Rice terraces of Northern Philippines – up in the air Andrew Ormerod (2004)

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Farmers solved the problem of wet paddy rice on hillsides by building rice terraces, found in hilly areas in Asia.  One of the most famous is at Banaue in  northern Luzon in the Philippines and extends in places 2,500 feet up the hill slope, shaping and adding beauty to the landscape.  They have been declared a world heritage site by the United Nations, Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization  (UNESCO).  The traditional farming system harnessing water from the water shed forests is having to cope with changes in culture belief and knowledge of local people and production, climatic and tourism challenges.  It isn’t just the view that makes this area attractive – it is also about the rich cultural heritage.  

In 2004 during the United Nations International Year of Rice I attended the World Rice Congress in Japan and visited the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines to understand contemporary global issues relating to rice. Before heading to the Philippines I had consulted about visiting the famous rice terraces in the north of  Luzon Island in the Philippines which are around 2,000 years old.   The wife of one member of staff at IRRI’s headquarters was from the Ifagau people who live in Ifagau Province where the rice terrace are. She had arrange for me to meet up with her brother when I arrived to the area and he would act as my guide.    The best option was to head to Banaue – the principal tourist centre in the area, by hiring a local driver and car.  I was recommended a good driver who was a cheerful companion for the trip.   As someone arriving in a new country I faced the journey with a little initial trepidation because the drive into the mountains can be challenging.  There can also be hold-ups en route and possible landslides in tornado season if  heavy rain is falling.

Fortunately I was visiting just after the tornado season, but the scars of heavy rainfall and land slips were evident when we got into the hills.  I wrote this piece a day before Hurricane Haiyan struck and the resilience of local people in the face of these annual hurricane cycles is remarkable, something we don’t have to prepare for in  Britain and must shape their outlook on life.  However, Haiyan appears to have caused,  by any previous standards in the Philippines, unprecedented levels of destruction and loss of life.  My thoughts are with friends and people I don’t know in the Philippines trying to cope with the aftermath .

As it turned out the weather when I visited was fine and Manny who drove exuded cheerful confidence.  It is always difficult to know how much to gen. up on a place before arriving for the first time.  Too much information and you may not be surprised by the sites you see on your journey. Too little and you will miss the meaning of what you see.  Certainly when you visit somewhere for the first time your senses are more acute.  For me totally new to Luzon everything was fascinating and looking out of the car on the eleven hour journey was like watching a long art house movie, reflecting everyday life along the road.  In common with many local vehicles the windows on the car I traveled in were reflective on the outside, so the world could not see within but I could see out. Countless streams of tuc tuc (moped taxis) and Jeepnies (originally based on Jeeps converted into buses) seemed to dominate traffic in Manilla. 007_4A

Traveling out of Manilla into the fertile broad lowland rice bowl, we passed a seemingly constant row of road side stalls and small buildings, vegetable stalls, dentists, stalls selling partially worn tires, rice mills and vehicle body shops making anything from Jeepnie to replica Humbie bodies from galvanized metal sheet. 025_22A033_33

Left  Typical lowland shops.  Right Part of the lowland rice bowl in Luzon – capable of producing three crops a year.

The image of a long village procession carrying a tiny white coffin as the road started to climb into the hills stayed in my mind.   Sometimes part of the road was used for drying rice.

029_29037_37There was a constant stream of lorries bringing bags of rice and other products towards Manilla.  Some lorries were stopped to re-trim their loads. There were weighbridges now and then en route to check that lorries were not over loaded.  Approaching one village suddenly a string with little flags was raised across the road – apparently a fairly common event to raise funds from cars that stop for village carnivals etc.  028_28032_32

Tuc tuc’s are not just used as taxi’s and there is plenty of room on the top deck of this Jeepnie.

By the evening we had arrived in the small settlement of Banaue in the rice terraces.  The temperature was like a cool late summers day in Britain a change from the warm humid lowlands.

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Loreto Ammayao, my guide for visiting the rice terraces; left with the village leader Mrs Ana Dulnuan-Habbilins  in Amganad with her grand children; right demonstrating rice de-husking.  Prepare rice in a traditional way dressing and pounding by hand. Takes 20 minutes to prepare rice by hand.

I was introduced to Loreto who was going to show me around and with a little time to spare visited the museum to learn a little more about the Ifugao people. 033_33027_27

The Ifagau people’s main focus was rice cultivation with some vegetable production raising of some livestock such as pigs and chickens used for food and traditional sacrificial ceremonies.  They traditionally selectively harvest  timber and non timber forest products in some of the forests above the rice paddy zone, leaving the upper forests that protected the water sheds that fed the rice terraces intact.  They have a tradition of wood carving and weaving and a rich culture history.  The Ifugau people have developed  their own laws, folk tradition and cultural ceremonies.  In the past there was at times disputes between villages which had to be settled that led to head hunting a practice that has died out.  I was fascinated by the photos in the museum from 1919 showing cultural practices – witnessed by some of the oldest residents still alive in 2004.


Left;  The colour of the ‘tapis’ skirts indicate status within the local community. Right; Examples of Ifugau spears.  


Examples of artifacts made from woven rattan including a bowl for winnowing rice. Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 22.55.31 Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 22.55.53 Banaue in the early 1900’s and now having grown to cope with tourist demands.

The next day we went around Banaue and I got some panoramic views of the terraces. 014_14025_25 Some of the older members of the communities were posing for photographs in their traditional costumes for visitors as a way of earning some money. The community have changed their belief systems in the last few decades influenced by Western education and religion and this has led to erosion of traditional knowledge.  In addition culturally important symbols were on sale to passing tourists such as Bulol stone heads of the rice god. The carefully carved wooden houses are built on stilts to prevent rodents getting in.   Originally houses had roofs of thatched  but these have been replaced by tin roofs in many cases.   The harvested rice stems, in bunches, are hung in the eves where the rice god Bulol sculpture is found.

.  033_33Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 19.18.11Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 22.49.01 Left; Traditional Ifugao house.  Centre; rice god Bulol kept in the eves of the house – old statues may look brown from the blood of ceremonially sacrificed chickens and pigs. Right looking inside an Ifugao house from a the bottom of a carved ladder showing bunches of rice panicles stored.


Left The large blocks on the stilts under the houses prevented rats getting in to the building.   The small building ‘mini version of the house’ beyond the house contain the remains of dead ancestors.  Centre and Right; The Ifugao people have a strong tradition of wood carving – these days there is increasing demand for the tourist market.  

The Ifugao are accomplished carpenters – but increased demand for tourist ornaments in part has led to increased felling of the forests which protected the higher land and water sheds.  Removal of tree cover in some areas has exacerbates the impact of heavy rain fall which can wash the ancient rice terraces away.


Left  family forest an example of agroforestry  this one may contain remains of swidden cultivation.  Family forests or wood lots contain wild and cultivated plants including a Calmness spp. ratan palm protect water sheds for rice terraces.  Right Road side signs heading into the mountains warn against illegal logging and  encourage tree planting with slogans like “Save the Earth – Plant a tree”; “Plant a tree for a better tomorrow” and as here in Hapao “Plant a tree is key to stability”.

Rice terraces are present in different areas of S.E. Asia but the best built and most extensive terraces are the Ifugao terraces covering an area of around 400 square miles.  If the walls were lined up end to end they would apparently stretch half way round the world.  Oldest terraces in Luzon include Banaue, Hapao. The rice terraces stretch up into the sky, up the mountain side – and date back 2000 years.  They were created by hand by the Ifagao people.  But they need regular maintenance.

How Ifugao terraces are built

A terrace is dug out from the hillside, and the edge is built up with stone or earth.  This is back filled and leveled out to form a firm foundation with material from the riverbed or hillside. This is over layered with layers of sand or gravel, then clay then sand.   The work is laborious – where possible water is used as a natural carrying agent. The types of terrace vary those I saw around Hapao have stone walls, while the ones nearer to Banaue had earth walls.


Rebuilding terrace walls with stone near Hapao  009_9004_4

Mud is brought up to mend the walls in the rice terraces near Banaue. 001_1003_3023_23

Mending of rice terraces – weeding the walls.  Now as part of sustainable tourism visitors on some tours are encouraged to take part so they understand more about the local culture.

The walls are damaged by large boring worms – particularly if the rice terraces are allowed to dry out.   Traditionally no chemicals are used. Sunflower stems are used as part of the treatment for worms.  Loreto said local people used to know the 16 herbs that they traditionally used for preventing worm damage – but changing lifestyle has resulted in the loss of this knowledge.  The Mumbaki or local priests play an important role in ceremonies associated with the rice production calendar .   I met one Mumbaki who was concerned about the loss of knowledge being passed on to subsequent generations and considered it was important for funding to be provided to train the following generation of priests.


Left; Sunflower stems submerged in a rice paddy . Right ornamental plants marking out ownership of land.  

The traditional rice varieties are sown neatly in nursery beds. The ears selected from the best panicles from the previous years crop.  Sowing starts in the first week of December.  Fields are green with young rice shoots at their best in February.  Ifagao rice production is based on around 9 landraces,  the main one is Tinawon, an aromatic rice. Its name means ‘Once a Year’ i.e. it produces only one crop a year. Each season of the year is associated with traditional cultural practices.  One reason for synchronizing sowing and harvest is to reduce crop losses from rats.

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The rice production year follows a traditional seasonal calendar

Fields are wet until harvest – they aren’t drained.  During the fallow period after harvest vegetables are traditionally produced on Pingkol – mounds of rotting rice stems which helps to return valuable nutrients to the soil.

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Left top; traditional rice seedlings near Hapao and bottom left near Banau. Right bottom; trials of new rice varieties that could produce two crops a year.

One of the problems is that the traditional rice varieties are low yielding and there is only one rice crop a year – unlike three crops in the lowlands. Ifugao people still value their local varieties for food and wine, but now with more mouths to feed the traditional rice harvest only lasts for a month or two.  The monsoons can also effect the harvest of these traditional late maturing varieties.  There is some reluctance to change because this would affect the yearly production cycle.  Concerns have been expressed locally about use of artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides where high yielding rice cropping systems have been adopted.  There are efforts to increase the yield of the single rice crop.  Another approach is to allow cut rice stems to regrow (as a ratoon) to produce a second crop.


Diversified production in an upland rice landscape. Left fish ponds in rice paddies where local fish such as mud fish are trapped; Centre & right Camotes (sweet potato) production on the paddy bunds prevents erosion.

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Lady catching snails.  The area has suffered following the introduction of the Golden Apple Snail as a food  source. However it eats a wide range of native aquatic species and rice stems and is difficult to control.

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Tourism is seen as an important part of the local economy.   As well as the rice terraces – the area has spectacular water falls, forest trails and other ancient sites to see .  In more recent times during the Second World War this highland area of the Philippines was one of the last refuges of the Japanese Imperial Army and there are stories about buried treasure in the area.  This led to an influx of Japanese tourists associated with World War Two – but these are not the predominant tourists today.

Tourism is seen as an important part of the local economy.   As well as the rice terraces – the area has spectacular water falls, forest trails and other ancient sites to see .  In more recent times during the Second World War this highland area of the Philippines was one of the last refuges of the Japanese Imperial Army and there are stories about buried treasure in the area.  This led to an influx of Japanese tourists associated with World War Two – but these are not the predominant tourists today.

Tourism in the past has resulted in unplanned growth of buildings and pressure on roads and infrastructure not designed to cater for this.   Construction of buildings in Banaue reflect this.  There has been focus on updating the infrastructure to cope with increasing tourism and learning from the problems associated with unplanned development. One of the dilemmas is that tourists come to see the view of the rice terraces, but local farmers have a different view.  They want to produce rice effectively from the terraces constructed  by their forbears.  They understand the practicality of producing rice in the hilly environment – rather than just the superficial landscape view that many tourists have.  They haven’t traditionally directly benefit from tourism and returns for the amount of rice produced are becoming more marginal, so the number of farmers are declining. There has been a lot of effort in recent years to develop ecotourism that highlights the local culture and festivals associated with the rice-growing year and involve tourists hands on in the tasks needed for growing the rice crop. Traditionally it is the eldest member of the family girl or boy inherits the families rice paddies.   Once wealth was measured in rice paddies – now it is in money and there is a drain of younger people heading for the cities.   Farmers use cash crops to pay for their children’s education, but will their children want to come back to the land?   School children are now being taught about their cultural roots which revolve about traditional rice cultivation in the hope that some will carry on the tradition.   The link between culture, environment and landscape of the rice terraces has helped to make this the special area that it is.

Thanks to Duncan Macintosh, Gene and Aurora Hettel based at the International Rice Research Station for advice on planning this trip and Pete Hill who lent me “Stair Way to Heaven” the film made about the visit of young volunteers who worked with the Ifugau people.

©  Andrew Ormerod 2013




About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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