Stairway to Heaven:
Ancient Rice Terraces of The Philippines
The dazzling 2,000-year-old Banaue Rice Terraces in The Philippines are hand-hewn steps leading to the sky. But modern culture is threatening the future of this ancient UNESCO World Heritage site, called the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
I was living in Taiwan and planning a trip to The Philippines. “I’ve seen plenty of rice paddies. I don’t know why I’d want to see any more,” I thought, as I planned my trip. But for some reason, I felt compelled to visit the Banaue Rice Terraces. I must have read one too many blog posts telling me not to miss them, or perhaps it was because I felt that I should make an effort to visit more UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Rather than research the subject, I made the decision on a whim, scheduled five days for the terraces, and went out for a beer.
A month later, on the eve of my visit, I finally got around to doing my research. The terraces at Batad are said to be some of the oldest and most spectacular, the first having been carved out of the steep mountainside, by hand, more than 2,000 years earlier. They have been built, repaired, and farmed in almost the same way for over two millennia, and are part of a larger system of terraces that covers 10,360 square kilometres of steep mountainside. It is said that if all the rice terraces in Ifugao were laid end to end they’d stretch halfway around the world.
Twenty-five to 30 per cent of the terraces were abandoned, I learned, and more residents were leaving all the time. Rats and worms driven into the area by illegal logging were damaging the terraces and making them difficult to farm. The increased exposure to affluent outsiders caused by tourism had also contributed to the urban migration of young villagers. It’s not hard to see how a smart phone or laptop would quickly convince a young Ifugao villager that there was more to the world than their tiny mountain village where nothing had substantially changed for more than two millennia.
A local bus dropped fellow travel blogger Jeannie Mark and me at the saddle and we began descending the trail to the village of Batad. The view from Batad was spectacular. We hired a guide to take us across the terraces to the Tappiya Falls. His name was Rambo. Jeannie decided that she wasn’t up to the four-hour hike, so she stayed behind to hang out and enjoy the spectacular view of the terraces from the patio of a restaurant called Rita’s.
As we walked across the terraces, Rambo told me that the terraces were not as green as they should be. There was no water for them because a landslide had damaged the stone aqueduct-like irrigation system during a typhoon several months earlier.
“Doesn’t the government help?” I asked him. He told me, disgust evident on his face, that the government had provided one million pesos for its repair. It took me a moment to figure out why he seemed bitter about this. Then I did the math. One million pesos is only about $20,000 USD, and they don’t have backhoes in rural Philippines.
“That is very bad.” I said. “So, you have no rice to sell.”
“We don’t sell our rice.” Rambo informed me. “We eat it.”
We took a break near the waterfall and were drenched by the mist rising from it. When we returned to the restaurant Jeannie had made a friend. She introduced us to Rita. Rita is 70, by her best estimate. She doesn’t know because villagers didn’t keep track of such things when she was born.
Rita was one of the last traditional Ifugao weavers who could make plants from the jungle into fibres for weaving into mats and clothing. She proudly showed us a book about her, made by an anthropologist, who documented the entire process. She said there was only one other weaver who could do what she did, an old man in the next village over. I asked if he was any good at it. No, she laughed.
The traditional culture of the Ifugao is not lost, but it is in decline. Farmers used to employ a communal work ethic wherein one farmer would help another when he needed it in exchange for promise of the same in the future. Since money has been introduced, this system has been steadily replaced by monetary exchanges.
Older villagers recite a chant called the hudhud. It’s a complex chant sung by women while harvesting in the fields. The entire chant takes three to four days to complete. It’s not hard to see how children distracted by television would have a hard time learning such an onerous song.
This is the paradox of the rice terraces. Tourists are undoubtedly damaging the culture of the Ifugao tribes; but if the terraces and the culture of the Ifugao tribes are to be preserved, they will need the support of the already cash-strapped Philippines government. And the only incentive that will push the Philippines government to send precious resources to the region is its ability to draw tourists.
The same tourists who are proving detrimental to Ifugao culture are necessary to its survival.
We paid Rita for our food, and Rambo for his services and started the trek up the mountainside to the saddle. As we hiked I no longer noticed only the brilliant green steps carved into the mountainsides. I was distracted by clotheslines hung with basketball jerseys and sweatpants.