Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras: Understanding the Complexity One Step at a Time (Part 1)
It was only last year (I hate to admit this!) that I finally came face to face with the Philippines’ world-renowned rice terraces. I can only think of few places I have been so far that are as picturesque and awe-inspiring as the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras – they breathe the history of the Ifugao. The incredible mixture of purely man-made terraces, the mountains, the muyongs, traditional hamlets, and other visible cultural artefacts in the region certainly does not disappoint.
Ticking off this world heritage site can be very tricky. There are a lot of rice terraces in the Ifugao province. Though all are declared National Cultural Treasures under the all-encompassing title of Ifugao Rice Terraces, there are only five specific clusters that are inscribed as World Heritage Sites in 1995. These are the Batad, Bangaan, Mayoyao, Nagacadan, and Hungduan. These select rice terraces were able to pass UNESCO’s strict requirements due to the “well-preserved blending of the physical, socio-cultural, economic, religious, and political environment” in creating an exemplary evolved, living cultural landscape.
One misconception Filipinos have (and I’ve seen this perpetuated a lot in social media and networking platforms) is the generalized and erroneous notion that the Banaue Rice Terraces in the town proper is a World Heritage Site (WHS). Sadly, it is not! This is even made worse by Banco Sentral ng Pilipinas wrongfully citing the Banaue Rice Terraces as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the current 20-peso bill.
Spending a weekend in Banaue with family and some friends, I was able to visit Batad and Bangaan in a day. As these two rice terraces clusters are along the same route, maximizing the opportunity to see both then became more of an undeniable obligation than being merely a right.
The Batad Rice Terraces, the smallest among the five clusters, appear to be the most popular with its amphitheatre-like appearance. Given its steepness, it virtually looks like a horizontally-lined cliff from a far. Some of Batad’s terraces are even stone-walled to prevent erosion and landslides. A larger exponent of this dry stone walling technique can be seen in the Hungduan Rice Terraces, the largest of the five clusters. The oldest of these walls in Hungduan are dated to be from 650AD, making them the oldest stone structure across the archipelago.
The practice of rice terracing is not exactly unique to the Philippines. Just this year, the Hanni Rice Terraces in Southern China, for example, have also been designated as a WHS. Nevertheless, the unparalleled features that make the Ifugao Rice Terraces stand out are their altitude (reaching as high as 1,500 metres from the base) and steepness (at 70 degrees maximum angulation). More so, these rice terraces are the oldest and largest continually used rice terraces in the world. The American Society of Civil Engineers named the Ifugao Rice Terraces as a Historic Engineering Landmark for water supply and control. In 1997, the same group came to the Philippines and formally declared (through a marker) the rice terraces as the 8th Wonder of the World (Thanks to former Tourism Secretary Mina Gabor for sharing to me this information).
Bangaan, on the other hand, is recognized for having the best preserved rice terraces cluster that “backdrops a typical Ifugao traditional village”. Indeed, the most noticeable component of Bangaan would be the intact central hamlet. Instead of stones, the walls of Bangaan Rice Terraces are made of mud. As much as Batad is unanimously being praised as the best, I actually found Bangaan to possess a better character; the experience, more authentic. I guess this impression stems from the fact that this rice terraces cluster is much more colorful with its varying shades of green and brown, together with the silvery reflections of its water-fed paddies – a phenomenon of natural beauty that I never saw in other clusters.
The agricultural complex of the rice terraces is an ingenious work of art that allows sufficient irrigation to the terraced pond fields, and water storage method in an elaborate farming system. A unique irrigation network of earthen dikes, sluizes, cannals, and bamboo pipes keeps the terraces adequately flooded. The humble muyongs (forest caps) that act as the main watersheds for the rice terraces are strictly protected areas as well. This culture of farming has been recognized by the Food and Agriculture Organization as an outstanding example of “worldwide, specific agricultural systems and landscapes (that) have been created, shaped and maintained by generations of farmers and herders based on diverse natural resources, using locally adapted management practices” and thereby declared the entire Ifugao Rice Terraces as a pilot for the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) in 2002.
To be continued in Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras: Understanding the Complexity One Step at a Time (Part 2)