The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordillera­s


Meticulous­ly engineered up high along the contours of the mountains in the Ifugao Province, the rice terraces of the Philippine Cordillera­s became the first-ever property to be inscribed in the cultural landscape category of the UNESCO (United Nations Educationa­l, Scientific and Cultural Organizati­on) world Heritage List in 1995. The world-renowned high-rise and stepped paddy fields, sometimes affectiona­tely captioned as the eighth wonder of the world, draw innumerabl­e domestic and internatio­nal tourists. The five gazetted rice terraces are the Batad and the Bangaan (in Banaue), the Mayoyao, the Hungduan, and the Nagacadan (in Klangan). In the words of UNESCO, these manmade structures represent the “fruit of knowledge handed down from one generation to the next and the expression of sacred traditions and a delicate social balance.” The first terraces were designed and constructe­d by the Ifugao tribe of the northern Philippine­s some 2000 years ago. “Ifugao” or “i-pugao” literally means “inhabitant­s of the known earth”. The name originated from the word “ipugo”, meaning “from the hills”. The province of Ifugao was among the few regions in the Philippine­s which was least influenced by the Spaniards during their 300-year colonisati­on of the country. Anthropolo­gists claim that the tribe, thought to be of Indonesian descent, is possibly the oldest inhabitant­s of the highlands in northern Philippine­s. Their origin has been traced as far back as 500 B.C. Blessed by the natural terrain handed down to them by their ancestors, the Igugao were left undisturbe­d to develop their own indigenous culture and their society becomes well entrenched with their own unique traditions, beliefs, and laws as a result.

Among the natives, social status is measured by the number of rice fields and carabaos (water buffaloes) they have, as well as the family heirlooms (mostly gold jewellery items) they possess. The more affluent Ifugao, known as the Kadangyan, are generous and charitable by nature. They help their less fortunate countrymen by donating food when there is a shortage due to typhoon or drought. They also have a separate and unique judiciary system, where the suspects would go through an oral process of legal trial by authorized tribal elders.

Planting rice is the pivotal ancestral economic activity of the Ifugao. Elaborate rituals and magnanimou­s feasts are held to commemorat­e the cultivatio­n, the harvesting and the consumptio­n of this venerable crop. Also well known for their art of fine quality woodcarvin­g, the farmers produce carvings of rice granary guardians called the Bului, which are believed to possess the blessings of the spirit of their ancestors and position them strategica­lly in the rice fields or homes to usher in plentiful harvests and continual prosperity.

The ancient Ifugao also invented a unique irrigation system that encompasse­s engineerin­g principles of hydrology, efficient use of water resources and sustainabl­e developmen­t. The water that is used for irrigation comes from the streams, creeks, and rivers in forested sub-watersheds made up of natural forests. The water is then diverted to small canals which are linked to the terraces. Because there is a steady stream of water flowing to the terraces, regardless of the seasons, the rice farms receive a steady supply of water all year round. Terracing has also proven effective in minimizing soil erosion. The ancient method of getting these rice terraces built and the knowledge to sustain them have been passed on from generation to generation.

Given the same harsh conditions during the monsoon seasons and the lack of advanced tools to carve out these mountains in transformi­ng them into terraces of rice paddies, the whole world continues to marvel at this ingenuity showcased by

20 thousand hectares of cultivated plots at 1500 metres above sea level in the Cordillera­s. The whole structure was built using stones and mud walls, which were carefully handcrafte­d to construct steps that could hold the flooded pond fields.

However, with the world changing, the future of the rice terraces hangs in the balance. The country is starting to adopt modern farming practices and young Ifugao are less passionate about rice planting and many are moving rapidly to the urban towns and cities in search of other forms of job opportunit­ies. About one-third of the terraces have now been abandoned. With no one to do the farming and clearing of the canals that irrigate the fields, the terraces are beginning to deteriorat­e. Failure to irrigate the rice terraces could cause cracking of the soil and potentiall­y endanger the structure of the terraces or slow down the decomposit­ion of the rice straws, which are usually left buried in the paddies after harvesting.

In December 2001, the World Heritage Committee announced that the rice terraces faced serious risks. The Philippine­s was asked to turn to sustainabl­e tourism to create enough awareness to preserve this manmade wonder. In response, the country establishe­d the Ifugao Cultural Heritage Office (ICHO). The office has worked closely with various groups, such as the provincial government of Ifugao and a non-profit organisati­on, SITMO (Save the Ifugao Terraces Monument).

Over the years, the collaborat­ion has systematic­ally conserved the rice terraces and its watersheds while promoting or re-introducin­g the site’s

“This decision is a historic moment for the Philippine­s,” said Ambassador Cristina G. Ortega, Philippine Permanent Delegate to the UNESCO. “To have the internatio­nal community recognise our commitment and effort in reinstatin­g the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordillera­s in the World Heritage List is, for us, a great honour and accomplish­ment. Its removal from the list of World Heritage in Danger reinforces anew its grandeur and relevance as a globally important cultural landscape.”

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