Signals: Tug of War

Farmers of Ifugao tribes, heirs to the world-renowned Ifugao Rice Terraces, are waging a war against a new enemy – or more accurately, an old enemy reaching unprecedented extremes: climate disruption.

Reporter: Pia Ranada
Video Production: Charles Salazar, Emerald Hidalgo, Naoki Mengua
Design: Analette Abesamis, Dominic Tuazon, and Alejandro Edoria
Editor: KD Suarez

7:35 AM, Nov 10, 2015

KIANGAN, Philippines – Beware the umamo.

They are the gods of covetousness who threaten the yearly harvest of the Ifugao.

At least, that’s what Maria Galeon’s parents and grandparents told her when they were still alive.

"They would have rituals so that the umamo will not take the harvest," she tells us as we walk between green rice terraces in Nagacadan, Kiangan where she has lived her entire 77 years. Kiangan is a town in Ifugao province, tucked in the mountains of the Cordillera region in northern Luzon.

Nowadays, the elaborate Ifugao agricultural rites are not performed as often. In some villages, they live only in the memory of elders or in demonstrations for tourists.

'Most of the time, there is strong rain and that causes most of the erosions in our rice fields and sometimes also, too much heat. I did not experience this when I was young. Nowadays, sometimes it’s too hot you can hardly endure.'

But the umamo are alive and well.

Farmers of Ifugao tribes, heirs to the world-renowned Ifugao Rice Terraces, have been waging a war against a new enemy, or more accurately, an old enemy reaching unprecedented extremes.

This enemy is the unpredictable climate.

"Most of the time, there is strong rain and that causes most of the erosions in our rice fields and sometimes also, too much heat. I did not experience this when I was young. Nowadays, sometimes it’s too hot you can hardly endure," says Maria.

Beside a concrete path winding through the rice terraces, a messy mound of soil and grass shows up among the slices of rice paddies.

The mound is all that remains of a rice terrace following a powerful storm a few months ago. The stones that had been piled carefully by ancestors of the Nagacadan villagers to hold the weight of the terrace lie at the bottom of the hill.

To keep the area useful, villagers planted cucumber plants and other vegetables. But its days of being a glorious rice terrace are over.

Landslides from storms are nothing new to the hardy Ifugaos. But recent incidents point to a new pattern, or more troubling, the lack of one.

"Nagiging OA na yung weather. Magkasunod na bagyo o magkasabay na bagyo, too much rain," says Marlon Martin who heads the Save Ifugao Terraces Movement (SITMo).

(The weather is becoming over-the-top. There are successive storms or simultaneous storms.)

The farmers of the celebrated Batad rice terraces, 4 hours away from Nagacadan by car, say they are experiencing the same difficulties.

Farmer Mongarnon Binalit points to a steady trickle of water flowing through terraces of golden palay stalks.

If things were as they used to be, the trickle would be a gushing stream rushing to fill the rice terraces with life-giving water.

And so right beside the rice terraces ruined by rain are rice terraces ruined by heat.

"Most of the abandoned terraces are not cultivated because of the lack of water," says Jimmy Lingayo, head of the Ifugao Rice Farmers Cooperative.

The disrupted climate is not only affecting the irrigation. It’s opened the Ifugao rice terraces to new pests.

"We are noticing that insects that were not here 10 to 15 years ago are becoming common, perhaps because it has become hotter," said Marlon in a mix of English and Filipino.

Climate gone haywire

Scientists say this new threat to the rice terraces is none other than climate change.

The balance of the climate in the Cordilleras began to tip in the early 1990s, according to a 2013 study by an Ifugao scientist published in the Asian Journal of Science and Technology.

"The years prior to the 1990’s were the most favorable years in the history of rice terraces cultivation. During these years, farmers took advantage of the regularities of climate to maximize productivity," wrote Robert Ngidlo of Ifugao State University.

Before the 1990s, the Cordillera region cowered from only one or two strong typhoons every 5 years. Since then, the region puts up with at least one storm a year.

tropical cyclone

It’s no surprise then that most of the physical degradation of rice terraces in the last 10 to 20 years was attributed to landslides and the collapse of dikes and walls after heavy rainfall.

Strong rains also directly affect the ability of rice plants to produce more grain. The study found that typhoon-affected rice plants tended to produce panicles with empty grains resulting in lower yields.

Farmers estimated that they lose as much as 80% of their supposed harvest depending on the time of the year the typhoon hits.

Some pests, like the rice bug, thrive in wetter climates, exposing the rice plants to even more threats.

While anecdotal evidence points to stronger storms, recorded data shows that across a longer period of time, rainfall is actually decreasing.

Records from the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) and Manila Observatory show that monthly rainfall averages in the region are declining.

Rainfall recorded every month in Baguio City in Benguet from 1981 to 2010 shows a lower trend compared to 1902 to 1939 monthly rainfall averages.

The lower rainfall coincides with hotter temperatures in the Cordillera. PAGASA and and Manila Observatory records show that temperatures recorded from 1981 to 2000 in the region were around 3˚C warmer than temperatures recorded before World War II, from 1908 to 1935.

PAGASA predicts that by 2036 to 2065, the temperature may rise by as much as 1.6 to 2.1˚C.

ifugao cordillera temperature

Rising temperatures have led to drought, now the second most damaging phenomenon for the rice terraces after typhoons, says the study.

Erratic rainfall and hotter than normal temperatures during the dry months of January to June has led to water scarcity. The 8-month 2009 El Niño "practically damaged most of the rice terraces," reported the study.

The rice terraces and Ifugao farmers face another strong El Niño this 2015.

Some pests like the balmier climate too. Ngidlo reported that warmer temperatures have caused the migration of giant earthworms from the forests to the Kalinga rice terraces, also in the Cordillera region.

Into the 'muyong'

With the climate gone haywire, the delicate balance that has preserved the rice terraces for generations has been lost.

But the Ifugao farmers of this century are not about to give up, especially when part of the solution has been in their culture all along.

Maria tells me to look past the glorious stairwell of rice plants towards the non-descript mountain forests above them.

These are the still-vast tracts of muyong or family-owned forests that are inherited by Ifugao along with their ancestors’ rice terraces.

Muyong go by other names depending on which Cordillera tribe you are asking: hinobaan, hinoob, pinuku, pinugu.

But they mean the same thing: carefully guarded forests that provide firewood, medicinal herbs, and other resources to an Ifugao family or tribe.

But among their most important roles is serving as a water-collecting sponge for the rice terraces below.

In scientific jargon, they function as watersheds.

The muyong is the "primary recharge zone providing water for irrigation," says the Ngidlo study. Trees in the muyong absorb rain in the mountain peaks, drain it into streams which are removed of pollutants as they make their way downstream or into the ground. The streams are then diverted to rice terraces to provide irrigation for the thirsty rice plants.

Ramon Binalit, an Ifugao native, explained the muyong belief this way, "There are certain species of trees believed to be holding water or producing water. Our elders forbade us from cutting those trees."

The elders would assign one or two members of the tribe to guard the watershed. If someone was caught cutting trees or plants inside the watershed without the permission of the family or tribe elder, that person was forced to treat the entire village to a feast.

Nowadays, such "penalty feasts" are not as common. But a guilty tribe member would still have to offer a pig or two to the aggrieved party.

Cordillera peoples have also perfected a system of muyong maintenance – an elaborate practice in which certain species of trees are left untouched, old trees are cut for firewood, and areas are carefully cleared of undergrowth to allow saplings to grow.

Such strict protection and maintenance of watersheds is one way Ifugao farmers can stave off climate impacts in their rice terraces.

But the muyong practice is itself in danger from a growing wood furniture industry, modern farming methods, and the tourism boom in the Cordillera.

Many Ifugao now cut too much trees in their muyong to produce wood carvings sold to tourists and decorators, says Jimmy.

Marlon estimates that as much as 60% of wood carvings and furniture in Paete, Laguna, which thrives mostly on the industry, come from the Cordillera.

The Ifugao on the street will admit that the narra trees that used to be common in their parts have become rare.

Tourism generated by interest in the majestic rice terraces has also convinced some Ifugao families to sacrifice some trees to build guesthouses in their muyong.

Meanwhile, climate change has convinced many Ifugao farmers to plant low-land rice instead of traditional rice species native to Cordillera.

Low-land rice is early-maturing allowing farmers to harvest twice a year. With traditional or heirloom rice, farmers harvest only once a year.

But the additional harvest season takes up the time Ifugao farmers usually spend maintaining their muyong.

All these factors have led to abandoned or ill-maintained muyong that lose their ability to bring water to the rice terraces.

Righting the balance

Marlon, with a wood-sheathed dagger strapped at his side, walks through the muyong of farmer Gilbert Ananayo.

He has just come from a workshop with Ifugao farmers on watershed management and irrigation, as part of his duties as head of SITMo, a community organization formed in 2000 to preserve the rice terraces.

SITMo works with farmers like Gilbert and farmers’ organizations all over Ifugao to revive such near-forgotten practices.

Gilbert is busy trimming bamboo groves beside the pathway, practicing what he learned from past SITMo workshops on muyong maintenance.

Like Ifugao elders of old, SITMo helps farmers in cleaning their muyong and sustainably harvesting firewood, says Marlon, himself an Ifugao native.

The workshops and demonstrations also serve as a reminder to farmers who have abandoned their muyong.

But indigenous knowledge alone can’t save the rice terraces, admits Marlon.

"Because there are a lot of changes going, it will not suffice to rely on what we are used to. You can still go back, you can enhance these traditional practices," he says.

And that’s what SITMo hopes to do.

One modern practice they are teaching farmers is the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), an evolving set of practices aimed at increasing productivity in rice fields by changing the way plants, soil, water and nutrients are managed, according to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

The methodology is gaining traction worldwide because of its promotion of science-based practices and adaptability to the local circumstances of farmers.

SRI usually involves lower water use, more labor, use of organic inputs, and more efficient use of seedlings.

"Many of our farmers are now practicing this. In fact they say this is what they used to do before. Now, it has a new name," says Marlon.

In SRI, Ifugao farmers are taught to plant only two seedlings instead of 4 or 5 in one hole. SRI teaches that the less seedlings planted, the thicker the shoots and thus the higher number of grains yielded.

'We always tell our children to help preserve and to continue even if they will not be able to farm. They will have to help continue fixing what is destroyed.'

More lessons are on the way. Marlon says SITMo plans to introduce duck-rice culture as a new pest management scheme to eradicate the infamous pest golden kuhol.

SRI and other new methods are being demonstrated to farmers in SITMo pilot sites in Ifugao.

"You can really see the difference in harvest in the SRI sites. Sometimes, the yield doubles. A lot of [the farmers] are quite impressed and many adopt it," says Marlon.

Even the ancient practice of muyong maintenance has a modern spin-off. Many of its central principles are similar to Assisted Natural Regeneration (ANR). A cheaper and faster alternative to reforestation, ANR involves the protection of natural-growing seedlings through clearing of undergrowth and strategic pruning.

For Marlon, the solution to bringing back the balance in the rice terraces is to strike a balance between two sources of knowledge: modern and traditional.

The balance is wanted in other aspects of Ifugao life as more and more Ifugao youth go to the cities to study and make a living.

"The more educated you are in the modern ways, it’s expected that you become more ignorant of the traditional ways of maintaining the environment and rice terraces. We need a balance there," he says.

Maria, whose face is as lined with years as the mountains are lined with rice terraces, sits between generations.

Indigenous communities and climate change

She remembers her ancestors who toiled in the terraces and calls to her children who now all live in cities.

"We always tell our children to help preserve and to continue even if they will not be able to farm. They will have to help continue fixing what is destroyed. That is what we tell our young ones, our children." –

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This project was made in cooperation with the Media 21 Asia Project of CFI, the French agency for media cooperation. |