren had much bet­ter nu­tri­tion and ed­u­ca­tion than his gen­er­a­tion, while their op­por­tu­ni­ties to find work other than sub­sis­tence farm­ing were much greater.

“Life is a lot eas­ier now,” Lachaona said.

The ex­pected paving in the next few years of the only road to May­oyao will make life eas­ier again in many ways.

Pad­chanan, the vice mayor, said there were plans to sell veg­eta­bles in far away towns, pro­vid­ing a wel­come source of ex­tra in­come for rice farm­ers.

Only a few hun­dred for­eign tourists visit a year, and the paved road would hope­fully bring a lot more.

How­ever Molanida said he feared those sorts of de­vel­op­ments would not be man­aged well.

“It is up to the Ifu­gao peo­ple to de­cide if they want to fight harder to con­serve their cul­ture and pre­vent chaotic devel­op­ment,” he said.

“Oth­er­wise the rice ter­races may be­come grass ter­races.”


(Above) This photo taken on April 28 shows a vil­lage at sun­rise in May­oyao, Ifu­gao prov­ince, part of the spec­tac­u­lar moun­tain rice ter­race re­gion in the north­ern Philip­pines that is listed by UNESCO as a World Her­itage site. (Right) This photo taken on April 28 shows a girl look­ing out the win­dow of her home, with rice stalks in the fore­ground, in May­oyao, Ifu­gao prov­ince, part of the spec­tac­u­lar moun­tain rice ter­race re­gion in the north­ern Philip­pines that is listed by UNESCO as a World Her­itage site.

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