In 1995, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added five clusters of the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras to its World Heritage List: those of Batad and Bangaan (in Banaue), Nagacadan (in Kiangan, above), Hungduan, and Mayoyao.
In the international imagination, these landscapes frequently are the Philippines. There is far more to them than their stunning beauty however. These formations are the product, and living embodiment, of a complex system in which food production, scientific knowledge and technical mastery, religious devotion, social cooperation, economic durability, ecological balance, and attunement to the climate and seasons are all bound together into a singular way of life of spectacular sophistication.
It is by this, the rice terrace system, that the Ifugao peoples have made the high rugged slopes of the Cordillera Central their homes: and the system's tenacity more than rose to the tests of time, enduring shock after shock, resisting some threats, absorbing others, adapting to others still. Today, the farmers of Ifugao work the terraces much as they have for countless generations.
Literally, countless: there is quite some uncertainty about the terraces' actual age. The American anthropologists Roy F. Burton and Henry Otley Beyer put them at a staggering 2-3000 years old. Others like Felix Keesing have estimated a much more recent origin, suggesting that the terraces were an adaptation of people migrating up into Ifugao from the lowlands, under pressure from Spanish aggression. Filipino archaeologist Dr. Stephen Acabado dates the terraces somewhere in between, at around 500 years old; but no studies so far have been conclusive for the whole of Ifugao, and further archaeological projects are ongoing to search for more clues.
The Rice Terrace Structures
The chief traditional product of the terraces is of course their rice. More specifically, tinawon: a hardy highland set of rice varieties well-adapted to the relative cool of the Ifugao climes. It is also completely organic – and has been since centuries before the term was even invented.
Tinawon literally means "once a year": and as such its cultivation follows an intricate annual cycle of land preparation, seed selection, sowing and planting, protection from pests and weeds, harvesting, and a fallow period. These ricefields are maintained by terrace walls, meticulously built and maintained from stone and mud and great feats of engineering in themselves.
|Laying the rice out to dry.|
The actual ricefields are only one component of the terrace system though. Equally crucial are the forests: from the high-altitude watersheds where human activity is limited, to the muyong private forests that surround the terraces themselves, supplying carefully-managed lumber and irrigation water. Amidst the terraces are clusters of houses, as well as paths and smaller fields or greenbelts which weave among the paddies: where secondary crops, like beans or sweet potato, may be grown, and wild plants with various applications picked from the spaces in between. All of these together make for a varied, balanced and resilient agricultural base.
|The muyong forests are an essential part of the system.|
|Double-cropping: beans grow up the frames, sweet potato beneath. Sweet potato especially has long been a staple of the Ifugao diet.|
Beneath all this is a relationship with nature by which it is considered a partner to be worked with, respected and cared for: not property to be exploited. The terraces' grand aesthetic – and durability against erosion – owes much to how they follow the mountain contours, rather than reshape them; how they accommodate streams and big rocks, structured so that they and those natural arrangements do not confront one another, but rather mutually reinforce. And so, by melding into the shape of the land, and into its networks of life, the Ifugao truly live up to their name's literal sense of "people of the mountains"; and their structures become a very part of those peaks, infused with their strength. Need one wonder how the terrace systems have endured for so long? Those who challenged them, challenged the mountains themselves.
The Rice Terrace Culture
But physical and technical mastery is only the start. The rice terraces are first and foremost a cultural landscape: that is, an expression of the Ifugao people, and a cornerstone of their identities. Those social and cultural systems are in turn essential to the terraces' physical endurance.
They are also a place where religion and science are inseparable. For tinawon rice, it is said, was given to the Ifugao by the gods, along with detailed instructions for managing its agricultural cycle. Its cultivation, therefore, is the fulfilment of an ancient spiritual arrangement, and the affirmation of an enduring relationship with the Ifugao gods.
This is borne out in the huge variety of rituals that traditionally structure Ifugao life. There are rituals for just about everything, in which the gods are invoked and asked for blessings or protections; and most are conducted by the Ifugao shamans, or mumbaki. There are rituals to mark a person's passage through life, such as kolot or bumalihung (a boy or girl's first haircut), or various childbirth and marriage rituals. There are rituals related to death, such as katlu (a funerary gathering and feast), or bogwa (exhuming and cleaning the bones of the dead to clean them, and maintaining the tomb for the spirit's comfort), or a special ceremony in the case of a murdered warrior, whose corpse gets dragged around to rile up his or her spirit, and persuade it to help identify the killer. The uya-uy is a massive five-day feast, held by a couple seeking to ascend to the aristocratic class. Contests such as uggub, a-agba and bultong are traditionally relied on to settle disputes. Healing, too, is a major institution of the Ifugao spiritual system. All this barely scratches the surface: not only are there countless more such rituals, but they differ in names and practices across all the different Ifugao communities.
A couple of themes recur across many of these rituals. One is animal sacrifice: almost all rituals involve offerings of chickens or pigs, sometimes caribou. (Regarding the animal welfare issues of this, see my discussion of comparable themes in Ainu iomante practices.) The other is feasting: many rituals are also opportunities to gather together, bond socially, and enjoy copious amounts of excellent food. The aforementioned resilient agricultural base is not just words and statistics: it finds social and cultural meaning in practices like these, which together attest to the Ifugaos' huge wealth in all of life's material necessities. Those I spoke to were well aware of how the conventional economics-led development framework considers them poor: and they laughed at it.
|Piggies! Many Ifugao households raise chickens and pigs, both for food and for rituals.|
In regards to the rice farming directly, this spiritual system is crucial. All the phases and transitions of the agricultural cycle have their own specific rituals, bound to the essential cultivation tasks and processes to fulfil them: from the patipat dances, to drive away rats, to taboos on harvesting fish from the paddies when they are most needed to control other pests. Perhaps the most internationally famous of these practices is the hudhud chant, an epic consisting of Ifugao stories and legends, typically about heroes and great exploits, which carry in them reminders of Ifugao cultural values. The hudhud is usually sung for many long hours, even days, during rice harvesting in some municipalities, and holds such remarkable depth that in 2001 it was recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
For this, need we be reminded, is entirely an oral heritage. The Ifugao have no traditional system of writing: the entire content of their invocations, chants, songs, dances and technical knowledge has been passed down through the spoken word and learnt off by heart from each generation to the next.
|Traditional gongs, flutes and textiles in Kiangan.|
Change and Continuity
Once more, this system is tenacious. All manner of forces over the centuries have sought to break the Ifugao story into their own narratives, and failed. The Spanish, who reshaped almost all of the Philippines in their own image, met their match in these mountains. But a more substantive challenge was the arrival of Christianity, which took root in Ifugao during the American period as missionaries arrived from afar.
The relationship between Christianity and traditional Ifugao ways of life has been a complicated one. Some of those missionaries, such as Father Jerome Moerman in Kiangan, still hold tremendous respect for coming to live in Ifugao society and dedicating their lives to contributing. Juan B. Dait, Jr, an accomplished Ifugao journalist and researcher, wrote that Christianized Ifugaos and Ifugaos who followed the old ways respected each other and seldom came to blows, because 'friendship and brotherhood' that tied Ifugaos together would always 'transcend religious, economic and physical barriers'. However, as Christianity became bound up in the mid-twentieth-century influx of "modernization" mentalities, particularly with Philippine independence and the globalization of the "development" paradigm, a certain stigma grew up around Ifugao traditions: they were seen as pagan, uncivilized, backward, or obstacles to growth, shackles to be cast off in the drive to an industrialized future.
|A future which much of the Philippines has embraced, especially Manila, for better or for worse.|
More new varieties of pressure were to follow. Introducing Ifugao to a new, lowland variety of rice, which could be harvested twice a year, was easier to gather than the native tinawon, required less labour, and produced much more output, must have seemed a good idea at the time. Except, the lowland rice was poorly suited to highland geo-climatic conditions; relied on artificial fertilizers and pesticides, wrecking the local ecosystems and crop varieties as well as bringing in monsters of the Monsanto variety; disrupted the agricultural cycle; and aside from anything else was less nutritious and tasty than tinawon. On top of that, the lowland rice had no spiritual significance, and messed up the synchronicity of rice cultivation across different people's fields: thus undermining the rituals and inherited culture so vital to the Ifugao way of life.
|Native tinawon on one side, lowland rice on the other. Many farmers still prefer to plant the native variety, or are turning back to it.|
So too came formal and centralized education. On the one hand, this meant Ifugao kids could go to school, and gain a new awareness of the wider world. On the other, by the time they got their degrees, they were not always so eager to return to the villages and put in the time and hard labour necessary to look after the ricefields. Terrace abandonment and out-migration remains a challenge to this day; and so too the transmission of inherited rituals and knowledge, when maintaining the interest of youth can be an uphill struggle. For none is this more true than for the mumbaki (shamans), whose calling is a special one requiring lifelong commitment and patience.
And then, inevitably, there is the looming spectre of climate change. The dry seasons become longer and hotter, at times desiccating the paddies and splitting them with cracks; then when the rains come, they come with a vengeance, saturating those cracks and pulling the earth apart, producing erosion and landslides. Perceptions among Ifugaos vary about how fundamentally their climate is changing, but the same worrying themes are frequent to emerge.
|Most roads connecting the Ifugao settlements run along mountain slopes. This makes accessibility in the region especially vulnerable to landslides, which can follow intense bouts of rain and require a great deal of rapid hard work to clear up.|
But the Ifugao, as always, have been adapting. With the UNESCO attention and growing global reaction against the nightmares "development" has spawned, so too have the stigmas against the old ways been fading, replaced by a new appreciation for indigenous heritage and a concern to preserve it and learn its lessons. The leadership and coordination for these efforts has very much grown from the Ifugao communities themselves, with the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement (SITMO), an NGO in today's parlance, representing another example of timeless Ifugao adaptive power. Efforts are also well underway to integrate cultural heritage and indigenous knowledge at the centre of the formal education systems, from the Ifugao State University to Schools of Living Tradition.
|Another creative example of adaptation today. Politicians, I heard, make good scarecrows.|
There is much we can learn from ways of life like the Ifugaos; many lessons which a humanity in crisis with itself and its world would do well to attend to. As for how we can learn those lessons, while contributing to rather than hindering that story of endurance: there is another process of change underway, which if mismanaged can do a whole lot of damage, but if conducted well can benefit everyone involved.
That is, tourism. Check back next time for the story of how Ifugao began to draw in excited visitors from across the world; what happened when it did so; and how it now seeks to harness this tourism to enhance and protect its heritage. For you too may go and experience Ifugao: and knowing how to experience it responsibly is the only way to truly unlock its secrets.