Sustaining the Ifugao rice terraces in times of climate change


BAGUIO CITY — It was during this year’s (2016) harvest that rice farmer Virginia Ambalinon noticed that her harvest had reduced to half the yield she used to produce some five years ago. She attributes the decrease to the changing weather patterns.

“I have not measured [the decrease] in kilograms,” she said, “but we have observed that the height of the pile when we stack the rice bundles was reduced to half.”

Ambalinon is an elder in Banaue town of Ifugao province in the Philippines, where the inscribed rice paddies are a well-known UNESCO World Heritage site. Here farmers employ the same indigenous farming methods that successfully sustained their ancestors. While the area farmed remains the same, the annual yield in this storied area continues to fall. “This is why I believe it is the unpredictable weather that caused the decline,” she said.

Farmers in the area traditionally planted a rice variety known as tinawon, but in recent years Ambalinon said they have had to look for alternatives in the hope of a more bountiful harvest. “We are planting mixed varieties now, we look for varieties with more yield,” she said.

What led to the decline of what was for years a reliable, sustainable source of food? Ambalinon said that changing weather patterns have drastically shifted the tinawon’s planting and harvesting seasons, confusing long-held traditions in their head.

“The rains sometimes come too early and sometimes too late, at times there is too much rain and at times there was too little,” she added.

Extended drought or flooding of the rice paddies is not good for the growth of rice plants. Increased frequency and intensity of major storms also pose a growing threat. “It seemed that typhoons get stronger every year,” Ambalinon said.

Ifugao State University (IFSU) research says the Ifugao rice cycle follows the cycles of the seasons: the wet and dry. This cycle is accompanied by indigenous rituals that are meant to seek the blessings of the gods and deities for a bountiful harvest. The series of rituals usually ends with a thanksgiving feast after harvest.

The old rice cycle began with land preparation between October to November, followed by sowing and planting from December to February; pest management and weeding from March to April; seed selection for the next cropping from May to June; harvest from July to August and cleaning in September. Ifugao ancestors also practiced organic farming, the IFSU research shows. Rice stalks, grass, water lilies and moss were composted on the rice paddies after harvest.

These days the planting season takes place between April and May—four months later—because of the erratic weather. “So the entire cycle changed,” Ambalinon said.

Dolores Pacliw, an elder in Hungduan town of Ifugao Province said that in addition to the rice paddies, other traditional plants like banana and camote (sweet potato) are also suffering. “We do not know what causes the wilting but our traditional farming practices can not counter it,” she said.

The Hungduan’s rice terraces are included among the five UNESCO inscribed terraces in Ifugao. In the olden days, everyday life, rituals and tradition of the Ifugao people, largely revolved around the rice cycle. This culture and tradition has allowed the world-renowned Ifugao rice terraces to survive for over 2,000 years.

The UNESCO heritage list describes the Ifugao rice terraces as a living cultural landscape that serves as a “testimony to a community’s sustainable and primarily communal system of rice production.” The terraces, according to UNESCO, resulted from the “harmonious interaction between people and the environment.”

Establishing the bobleh (village)

Ifugao ancestors practiced a comprehensive land use plan, according to engineer James Tayaban, an Ifugao elder who resides in the town of Lamut.

Tayaban said that in the traditional bobleh (village), there was a protected area and a production area. Protected areas included the muyong (forest) and the wangwang (river) and the production areas were the habal (garden) and the payoh (rice terraces). According to him, protected areas used to be communally owned, a practice that has changed over the years.

“Today, there are smaller portions of the forest developed into woodlots that are being maintained by individuals or clans,” Tayaban said. These woodlots are usually found just above the rice terraces.

In the past, everybody was allowed to harvest and use the resources in the communal protected areas. “The use of forest resources was governed by an indigenous socio political system where forest conservation and protection is ingrained,” Tayaban said.

More than just being the source of water, wood and other resources, the Ifugao ancestors believe that the muyung was the dwelling place of gods and spirits who could influence the fate of the people who benefit from its bounties.

“And so they had to be careful not to anger the gods and spirits and appease them to ensure a bountiful harvest and continued access to the forest,” he said.

Building the payoh (rice terraces)

Among the many wonders of the rice terraces is how the Ifugao ancestors skilfully carved these paddies along steep mountainsides. Stones used in the walls of the rice terraces mostly came from the river, which is at the foot of the mountains.

“To the Ifugao ancestors, successfully building the rice terraces meant providing a sustainable source of food for their villages,” Tayaban said.

Sustainable land use was an integral part of the Ifugao ancestor’s approach to their natural environment. The positioning of the residential areas, rice terraces and upland gardens were assigned with thorough consideration for the surrounding forest.

“Ifugao ancestors understood that in order to sustain their rice terraces and…their village as a whole, they must preserve and protect the forest and the environment,” Tayaban said. But he sadly noted that today these indigenous socio-political systems are slowly disintegrating along with the positive values of preserving the environment.

“Ifugao ancestors only harvest what they need from the forest because they believed they were the caretakers of the land for the future generations. This is the core value that allowed the harmonious relationship between our ancestors and the environment,” he said.

The practice of integrated organic agriculture practiced by the Ifugaos has been replaced by cash crop profit oriented farming.

Coping with change

Villagers acknowledge that the decreasing harvest has forced many rice farmers to abandon their paddies and migrate to town centers or cities in search for other sources of livelihood to support their families.

In an effort to encourage farmers to go back tending their rice paddies, the local government units and Department of Agriculture (DA) offered funds for rehabilitation and other possible sources of livelihood.

Banaue Mayor Jerry Dalipog was able to tap an agro-business corporation to fund the rehabilitation of some 600 hectare abandoned rice padies in his town. In exchange the private company will get half of the harvest as share from the harvest.

Last September, the Department of Agriculture (DA) created the Ifugao Rice Terraces Development Council with an initial fund allocation of P1 Billion. The initial funding is for the rehabilitation of abandoned rice paddies and to increase the productivity and promotion of the indigenous variety, tinawon. The new council will be spearheaded by local government units and will be supported by the DA, the Department of Tourism and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. A comprehensive plan on how to lead development of the rice terraces is still being developed.

This builds on actions already taken by the newly appoined agriculture secretary Emmanuel Piñol, who handed over P46 million worth of farm equipment to Banaue rice farmers that would assist them in cultivating the rice terraces. He also promised to distribute 100 dairy cows to farmers for additional source of income to augment their annual rice harvest.

For rice farmers in Kiangan, Ifugao — the location of additional UNESCO inscribed rice terraces — the revival of their terraces started a bit earlier when in 2014, the local government declared that 150 hectares of the Nagacadan village terraces would become an open museum. This project aimed to revitalize the town’s tourism industry and at the same time preserve its history.

With the help of a private institution, the local government accessed funds from the United Nations for the rehabilitation of some abandoned terraces. They also used the funds for the rebuilding of worn out terrace walls and other developments.

The open museum is being managed by the Nagacadan people themselves.

Maria Galeon, a rice farmer who is the oldest tourist guide at the open museum said they persist in following the Ifugao rice cycle amid the challenges posed by the erratic weather patterns.

“These practices begun by our forefathers has sustained our rice terraces until today, that is enough proof of how effective they are,” Galeon said.

At 78 years old, she is still strong enough to accompany visitors on the two hour trek to the Nagacadan rice terraces in Kiangan. But she admitted that she no longer has the strength to do the physical work that the rice farming requires.

“I just manage the up keep of our rice terraces,” she said. “Besides I already divided the terraces among my children, so I just oversee the maintenance now.”

The rice paddies in Nagacadan are all privately owned and the unity of all owners is crucial to the success of the open museum program, explained Jacquiline Equino who is one of the younger tour guides and a member of a non-government organization Save the Ifugao Rice Terraces Movement (SITMo). But there are a few owners who choose to engage in modern farming or use commercial chemical inputs.

While the majority of rice farmers still follow traditional agricultural practices, Equino said that the harvest is no longer a sufficient source of food for their families given the limited planting area, the once a year yield of the tinawon and the village’s growing population.

“We cannot force them (the few farmers engaged in commercial farming), they own the paddies; we can only encourage them to maintain the traditional rice cycle by reminding them of the benefits of the old practices,” she said.

Through SITMo and the local government, locals have developed other sources of food and income to augment the limited rice harvest, including maintaining fishponds and planting fruit trees. According to Equino, they also receive training to become tour guides, make traditional crafts and open their homes to tourists and other visitors.

Equino said that as the open museum, visitors do not only see the terraces but they get to have a glimpse of the every day life of the community. “You get to see a functional rice granary, an occupied Ifugao hut and many other aspects of the Ifugao culture live,” she said.

Keeping the binoltan (heritage)

The Ifugao elders believe that the traditional agricultural practices are still the most sustainable way of farming.

“I will not give up encouraging the young people to learn and practice traditional farming, it is my duty as an elder,” Pacliw said.

She said that doing away with chemical based pesticides and fertilizers will be more beneficial. “These are poison to the body and to the environment,” she said.

Tayaban, however, admitted that it is impossible to revert back to how the traditions we practiced in the olden days.

“Of course we cannot go back to the way things were during our ancestors’ time but we can learn from their beliefs and traditions and apply it to our present day living,” he said.

He said that many of the Ifugaos have already stopped practicing or toned down the rituals that accompanies the rice cycle out of practical reasons. He explained that these rituals would require the butchering of pigs and chickens which is no longer practical in these times.

He said that more than the rituals are the values and the wisdom behind the indigenous beliefs and traditions.

“We should revisit values like taking only what you need and thinking of the future generation. We should revive our ancestors’ forest management systems that allowed them to preserve the environment so we could enjoy its bounty today,” he added.

He said that many of the practices of Ifugao ancestors in agriculture and forest management have been proven to be scientifically sound.

“While we want to preserve our beliefs and traditions, I believe it is also important that these practices and traditions will cope with the changes of today, that is how society develops,” Tayaban said. #


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