In Banaue, Preserving the Terraces and the Heritage

The majestic Banaue rice terraces. Photo by Bernard Testa,

From a distance, the 2000-year old Banaue Rice Terraces carved largely by hand into the mountains by the Ifugaos, continue to overwhelm and inspire. It is said that when put from end to end, the steps would encircle half the globe. No wonder that Filipinos and foreigners who have seen its immensity firsthand also refer to it as the “8th Wonder of the World.” The terraces were declared National Treasures in Presidential Decrees 260:1973 and 1505:1978. These are also protected by the Republic Act No 10066:2010, providing for the protection and conservation of the National Cultural Heritage.

But take a closer look, and a traveller on site will discover that the terraces face threats of degradation—through both external and internal factors—as it endures the test of time. In 2001, the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras landed on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in danger. The terraces are mostly found in the Ifugao province, with the Ifugao people having been its creator and caretakers for many centuries. Construction of the rice terraces by blanketing walls with earth and stones was devised to draw water from a central irrigation canal amid the terraces.

Portions of the terraces have become eroded due to climate change. Photo by BEli Marasigan.

Climate change, which brings about heavy rains and seasonal droughts, have been causing the erosion of this majestic landscape. Coupled with the emigration of locals to neighboring towns in search of greener pastures, the terraces are in danger of gradual ruin.

One of the villages in Batad, a barangay in Banaue, Ifugao Province. Photo by Bernard Testa,

This poses a threat not just to the physical structure of the terraces itself but also to the culture and colorful heritage of the Ifugaos. The living rice terraces reflect the Ifugao culture revolving around plantation demonstrated in agricultural rites from rice cultivation to rice consumption. Thanksgiving feasts abound during the harvest season ending in tungo or tungul (the day of rest) which forbids execution of any agricultural work.

The terraces has always been at the center of its villages' rituals and celebrations. Photo by Bernard Testa,

During festivities and rituals, partaking of the bayah (rice beer), rice cakes, and betel
nut is done for sustenance but becomes a symbol of camaraderie and solidarity between
members of the community.

“Our culture is inherent to our people. Children are exposed to our way of living in their
everyday lives especially in our rituals,” Weber Chuchar, project in charge of the restoration of the Banaue Rice Terraces.

He added, “We have our own laws and culture. When a parent dies, the property will be inherited by the eldest child, whether girl or boy. If the father has bigger property, it goes to the eldest. If the mother has property, it will be given to the second child. If one
needs to sell his land, he has to ask his relatives first if they would want to buy the property. There is no transfer of property in the registry of deeds but a pig has to be killed in a ritual witnessed by the community to signify the transfer of ownership.”

Being a living cultural landscape, conservation and management challenges continue to persist in the rice terraces but sustained efforts of the government and rice terraces owners can ensure its long term sustainability and conservation. These include the enactment of national government policies and laws for the preservation of natural resources, and the adoption of guidelines for conservation and for procedures for the implementation of major projects.

Recently passed is House Bill 5692, otherwise known as the “Ifugao Rice Terraces Rehabilitation and Preservation Act” seeks “to restore, protect and safeguard” the country’s World Heritage site.

“We have a Rice Terraces Preservation Masterplan. Through stonewalling skills training, we can prevent the degradation of our rice terraces,” said Board member Jordan Gulitiw.

A local repairs a portion of the stone wall of the rice terraces. Photo by Eli Marasigan.

Through education and passion to maintain and preserve this glorious beauty with its vibrant culture, the Banaue Rice Terraces is to remain a proud and unyielding proof of the relentless spirit and perseverance of the Filipino people.

Purple sky at dusk in Banaue. Photo by Bernard Testa.