Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras
Rice Terraces Of The Philippine Cordilleras
Cultural Philippines Asia And The Pacific Ifugao Province, Cordillera Region, Luzon Island

The rice terraces of the Philippines Cordilleras are living cultural landscapes devoted to the production of one of the world's most important staple crops, rice. They preserve traditional techniques and forms dating back many centuries, still viable today. At the same time they illustrate a remarkable degree of harmony between humankind and the natural environment of great aesthetic appeal, as well as demonstrating sustainable farming systems in mountainous terrain, based on a careful use of natural resources.

They are the only monuments in the Philippines that show no evidence of having been influenced by colonial cultures. Owing to the difficult terrain, the Cordillera tribes are among the few peoples of the Philippines who have successfully resisted foreign domination and preserved their authentic tribal culture. The history of the terraces is intertwined with that of its people, their culture, and their traditional practices.

The terraces are the only form of stone construction from the pre-colonial period. The Philippines alone among south-east Asian cultures is a wholly wood-based one: unlike Cambodia, Indonesia, or Thailand, in the Philippines both domestic buildings and ritual structures such as temples and shrines were built from wood, a tradition that has survived in the terrace hamlets. Terracing began in the Cordilleras some 2,000 years ago, although scholars disagree about its original purpose. It is evidence of a high level of knowledge of structural and hydraulic engineering on the part of those who built the terraces. The knowledges and practices, supported by rituals, involved in maintaining the terraces are transferred orally from generation to generation, without written records. Taro was the first crop when they began to be used for agriculture, later to be replaced by rice, which is the predominant crop today.

The terraces are situated at altitudes between 700 m and 1,500 m above sea level. There are four clusters of the best preserved terraces in the region, with its basic elements of a buffer ring of private forests (muyong ), terraces, village and sacred grove. Terraced rice fields are not uncommon in Asia. To contain the water needed for rice cultivation within the paddies, even gently rolling terrain must be terraced with stone or mud walls. High-altitude paddies must be kept wet and have to rely upon a man-made water-collecting system. The principal differences between the Philippines terraces and those elsewhere are their higher altitude and the steeper slopes. The high-altitude cultivation is based on the use of a special strain of rice, which germinates under freezing conditions and grows chest-high, with non-shattering panicles, to facilitate harvesting on slopes that are too steep to permit the use of animals or machinery of any kind.

Construction of the terraces is carried out with great care and precision. An underground conduit is placed within the fill for drainage purposes. The groups of terraces blanket the mountainsides, following their contours. Above them, rising to the mountain-tops, is the ring of private woods (muyong ), intensively managed in conformity with traditional practices, which recognize a total ecosystem which assures an adequate water supply to keep the terraces flooded. Water is equitably shared, and no single terrace obstructs the flow on its way down to the next terrace below. There is a complex system, of dams, sluices, channels and bamboo pipes, communally maintained, which drain into a stream at the bottom of the valley.

The villages or hamlets are associated with groups of terraces, and consist of groups of single-family tribal dwellings which architecturally reproduce the people's spatial interpretation of their mountain environment. A steeply pitched thatched pyramidal roof covers a wooden one-room dwelling, raised above the ground on four posts and reached by a ladder which is pulled up at night. Clusters of dwellings form small hamlets of interrelated families, with a centrally located ritual rice-field as their focus. This is the first parcel to be planted or harvested;its owners makes all the agricultural decisions for the community, manages its primary ritual property, which includes a granary housing carved wooden gods, and the basket reliquary in which portions of consecrated sacrifices from all agricultural ceremonial rites are kept. A short distance from the cluster of dwellings is the ritual hill, usually marked by a grove of sacred betel trees round a hut or open shed where the holy men live and carry out traditional rites.