Wednesday, 26 June 2013

3) Tourism Comes to Ifugao

Ifugao's cultures and landscapes have drawn visitors for centuries. However, it was in the 1970s, after President Ferdinand Marcos decreed the rice terraces as Philippine cultural treasures, that tourism emerged as itself a major narrative force in the long Ifugao story.

With the Philippine government actively promoting tourism in Ifugao, visitors began to pile into the mountains in unprecedented numbers. Many were Filipinos, but with the rise in the rice terraces' international profile, especially with UNESCO World Heritage attention in the 1990s, these were joined by an accelerating influx of foreigners from all over the world.

This new invasion, a fair bit more complicated than those before, descended upon the municipality of Banaue. The town was to become the ground zero of tourism in Ifugao, with a whole new industry and its infrastructure springing up to accommodate, feed, guide and merchandise to these visitors.

It was a reactive process, and one which has not especially pleased the inhabitants. One of them wryly remarked that the rice terraces in Banaue town have become "house terraces". A UNESCO report in 2008 elaborated:

From a pristine valley of rice terraces, healthy muyongs (forests) and clustered hamlets bisected by a clean river, Banaue has been transformed into an unattractive town blighted by spontaneous and uncontrolled development. Structures have been built randomly everywhere. Large areas of muyong have been destroyed, causing erosion, and the river has been polluted with industrial and household waste. Modern music blares from most houses and the noise and pollution from vehicles has made the place less liveable.

At the same time, this invasion has not been without some benefits. With Ifugao now renowned across the world, awareness grows of the robust eco-cultural way of life that has sustained its people through challenges – human and environmental alike – that have broken civilizations the world over. Through the curiosity this stirs, tourism offers quite some opportunities to help strengthen and conserve that impeccable heritage.

To harness the tourist invasion; to make it their own, on their own terms, and direct what it brings for the benefit of their communities while warding themselves against its hazards. Such is the challenge of tourism that the Ifugao communities rise up to today, closely monitoring the lessons of what we might call the “Battle of Banaue”.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

2) The Enduring Terraces

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.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

1) Kiangan - At the Epicentre of History

If you are contemplating a trip to Ifugao, you will likely have your sights set on the rice terraces of Banaue Here however I present the case that Kiangan, the cornerstone of the Ifugao story from prehistoric times to the present day, should be at the top of your itinerary.

To make that case, here is a brief a synopsis of that history. Watch Kiangan's significance expand, and with it the profile of Ifugao itself. From the local, a house by a river in a valley; to the national, an unconquerable highland which protected its ways as the Philippines changed around it; to the international, as the final stand of imperial Japan's colonial armies; and now the truly global, as the first cultural landscape onto the UNESCO World Heritage List, and a recognized foremost example of human adaptability, ingenuity and resilience.

Ancient Kiangan: The Cradle of Ifugao
It is told in the legends that long ago, Wigan, greatest of the Skyworld gods, looked down on the fertile valleys of Ifugao. "What a shame," he declared, "that so rich a land is unpopulated!" And so he came up with a plan to do something about it.

He built a house; equipped it with rice and chicken coops, chickens and pigs; and placed his sleeping children inside: his son Kabbigat, and his daughter Bugan. Then he sent it down to the most fertile valley below: Kiyyangan.

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Philippines - A Journey to Ifugao

In the north of Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines, high in the mounatains of Cordillera Central, lies the heartland of the Philippine indigenous peoples. Of these, the province of Ifugao has gained renown far past its borders: for the unshakeable tenacity of the Ifugao peoples' ways of life in the face of wave after wave of incursions, over centuries; and more recently, for the recognition of their legendary rice terraces as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The rice terraces and their communities are bound together in a complex system of social relations, rituals and spiritual practices, agriculutral ecosystems, seasonal cycles, ancestral skills and knowledge, intricate geo-engineering, land management, pest control, and sheer hard work that together have produced some of the most resilient societies on Earth. Over hundreds of years they fought off or absorbed Spanish conquest, American colonialism, and Japanese invasion, experiencing each in ways quite distinct from the rest of the country and emerging with their Ifugao identities intact; altered, perhaps, but still fundamentally their own.

I travelled there as part of a research team, studying how that resilience could be still improved. Why? Because today a new set of challenges has encroached on these mountains, more insidious than all the precedents combined. As of the twentieth century, the globalization of the capitalist world order has penetrated Ifugao; and its implications for life there, whether physical or social, climatic or spiritual, are weaving complex, confounding new threads into these venerable livelihoods and landscapes.

Threats and opportunities; continuities and change; adaptation and courage; Ifugao's situation in may ways mirrors that of the indigenous peoples of Guyana, on the opposite side of the Earth. And just as with them, we would do well to look from the other side of the equation, and respect and learn from a civilization that can still assert itself, intact and with dignity, where many others have not been so fortunate. What have the Ifugao retained that is lost to those nations which, boasting of "development", have scarcely yet realized what it has cost them?

The remoteness of the Ifugao highlands was apparent just in the ordeal of getting there. After my colleague's Serbian passport broke the immigration computer system in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Manila, it was an all-day trip by road up through the home provinces of Pampanga and Tarlac, the ricefields of Nueva Ecija, and the forests and hills of Nueva Vizcaya. We arrived in Ifugao well after midnight, whereupon our drivers got lost, and we staggered into our first destination – Banaue – at three in the morning.

However, the opening of flights to a nearby airfield should make Ifugao more accessible in due course, especially for travellers and tourists. These tourists are a major theme in Ifugao's present-day challenges and opportunities, and it is my hope that this forthcoming series of posts will encourage you to go there for yourself, and offer you advice in this regard; just as it reminds you of the epic story you join as a character if you do so, and of the contingency of your role therein on your own choices.

This series, to be updated over the next few weeks, will cover a range of themes across a small handful of Ifugao's communities. The province is diverse, with each portion having its own distinct culture and grappling with challenges unlike the others'. Unfortunately there was no prospet that a single research trip could cover all of them; but those looked at here stand out among Ifugao's most iconic. Such as Banaue, the ground zero of tourism...

...Batad, also in Banaue municipality, the secluded rice terrace amphitheatre town...

...and above all: Kiangan. A historical centre, not only for Ifugao, as the first of its towns...

...but for all of East Asia, as the site where World War II came to an end in the Philippines.

And as if there was not enough astonishment to be found on Kiangan's surface, what secrets await 100 metres beneath it?

Watch this space for much, much more to follow on one of the most enduring indigenous civilizations in the world, beginning with the hundreds of years of high history that resonates in Kiangan to this day.