[Time Trowel] Safeguarding the Ifugao Rice Terraces for future generations

Stephen Acabado

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

[Time Trowel] Safeguarding the Ifugao Rice Terraces for future generations
The traditional institutions of 'bachang' and 'ubbu' can play a crucial role in mitigating the effects of climate change on the stability and preservation of the Ifugao Rice Terraces

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.

On May 15, 2024, the Batad Rice Terraces in Banaue, Ifugao, suffered a catastrophic wall collapse. The incident highlighted the urgent need for heritage conservation and the preservation of traditional institutions that have sustained these terraces for centuries. This unfortunate event emphasizes the importance of understanding the root causes of such collapses and the critical role of traditional cooperative systems in preventing them, in the process ensuring the preservation of both the terraces and the cultural heritage of the Ifugao.

The collapse at Batad is likely due to a climate change-induced prolonged dry season, which can cause the earthen or stone walls of the terraces to develop cracks. When the rains eventually come, these cracks may lead to wall failures, as the sudden inflow of water weakens the already compromised structures. This issue is compounded by additional challenges, such as giant earthworms and the Asian swamp eel (locally called kiwit) boring into the terrace walls, further destabilizing them. More importantly, economic pressures that result in abandonment and neglect further contribute to the instability of the terrace systems.

These factors, combined with the impact of climate change, will continue to threaten these magnificent agricultural terraces.

Traditionally, the maintenance and repair of the rice terraces, including their walls and irrigation channels, have been managed by cooperative groups. In Ayangan-speaking Ifugao, this practice is known as bachang and uggbu (baddang and ubbu in Tuwali Ifugao) They are regulated by kinship and territorial affiliation, ensuring community-wide cooperation – a necessity in the Ifugao landscape and agricultural system. This system has been crucial in ensuring the longevity and resilience of the terraces, promoting a sense of communal responsibility and cooperation.

Both bachang and ubbu are community cooperative groups, but the latter provides the reciprocal labor – sort of, I help you today, I expect help on my fields later. The bachang is community self-help, usually when unusual and more-than-normal damage occur.

These traditional cooperative systems, however, are under threat. The flow of funds from government agencies and private donors has inadvertently contributed to the erosion of this cooperative culture. While well-intentioned, these funds have sometimes developed a dependency among farmers, who may wait for financial assistance rather than actively participating in the upkeep of the terraces. This shift towards a dole-out mentality undermines the self-reliance and mutual support that have been the bedrock of Ifugao society.

Since the Ifugao Rice Terraces are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Philippine government bears a significant responsibility in facilitating their preservation. This includes providing necessary financial and technical support for repairs and maintenance. However, it is equally crucial to focus on the intangible aspects of the terraces, specifically the cultural practices and traditional institutions that have historically sustained them.

The designation of the Ifugao Rice Terraces as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has brought significant benefits, including increased international recognition, funding for conservation, and enhanced tourism that supports the local economy. UNESCO status often leads to an increase in visitors, which brings economic benefits to local communities. Increased tourism can provide a steady source of income, supporting local businesses, which can facilitate economic development in the region. The increase of tourists can create jobs, stimulate the local economy, and provide funds for further conservation efforts. For instance, local hotels, restaurants, and tour guides all benefit from the increased number of visitors.

Additionally, the recognition enhances cultural pride and identity among the Ifugao. It reinforces the cultural significance of the terraces, instilling pride and encouraging the preservation of their heritage and traditions. This can motivate younger generations to value and uphold their cultural identity, promoting a sense of community and continuity. For example, educational programs about the history and significance of the terraces, such as those organized by the IPED Center in Kiangan, can be developed to engage young Ifugao.

However, overtourism can contribute to a significant environmental impact. This can include a strain in local infrastructure, environmental degradation, and disruption of the daily lives of local communities. Managing the delicate balance between tourism and conservation is essential to avoid long-term damage. For instance, the intensification of tourists can lead to waste management issues and increased wear and tear on the terraces.

There is also the risk of commercialization of culture. The cultural practices and traditions of the Ifugao people might become commercialized to cater to tourists, diluting the authenticity of their heritage. This commercialization can reduce traditional practices to mere tourist attractions, undermining their cultural value. For example, traditional rituals or crafts might be performed or produced primarily for tourist consumption, losing their original cultural context and significance.

This global recognition can also inadvertently contribute to the erasure of local perspectives in the maintenance of the terraces. The focus on meeting international standards and criteria for preservation may overshadow the traditional practices and knowledge systems of the Ifugao, potentially leading to the imposition of external conservation methods that do not align with local customs and needs. 

Moreover, the surge of international experts and funding might prioritize global conservation ideals over indigenous management practices, reducing the agency of the Ifugao communities in deciding how their heritage is maintained. This is also compounded by over-dependence on external funding. While international funding is beneficial, it can create a dependency that undermines local initiatives and self-reliance. The influx of external resources might discourage community-led conservation efforts. This scenario is similar to the erosion of the bachang and ubbu systems, where reliance on external aid led to a decline in local agricultural practices and self-sufficiency.

Lastly, bureaucratic challenges can arise from meeting UNESCO’s requirements and standards. These processes can be complex and resource-intensive, diverting attention and resources from practical conservation efforts to administrative compliance. For example, maintaining the status might require extensive documentation, reporting, and adherence to stringent guidelines, which can be burdensome for local authorities and communities.

While the Outstanding Universal Values (OUV) framework promotes the terraces’ preservation and draws global attention to their significance, it is crucial to balance these benefits with a respect for and integration of local perspectives to ensure that conservation efforts remain culturally sensitive and inclusive.

The Ifugao Rice Terraces are more than just structures for rice cultivation; they are integral to the Ifugao identity. These terraces are where the Ifugao express their local religion, maintain their traditional practices, and navigate their relationship with Christianity. The terraces are a living heritage, embodying the historical, cultural, and spiritual life of Ifugao communities.

To ensure the sustainability of the terraces, conservation efforts must go beyond physical repairs. There is a need to revive and strengthen traditional institutions like the bachang and ubbu. This involves encouraging community participation in terrace maintenance, promoting the value of collective labor, and educating younger generations about the importance of these traditions. Additionally, conservation programs should integrate traditional knowledge with modern techniques to address contemporary challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

The impacts of climate change pose a significant threat to the stability and preservation of the Ifugao Rice Terraces. However, the traditional institutions of bachang and ubbu can play a crucial role in mitigating these effects. By promoting community cooperation and collective labor, these systems help ensure regular maintenance and timely repairs of the terraces. Reviving and strengthening these traditional practices, alongside integrating modern conservation techniques, can enhance the resilience of the terraces against climate change-induced challenges. By valuing and preserving these cultural practices, we can ensure the longevity of the Ifugao Rice Terraces and uphold the cultural heritage they represent.

While the UNESCO listing of the Ifugao Rice Terraces brings numerous benefits, it is crucial to balance these with the preservation of traditional practices. By encouraging a synergy between modern conservation efforts and traditional institutions, we can safeguard the terraces for future generations while honoring the cultural heritage of the Ifugao. – Rappler.com

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.

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!