MANIL, Philippines – Although the centuries-old rice terraces of Ifugao have been included in the list of endangered World Heritage sites, these hallmarks of Ifugao industry, craftsmanship and indigenous knowledge, remain an awesome landscape.
This was the shared observation of about 70 international conservationists, architects and experts on traditional landscapes after they visited the rice terraces and interacted with villagers.
“Just looking at the terraces energizes and inspires you,” said Marc de Caraffe, president of the International Council for Monuments and Sites’ (Icomos) committee on vernacular architecture.
The experts joined the International Conference on Protecting Endangered Traditional Landscapes in Banaue town early this month. The meeting was organized by Icomos, an international organization of architects, urban planners, archaeologists, anthropologists, historians and other professionals involved in heritage conservation.
Icomos is the only nongovernment organization accredited to advise the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (Unesco) world heritage committee on cultural heritage matters.
During the conference held on Dec. 3-7, the experts discussed the status of the terraces and came up with recommendations on how to address the various issues surrounding the deterioration of the heritage sites.
“From all the presentations on the various efforts of the provincial government and the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement (Sitmo) and the interaction with local folks, the group is pleased to know that there is a determined and creative effort from the Ifugao to help restore the terraces,” said Augusto Villalon, Icomos Philippines chair.
With the programs already in place, the stakeholders must sustain conservation activities with the help of the national and local governments, NGOs and Filipinos in general, he said.
Brenda Saquing, provincial administrator, said that while the Ifugao people were striving to conserve their heritage, they were also seeking the help of every individual “who believes in beauty, freedom and survival” to pitch in in restoring the rice terraces.
“After all, the Ifugao rice terraces are not the patrimony of the Ifugao alone, but of the whole humanity,” she said.
The workshops tried to seek recommendations on how to use heritage as a resource for income generation to keep the Ifugao from leaving their families’ terraces.
Among the strategies recommended were arts and crafts development, marketing of the tinawon rice, and the production of organic vegetables, fruits and rice wine.
The experts also believed that the adventure and agro-eco-tourism industries must be strengthened to complement the development of the product industries in Ifugao.
With this, they agreed to push for the improvement of the Bagabag airport in nearby Nueva Vizcaya to cut travel time of tourists going to Ifugao. The province is at least 10 hours by land travel from Metro Manila.
Among the other recommendations was to study if abandoned terraces could be leased to other farmers or to local governments, which should devise ways to make these mountain farms productive.
“Some Ifugao farmers are practicing a system of leasing untilled lands called uhat. Usually the owner will let his farm be tilled by another farmer for free for three years. On the fourth year, the owner will get half of the harvest, provided that he will also share in whatever agricultural inputs or labor cost needed,” said engineer Norberto Tayaban, a rice field owner.
Tayaban said many professionals who could not go to their rice farms preferred to let relatives or village mates till the lands instead of abandoning these.
“While it is true that there are abandoned rice fields, these are usually due to lack of water in the terraces. We cannot till the land without water,” said Perfecta Dulnuan, Banaue planning and development coordinator.
Dulnuan, who allows her relatives to till her rice fields, said that while rice terrace farming was not very profitable, “[we have a] responsibility to our ancestors to keep the payo or rice fields watered and planted.”
“There is an unwritten law that we have to take care of our inheritance. A member of the community who abandons his rice fields without a reasonable [explanation] is considered lazy and disrespectful of his ancestors’ toil and labor,” she said.