Save the rice terraces
A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has issued an urgent warning about the Banaue Rice Terraces: that, despite being “self-sufficient in food, timber and water,” they are in “a very critical stage of deterioration.”
A man-made cultural heritage, the terraces, inscribed in the prestigious World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) as the “Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras,” are 2,000 years old and considered an engineering marvel, no less than what Philippine tourism trumpeters have billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Covering 1,670 hectares of agricultural land, the terraces employ an ingenious — and indigenous — irrigation technique in which water is channeled into the uppermost rice paddies first. From there, it overflows into the next paddy down, until each paddy is brimming with water. The irrigation technique has been compared to a champagne tower.
Still, despite modern marketing romancing the terraces, they have been left neglected by more sundry concerns: Younger generations of Ifugao have left for the city rather than cultivate them.
According to some studies, as much as 600 hectares have been abandoned and need to be restored. Those who have chosen to stay behind have cultivated more commercial cash crops like vegetables to cater to a changing consumer demographic.
Still, others have abandoned farming altogether and built unseemly structures of galvanized iron roofs on the slopes that have contributed to landslides and the destruction of the terraces.
The transformation of the rice paddies into more profitable vegetable patches has compounded the problem of worm invasion, according to the FAO report. Giant worms have burrowed into the earth, creating spaces through which water can flow between paddies. But too many worms make the water drain too fast, drying up the paddies in the process.
Once dry, the soil cracks easily. So when water is poured into a paddy that has been allowed to dry, it will often collapse, taking with it the stone wall that borders the paddy. As the worm population increases, they also spread into the surrounding rice paddies. Today not a single rice paddy in the area is without worms, and the terraces are collapsing.
Although their land is arable and fertile, the Cordilleras have a very high poverty incidence, one of the highest in the country.
“The rice terraces provide multiple goods and services in terms of food security and sovereignty, income generation and quality nutrition,” said the FAO. “However, agricultural activities seem not enough to ensure livelihood security.”
The worsening state of the terraces, the UN agency warned, “prohibits the local communities to overcome the poverty line.”
The National Anti-Poverty Commission has drawn up a P4.125-billion conservation and development plan to make the terraces sustainable “through indigenous knowledge systems and practices.” But the Cordillera communities say the plan appears to remain in the drawing board, unimplemented.
Saving the rice terraces calls for efforts that intertwine and recognize the validity of both cultural heritage conservation and economic security. Too often, cultural patrimony is sacrificed for economic development, when culture and livelihood can be and are complementary.
Younger Ifugao generations abandoning rice cultivation in favor of migrating to the city or farming more profitable cash crops risk the loss of both their heritage and livelihood.
But the deteriorating condition of the Cordillera rice terraces cannot be blamed alone on Ifugao youth choosing to abandon their cultural heritage. The wider Philippine political economy has the bigger culpability for emphasizing rice security rather than rice self-sufficiency, and for its historic bias against the Filipino farmer.
The Banaue Rice Terraces, for centuries a mighty monument to the ingenuity and indomitability of early Filipinos and, specifically, to the central place of farming and the land in the Filipino way of life, are at risk of crumbling and falling victim to modernity and neglect — unless the country, without further denial or delay, realizes the priceless, irreplaceable piece of patrimony it’s about to lose.
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