Saturday, July 26, 2008

Banaue rice terraces , Ifugao Province, Philippines

In the Banaue municipality of the northern Ifugao Province on the Philippine island of Luzon, the indigenous Igorot people have constructed 49,500 acres (20,000 hectares) of agricultural land upon the inhospitable bedrock of the steep Cordillera Central Mountain Range. For millennia, succeeding generations of farmers built and maintained 12,500 miles (20,000 kilometers) of dikes and retaining walls—enough to stretch halfway around the equator—creating a unique, irregular patchwork of terraced rice paddies. The American anthropologist Roy Barton called these terraces and others in the region “a modification by man of the earth’s surface on a scale unparalleled elsewhere.”

The Cordillera rice terraces were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in December 1995, a decision justified in the following terms: “The fruit of knowledge passed on from one generation to the next, of sacred traditions and a delicate social balance, they helped form a landscape of great beauty that expresses conquered and conserved harmony between humankind and the environment.” Moreover, they were cited as “outstanding examples of living cultural landscapes.”

The tiers rise to about 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) above sea level. Each is defined by a stone or clay retaining wall, snaking along the contours of the steep mountainside. Stone walls are up to 50 feet high (15 meters): some of the clay walls are more than 80 feet (25.5 meters) high. Some garden terraces have been backfilled with soil, ash, and composted vegetable material, while others have been simply carved from the rock and overlaid with soil washed down from the higher levels. Rice cannot be grown without large quantities of water, and the terraces are served by an elaborate irrigation system, comprising canals cut through the rock and bamboo and wooden aqueducts. Once the highest terraces are flooded, water spills over the descending walls until the whole hillside is irrigated.

What of their builders? Igorot (literally, “the mountain people”) is a broad ethnic classification applied to a number of groups bound by common sociocultural and religious characteristics—Ibaloy, Kankanay, Ifugao, Kalinga, Apayao, and Bontoc—who occupy the Cordilleras. They originate from the warlike immigrants who reached the northern islands of the Philippines from Vietnam and China, some scholars believe 10,000 years ago. Their descendants eventually became rice farmers and, against the difficulties presented by the hostile topography, built their amazing tiers of rice fields on the precipitous mountainsides. The true age of the terraces remains in question: some sources suggest that the Igorot commenced them between 200 b.c. and a.d. 100, others that they date from at least 1000 b.c. As late as the 1990s rising nationalism had not permeated their tribal highlands, and the Igorots, while regarded as citizens, did not think of themselves as Filipinos. They were further alienated by the Marcos administration’s dam-building schemes, which included flooding the mountain valleys in their Cordillera homelands. They continue to resist integration into Filipino society.The rice culture of the Igorot, central to their way of life, inevitably had a spiritual dimension. As Joaquin Palencia remarks, “the adversarial nature of the geography of this region and the tremendous odds faced by the Ifugao to assure access to food … set the stage for the bul-ul, the rice god figures that came to be a mechanism through which superhuman restraint became central to the production of a basic need.” Indeed, the Igorot embrace no fewer than 1,500 gods, each type fulfilling a different function. The bul-ul is a large-headed, seated or standing humanoid figure, ritually carved, usually from sacred narra wood. The sizes of the rice field and its guardian bul-ul are directly related: the Banaue terraces have large, thickset bul-ul. Once the ceremonies and feasts are completed, the figure is installed in a granary in the attic of a house, from which it is believed to protect crops and ensure abundant harvests. But the forces threatening the Banaue rice terraces, and others like them at Hungduan, Kiangan, Mayoyao, and Bontok, are other than spiritual.

Rice farming is labor intensive—and hard labor at that—and yields low financial returns. The main threat to the terraces is the departure of young Ifugaos, who seek better work opportunities in the cities. Water shortage is also a problem: the lack of rain in the dry season is exacerbated by systematic deforestation and illegal logging. Because of such poor forestry management there is no longer enough water for irrigation, and recent harvests have been unable to sustain even the terrace owners, much less provide a cash crop. Moreover, with only one crop a year, mountainside farming compares poorly with the lowland paddies, where there are two. Many Ifugao farmers, encouraged by the Rice Terraces Commission (RTC), established under President Fidel Ramos in 1994, are now planting vegetables that can be harvested after six weeks, a quarter of the time needed for rice.

In 1998, when these combined problems were exacerbated by accelerated erosion caused by introduced giant earthworms, the RTC introduced a plan to maintain the terraces, focused on the preservation of Ifugao culture, diversification of the regional economic base, and the application of appropriate current agricultural technology. Its success has yet to be proven. Promoted by the Philippines tourism authority as “the eighth wonder of the world,” the Banaue rice terraces are among the country’s major attractions. Already under threat from cultural change, neglect, and inadequate irrigation, if they are not maintained they will be in ruins within a couple of decades.

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