Aided by a pair of glasses and a traditional short, curved dagger, 69-year-old farmer Rosita Gano harvests rice grains, one stalk after another, using only one hand, a passed-on skill she has mastered through decades of practice.
The harvest from the cluster of rice terraces she inherited from her forebears ensures her family’s annual supply of rice, the staple food in the Philippines and most Asian countries.
Here in Ifugao province, seated at the heart of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island, Indigenous farmers like Gano have practiced and preserved agricultural traditions that date back half a millennium. But faced with changing economic and social conditions, many are starting to question the future of not only the province’s magnificent hand-carved rice terraces, but also the cultural practices intimately entwined with traditional methods of farming and land management.
“These terraces have sustained our ancestors for generations and it has sustained us as well. We can only hope that it will continue for generations to come,” Gano says.
The rice terraces, an engineering feat that have survived time and are still serving their original farming purpose 500 years later, are irrigated by waters from the Ifugao forests. The province forms part of the Cordillera mountain range and hosts the watershed that sustains three major rivers — the Lamut, Ibulao and Alimit — which run into the Magat dam, the second-largest in Luzon.
In 1995, UNESCO inscribed five clusters of rice terraces in Ifugao as World Heritage Sites, describing them as “a living cultural landscape of unparalleled beauty.” These are the Nagacadan terraces in the town of Kiangan; the terraces in the towns of Hungduan and Mayoyao; and the Bangaan and Batad terraces in the town of Banaue.
This recognition placed Ifugao on the global map, contributing to making tourism a major industry in the province.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, from 2017 to 2019, an annual average of 71,400 tourists, nearly half of them foreigners, stayed in lodgings in the province, according to data from the Department of Tourism of the Cordillera Administrative Region that includes Ifugao. In 2019, tourists in Ifugao spent nearly $18 million, according to the tourism department.
But Ifugao is more than just a picturesque landscape for tourists to admire. On these terraces, Indigenous people grow tinawon rice, a native white glutinous variety that is cultivated only once a year, compared to two to four harvests a year for commercial varieties of rice.
Rice planting coincides with the end of the rainy season, from December to February. During this period, water stored in the forests is slowly released from springs and creeks to keep the terraces irrigated throughout the year.
Most of the population of Ifugao comprises ethnolinguistic groups also collectively referred to as the Ifugao people. The rituals and culture of the Ifugaos revolve around the cultivation of tinawon, a gift from the sky-world gods, according to Ifugao mythology.
But the tinawon, the terraces it is grown on, and the forested regions around these iconic landscapes are today threatened by rapid conversion of forests and terraces into conventional vegetable farms.
Turning terraces, forests into conventional farms
This shift can be attributed to the low profitability and high cost and labor intensity of rice farming, says Jude Baggo of the Ifugao Rice Terraces–Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems Center of Ifugao State University.
As an annual crop, tinawon harvests are only enough for subsistence needs, forcing families to look for other forms of livelihood to pay for the rising costs of basic needs and education, Baggo says.
In Banaue alone, around 540 of the total 1,607 hectares (1,334 out of 3,971 acres) of rice terraces have been abandoned, with large portions lost to erosion, according to 2018 municipal data. Baggo’s village of Bangbang in Hungduan town is in even worse shape: he estimates half of the original rice terraces have been abandoned.
Even with the introduction of mechanical equipment like cultivators and threshers, he says, many of the younger generation still shun farming in general, perceiving as an occupation for the uneducated.
Gano, who learned how to farm at a young age from her parents, concurs. In the tourism village of Hapao in Hungduan, young people show no interest in farming rice due, and are drawn instead to the more lucrative and less laborious forms of livelihood in urban areas, she says.
“Now, they just buy rice from the lowlands. So when we [older farmers] die, expect the knowledge and culture of rice farming to die with us,” Gano says.
Rice terraces that aren’t abandoned are often converted into commercial vegetable farms, Baggo says. This can be seen in the towns of Banaue, Hingyon, Hungduan and Mayoyao, where vegetable plots, mostly tomatoes or cabbage, have replaced rice on some terraces.
This more intensive form of farming can yield two to three times as much sellable produce per unit of land than rice farming, with three to four harvests per year. But these gains are short-lived.
Prolonged use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides gradually destroy the natural state of the soil, making it unworkable. This leads to more abandoned terraces and the conversion of even more of the remaining rice terraces. Or it can push farmers to clear out forested watershed areas in search of new land. Besides being ecologically damaging, such practices could end the Ifugao culture that revolves around rice, and the terraces’ status as a World Heritage Site.
“This kind of [conventional vegetable] farming will never be sustainable,” says Marlon Martin, head of heritage conservation organization Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement (SITMO). “It makes the environment suffer, soon the people will follow.”
Even privately owned and managed woodlots, called muyong or pinugo, which play a critical role in the maintenance of the rice terraces, are not spared from the land conversion, Martin says.
Situated above the rice terraces and below the communal forests, the muyong provide a critical regulatory function by ensuring water supply to the rice terraces while preventing soil erosion due to high rainfall, a frequent phenomenon in the Philippines.
Until the early 2000s, dense forests covered the mountains at the town limits of Asipulo, Kiangan, and Tinoc. Now, wide tracts of carrots, cabbages and other semi-temperate, non-native vegetable varieties dot the watershed. And some farmers who have maintained their rice terraces have also ventured into vegetable farming, clearing forests for fresh and wider lands.
Although there is no available government data yet as to the actual extent of land conversion, Martin says the destructive trend started creeping into the towns of Asipulo and Kiangan at least a decade ago.
“Before it was just converting rice terraces into [vegetable] gardens, then their muyong. Now, they are doing slash-and-burn and they do not care if the forests are being decimated,” Martin says.
In Tinoc and the neighboring province of Benguet, where vegetable farming is the main agricultural industry, uncontrolled farm expansion has decimated forested mountains, including 70% of the 5,513-hectare (13,620-acre) Mount Data National Park, according to 2019 data from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
Land conversion intensified following government restrictions imposed on economic activities to curb the spread of COVID-19. People who lost their livelihoods due to the decline in tourism and other businesses during the pandemic were easily swayed toward the destructive methods of vegetable farming, Gano says.
Martin says it’s a classic dilemma of belly versus environment, where the latter is “unfortunately bound to lose.”
Deforestation leads to decreased water supply for the rice terraces, which need to be submerged year-round to maintain productive plants, retain ground moisture, and prevent erosion, says Moises Butic, a forester previously with the DENR.
As deforestation reduces access to water, rice farmers are forced to skip the year’s crop of tinawon or convert their rice terraces into vegetable farms to earn money, perpetuating the cycle.
The clearing of woodlots and forests also reduces the diverse sources of raw material for handicrafts like baskets and wood carvings, firewood, timber, medicine, and materials used for rituals.
In fact, indigenous trees like the palayon (also known as Philippine oak) and tuwol (bishop wood), which were once abundant across the Ifugao mountains, are now only seen in dense forests and sparsely in muyong areas, Butic says. Having served with the DENR for 40 years, Butic retired in 2019 and returned to his hometown in Kiangan to help revive the muyong practice of his people.
For now, vegetable farming may be profitable for farmers. But in time, the chemicals used in commercial vegetable farming will affect soil health, seep through the ground and pollute water sources or drain into the rivers, Butic says.
“If there is no intervention to this trend [of land conversion], the Ifugao forests will slowly disappear in a few years, so will the rice terraces, and so will the Ifugao culture,” he says.
Patches of hope and sustainable solutions
There are still patches of hope in the Ifugao landscape. In the village of Mompolia in Hingyon town, farmers still cultivate tinawon in rice fields inherited from their forebears. There are still young people here keen to learn the knowledge of maintaining the tinawon and the muyong system, like 28-year-old Geomar Pugong, an engineer. He works in the provincial capital, Lagawe, but goes back home frequently to tend his family’s rice fields and maintain the traditional cycle of rice farming.
“Eating a cup of tinawon is like eating two cups of the commercial rice. So it may take time to harvest but it is more profitable in a sense,” Pugong says.
SITMO is also working to maintain a dozen terraces where tinawon and other native rice species are grown. On the unterraced portions, it grows dry highland rice varieties. Martin says they collect the grains and distribute them to partner farmers who are interested in maintaining the traditional cycle of rice farming.
But until the government takes a holistic approach, deforestation will continue to worsen with the increasing demand for vegetables and timber, Martin says. The solution, he says, is to provide farmers with sustainable alternative livelihoods based on their existing resources to complement rice agriculture. Given better opportunities to earn, he says, farmers can revive traditional rice agriculture, which relies on good management of the muyong.
This July, SITMO carried out an initiative promoting honey production to vegetable farmers on the border between the towns of Kiangan and Asipulo, where forests have been cleared for farms. This livelihood alternative is based on pallunan, the traditional knowledge of constructing beehives in the forests, coinciding with the migration of bee colonies in the area. The beehives are then left for a period of time before being harvested for their honey and wax.
Just this year, Martin says, a farmer was able to harvest 300 bottles of wild honey, which can fetch about $20 a bottle at the local market. This form of livelihood requires the farmers to manage the forests well to ensure the bees are protected and have abundant sources of food to turn into honey. This then kicks off a virtuous circle in which other forms of sustainable livelihood, such as ecotourism and handicrafts, using ample raw materials, can thrive, Martin says.
“They will eventually give up the destructive commercial vegetable agriculture and instead restore and invigorate the forest which will provide [for] their needs,” he says.
These profitable activities can be sustainably derived from nature without damaging the source and encourage a symbiotic relationship between the community and nature, he adds.
Baggo says rebranding local products such as indigenous rice and handicrafts in the framework of conserving the Ifugao rice terraces and forests could boost sales. He calls for supportive programs to advance existing efforts, like the Ifugao Satoyama Meister Training program at Ifugao State University. Under this Japanese government-funded program, participants study ways to reinvent traditional raw materials derived from the rice terrace ecosystem into a profitable enterprise
Ultimately, though, it’s the Philippine government that has to support farmers to protect these culturally rich landscapes, Baggo says. The government should establish sustainable market linkages and help rice farmers transition to using e-commerce to broaden their market, he says.
“A sustainable market means farmers can focus on tending the rice terraces and the forests. Ecological balance is then maintained,” he says.
Butic says the government should stop using invasive, non-native tree species such as gmelina and mahogany in its National Regreening Program, aimed at restoring forests. He says invasive monoculture species like these eliminate diversity and aren’t suitable for the woodlots since they shed leaves during the dry season and can easily break and topple over.
Another way to encourage more Indigenous farmers to restore the denuded forests is to incentivize those who conserve rather than burden them with requirements, Butic says. For instance, the government should conduct land and content surveys for free for those who intend to restore or improve their muyong, and make the processing of documents easier, he says.
Currently, people who seek to have their woodlots surveyed are charged processing and permit fees, which, Butic says, discourages landowners from seeking government help.
“Why burden them and take their money for trying to conserve the forests?” he says.
By implementing this wide range of solutions, more younger people might be interested in returning to agroforestry, says Regina Guimpatan-Gano, an instructor at Ifugao State University, which offers a bachelor’s degree in agriculture.
“We need to change their mindset by giving them excellent examples,” she says. “Only then can they probably see that an agriculture degree is profitable right at home.”
This story was produced with the support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network and was originally published by Mongabay on 29 August 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Banaue terraces in 2009 / Credit: Caitriana Nicholson via Flickr.