World-famous rice terraces under threat

After putting his seedlings to bed in the world-famous Banaue rice terraces in the northern Philippines, farmer Gabriel Balicdon works as a tourist guide and buys rice from the grocer.

Built by Ifugaos — illiterate mountain farmers and woodcarvers — at about the same time the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China were being constructed, the terraces look like giant staircases leading to the clouds.

But now migration, the lure of easy tourist money and a plague of giant earthworms imperil the 2 000-year-old structures that follow the contours of the Cordilleras Mountains.

The flooded terraced paddies that draw nearly 100 000 tourists a year have since 2001 been on the “endangered list” of the United Nations’s World Heritage sites.

“We need to protect our heritage, but young people no longer want to work the farm. If the paddy crumbles they do not know how to repair it,” said Balicdon.

The 46-year-old owner of four plots on the amphitheatre-shaped terraces in the village of Batad, not far from the town of Banaue, does not produce enough for his family of nine, so he looks for odd jobs to make ends meet in the six months between planting and harvesting the aromatic upland rice.

“In the summer we go to Banaue to buy rice,” Balicdon said, smiling at the irony.

Neighbour Simon Illog (46) gave up farming in 1989 to open a tourist inn, one of seven concrete structures on a ridge overlooking the fields.

He says it is difficult to find farm hands to maintain his inheritance, and wonders if tourists will still come if the main attraction is no more.

“The terraces on the peripheral areas are falling into ruin,” he said.

It took Nestor Buccah (57) three months, using mud and rock, to repair the retaining wall of a plot that had been gnawed away by 30cm earthworms that are slowly taking over the Batad fields.

“My son works in the city as a driver. He would rather help me here but we need his wages to buy meat,” he said.

“People all want a higher quality of life and the amenities that modern times can offer,” said Marilyn Bartina, an official of the Ifugao Cultural Heritage office that is working to preserve the terraces.

“So they send their children to school but the graduates don’t go back to the terraces and farm, and they [the terraces] fall into disrepair.”

‘Survival mode’

The terraces are also drying up due to deforestation at the watersheds above the farms, Bartina said, as local craftsmen cut down trees to use the roots for carving images of Ifugao gods.

Rice terraces are common across the Cordilleras, and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco) Heritage Centre has highlighted the visual feasts located in Ifugao province — Batad and nearby Bangaan, the clusters in Kiangan town, the extensive plots around Mayoyao and the structures in Hungduan that radiate like spider webs.

The plots are handed down from one generation to the next, “but the first born always gets the lion’s share”, said Marieta Hangdaan, a provincial tourism official.

Other siblings leave and burn nearby forests for temporary farms or migrate to neighbouring provinces or abroad.

Older folk do not particularly like the tourists, who totter along the narrow paddy walls with their cameras. Electricity reaches only the tourist inns, and many of the locals go about their lives much like their ancestors did — wearing loincloths, milling rice by hand, weaving clothes with handlooms, and chewing a fiery mix of betel nut and lime.

But some have adjusted quickly to a cash-based economy, leading to fears that the local culture will soon disappear.

“The culture of the people there is eroding faster than the terraces,” Augusto Villalon, head of the Philippine committee of the Paris-based International Council on Monuments and Sites, said in an interview in Manila.

“Conserving heritage has little relevance to most site residents who live from day to day in survival mode,” he said, adding that restoring the terraces requires “cultural and economic opportunities that make terrace life more viable for the 21st century”.

Tourism has become the main economic driving force of the Cordilleras, thanks mainly to the terraces.

Tens of thousands of tourists, including Europeans who arrive in mid-year, hike up the mountains every year, stay at lodges for an average of four days and spend an average of 2 500 pesos ($57).

Officials are trying to align the tourism influx with the conservation efforts.

Some novel tourism packages revolve around local religious ceremonies involving the region’s principal crop. Visitors pay to take part in planting rice, repairing the walls or joining a thanksgiving festival after harvest.

“We are working toward the removal of the rice terraces from the list of endangered sites and returned to the normal list of heritage sites by 2009,” said Marinette Reyes, cultural officer of the Unesco national committee in the Philippines. — AFP

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