Filipino culture

[Time Trowel] Heritage for whom?

Stephen Acabado

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[Time Trowel] Heritage for whom?
The commodification of cultural practices and sites for tourism and national pride complicates heritage preservation. Practices isolate local communities from their own cultures and undermine the validity of the heritage itself.

A trowel (/ˈtraʊ.əl/), in the hands of an archaeologist, is like a trusty sidekick – a tiny, yet mighty, instrument that uncovers ancient secrets, one well-placed scoop at a time. It’s the Sherlock Holmes of the excavation site, revealing clues about the past with every delicate swipe.

What does it mean when we say Filipino heritage? After enduring more than three centuries of colonial subjugation, how do we define our collective cultural identity? How do we bridge our aspirations for nationhood and the need to honor our country’s indigenous histories?

As May marks the National Heritage Month, it provides an opportunity to examine the intricacies of heritage, culture, and history. It is an invitation not just to celebrate our past but to actively engage with it.

The 2024 National Heritage Month was launched in the town of Kiangan, Ifugao, on May 1. The venue was perfect for the occasion due to its historical and cultural importance in the Philippines. Located in the Cordillera mountains, Kiangan is celebrated not only for its landscapes but also as a symbol of resilience. Centuries ago, Ifugao warriors successfully repelled Spanish invaders here, safeguarding their community’s autonomy through fierce resistance. 

Today, Kiangan is home to the UNESCO-listed Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras. Our studies suggest these terraces, once believed to be at least 2,000 years old, were actually constructed around 400 years ago, likely in strategic defiance of Spanish colonial aims. More importantly, the indigenous knowledge applied in the construction of the terraces and the cultivation of heirloom rice varieties illustrated a deep understanding of local ecosystems.

These knowledges provide valuable insights into developing sustainable agricultural practices and to mitigate climate change effects. Thus, this celebration of heritage not only honors cultural identity but also highlights the central role of indigenous knowledges in shaping effective responses to environmental challenges.

However, defining and celebrating heritage in a multicultural and multi-ethnic society, like the Philippines, presents unique challenges. The archipelago is home to over 7,000 islands, where more than 180 languages are spoken, making the connection to one’s heritage a crucial undertaking. In such a culturally diverse setting, heritage is a complex concept, especially against a backdrop of a pervasive colonial history that has transformed or erased indigenous traditions.

Dominant narratives often highlight colonial legacies – such as architecture, language, and religion from Spanish and American influences – at the expense of indigenous cultures and practices. This selective recognition raises critical questions about whose history and traditions are embraced as “national heritage,” often sidelining marginalized voices.

Colonialism has deeply influenced what might be authentically “Filipino,” reshaping local identities and values by imposing foreign cultures, languages, and religions. This blurring of the pre-colonial cultural landscape means that much of the recognized heritage is imbued with colonial ideologies and practices.

Moreover, the erosion of indigenous traditions due to colonialism and modernization poses significant challenges in passing these traditions on to future generations. As traditional knowledge bearers pass away, there is an urgent need to document and practice these traditions to prevent their disappearance, safeguarding cultural diversity and the survival of unique heritage elements.

However, heritage preservation is influenced by contemporary power dynamics, where those with more resources and authority often dictate which aspects of heritage are highlighted. This typically results in a hierarchical recognition of heritage that favors histories and cultures aligned with socio-economic and political power, perpetuating inequalities.

The commodification of cultural practices and sites for tourism and national pride further complicates heritage preservation. Often termed “staged authenticity,” this phenomenon involves altering cultural expressions to satisfy tourist expectations or fit broader national narratives, thus distorting their original meanings and significance. Such practices not only isolate local communities from their own cultures but also undermine the validity of the heritage itself.

Addressing these challenges requires a more inclusive and respectful approach to heritage preservation. It is crucial to rectify historical injustices by acknowledging and celebrating the contributions and rights of indigenous and marginalized groups to their cultural expressions. This involves rethinking who is represented in heritage narratives and how they are portrayed and remembered.

The effectiveness of legal and institutional frameworks in protecting heritage cannot be overlooked. Often, existing laws and policies may not adequately address the needs or rights of indigenous peoples, or they may be poorly implemented due to corruption, lack of resources, or a lack of political will. Addressing these complex issues demands a thorough reassessment of heritage policies and practices to ensure they are more inclusive, equitable, and representative of all cultural groups within the country. This includes challenging and redefining what is valued as heritage, determining who makes these decisions, and how heritage is preserved and transmitted. Such efforts are essential to ensure that diversity is honored and celebrated, rather than forcing assimilation into a dominant cultural narrative.

Back to Ifugao, we also see “heritage in action,” where the cultivation of heirloom rice varieties represents a significant yet often underappreciated aspect of heritage that is deeply intertwined with environmental management and sustainable agricultural practices. This form of heritage is dynamic and actively contributes to addressing contemporary challenges, like climate change and food security.

The terraced rice fields of Ifugao, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are not only an indication to the engineering skills of the Ifugao people but also a living cultural landscape. The tinawon heirloom rice varieties grown in these terraces are adapted to the specific climatic and soil conditions of the highlands, showcasing a remarkable degree of biodiversity.

Some of these rice varieties are drought-resistant, which is increasingly crucial as climate patterns become more erratic and less predictable. The traditional knowledge associated with cultivating these varieties involves complex water management systems and sustainable farming practices that enhance resilience to climate impacts. This knowledge, passed down through generations, includes specific planting and harvesting cycles aligned with the natural environment, organic pest management, and the use of natural fertilizers.

Highlighting this agricultural system in the context of heritage month celebrations and environmental discussions emphasizes “heritage in action.” It showcases how indigenous knowledge systems and practices are not only historical artifacts but also vital contemporary resources that offer solutions to global challenges. By preserving and promoting these heirloom rice varieties and the associated agricultural techniques, we not only celebrate a rich cultural legacy but also contribute to sustainable development and climate adaptation strategies.

This approach advocates for a broader understanding of heritage, one that encompasses the integration of traditional ecological knowledge with modern environmental management to create resilient food systems. It also underscores the importance of protecting and investing in these cultural landscapes as essential to sustaining both the community’s cultural identity and its food security in the face of changing climate conditions.

That is why the concept of heritage is not just about preserving the past; they are critical parts of our present, contributing to the resilience of our country. Places like Kiangan provide the perfect setting for this recognition and celebration, ensuring that the heritage we honor remains relevant. Heritage, in a broader sense, includes both the tangible artifacts and intangible attributes inherited from past generations, maintained in the present, and passed on to future generations. 

The launch of National Heritage Month in Kiangan not only celebrates the Ifugao’s endurance but also highlights the complexities of heritage in a diverse society like the Philippines. By understanding what is valued as heritage, determining who makes these decisions, and ensuring that heritage preservation is equitable and inclusive, we can honor our diverse cultures in a way that is respectful, relevant, and transformative. This approach recognizes heritage as not just a preservation of the past but as a part of our present and a foundation for our future. –

Stephen Acabado is professor of anthropology at the University of California-Los Angeles. He directs the Ifugao and Bicol Archaeological Projects, research programs that engage community stakeholders. He grew up in Tinambac, Camarines Sur. Follow him on IG @s.b.acabado. 

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