Still standing

The rice terraces of the Philippine Cordillera Mountains are among the finest examples of human craftsmanship working in harmony with nature. But can this ancient nutritional system survive the challenges of modernity?


They may be called the ‘stairway to heaven’ but to the Ifugao tribe, the 2,000-year-old rice terraces serve a far more sombre function. Skilfully constructed along the outlines of the Cordillera Mountains – on the Luzon Island, the largest and northernmost of the Philippine archipelago – these hand-built ‘staircases’ have provided rice for generations of tribes in the Ifugao province. The building techniques remain unchanged since their invention in pre-historic times, as do the terraces; reflecting a cultural practice that has retained its authenticity over two millennia.

The terraces’ construction is more sophisticated than the appearance suggests. The staircases, built of mud and stone, retain water in small ponds from the rainforests above. These fill up, allowing rice to grow, then release spare water to the terraces below through a complex system of dams, sluices and channels. This ensures equal distribution. To safeguard the steady supply of water on which the terraces depend, the tribe members take turns to manage the forests. It is not only, as UNESCO says, a “mastery of engineering that is appreciated to the present,” but an unparalleled example of human craftsmanship operating in tune with the surrounding ecosystem.

The problem for these communities is that times are changing. For long, tribes have communally conserved these terraces through age-old practices. There was never an alternative lifestyle. Now, the young are seeking their fortunes elsewhere. “Having an educated member of the family is a way out of poverty,” says Marlon Martin, chief of operations at Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement, an NGO working on conserving the terraces. “When these young Ifugaos get their degrees, the terraces offer too small an opportunity to apply their education. Rarely do they come back.” The result is a reduced workforce, deteriorating terraces and disrupted irrigation systems.


UNESCO, which in 1995 listed the terraces of Batad, Bangaan, Mayoyao, Hungduan and Nagacadan, hit the alarm button in 2001 by placing them on its List of World Heritage in Danger. Another conservation body, the International Committee on Monument and Sites, noted that “springs had dried up and deforestation within the watershed had occurred” while “traditions and rituals associated with the cultivation of rice had been disappearing”. In response, the Philippine government set up the Ifugao Cultural Heritage Office and put agencies and organisations on the job. In June, UNESCO removed the terraces from its list, saying that half of the terraces had been restored, management had improved and ancestral traditions had been re-installed.

But that doesn’t mean the job is over. Although local tribes still practice ancient principles, their needs have changed over the last two millennia. Inevitably, so have the functions of the terraces. “The terraces are a ‘living’ cultural landscape; they are still serving the function for which they were created more than a thousand years ago,” says Martin. “Albeit not with the same effect; they’re not static, they change as the people that depend on them changes. That is the problem in conserving these mountain landscapes because it is continuously evolving to adapt to the current times. As such, restoration and conservation work must also be continuing.”

Yet restoring broken stonewalls isn’t enough. Due to the complex interplay between villages, forests, water sources and the ingrained tribal culture, the locals’ intuitive understanding of the system is crucial for the terraces to retain their function. Without it, Martin argues, the project is doomed to fail. “Crumbling stonewalls are merely symptoms of a bigger erosion; the Ifugao culture,” he says. “This knowledge that was passed on for hundreds of Ifugao generations is what’s keeping the terraced walls together. It is the soul of the terraces. Without it, the body dies eventually.”


As such, material restoration can only be a quick fix. The challenge is to rectify the social equilibrium. Which isn’t easy. Despite an appetite for hard graft, most terrace farmers consider themselves poor. The average yearly wage in 2000 was roughly 85,000 Philippine Peso, equivalent to £1,250 or €1,600. For the young, life in small houses on wooden pins is a far cry from modern civilisation. Even for those wishing to stay, relying on the terraces is now sparse if ends are to meet.

How to make the young Ifugao stay? The answer, Martin says, is to conserve the terraces in tune with their original purpose – traditional rice harvesting – thus restoring them as the centrepiece of the tribes’ nutritional resources. “If the terraces can provide the needed sustenance for the Ifugao farmer, he will not abandon it. He will maintain it just as his ancestors did for thousands of years before him. Feed the farmer and everything else will follow.”

Another way is to give locals key roles in the tourism drive, thus enabling them to benefit financially. “Through this participatory approach, villagers will realise that the importance of keeping the terraces goes beyond their village,” he says. “That their tradition is what makes the site worthy of being a world heritage site; a heritage not only for their people but for all of humanity.”

Photos: Krajomfire, Raphme, Rovenko Photo [all via].