Chapter 4 Rice Terraces
The Ifugao Rice Terraces were believed to be between 2,000 to 3,000 years old (Barton, 1919; Beyer, 1955), although a more recent archeological study found the construction date to be after 1585 AD (Stephen Acabado, 2012). No matter how old or new the terraces are, what is certain is that these terraces, covering 17.4% of the area in north central Ifugao (Conklin, 1980), were all built and routinely maintained manually with limited tools.
This history of the terraces reminds Ifugaos of their ancestors’ work, which is much appreciated “because the pioneers of the rice fields did them for us [present Ifugaos] not for themselves alone” (GW5). The terraces, according to interviewees of all walks of life, are their pride and their identity[1]. One cultural expert said, “in Ifugao, the way we look at the land is very different from [the way] the rest of the country [who] would look as simple property. Ours is that we inherited the land from our ancestors. For us to make it worthy of the ancestors' blessing, we have to maintain that” (KE9). To many Ifugaos, the rice terraces are their inheritance, which if damaged or abandoned would be shameful. After telling me her experience of leveling the field even under moonlight, an elder interviewee said, “I would be very angry if they sell it. It is not their labor. It is not their endeavor. They just inherit it so you should be ashamed” (RF2). And the majority of young Ifugaos do bear that sense of responsibility. “It is an inheritance from our ancestors. And if we can not work for it, we feel uneasy. We feel not good since our conscience is being troubled” (GW5).
Aside from that, there is practical value of the terraces. For the farmers, the rice terraces can “support the family instead of buying the commercial rice. It is very expensive” [2] (BW2). At the same time, the terraces are supporting the family, for those who work in tourism. One interviewee admitted, “if we don't have the rice terraces, there will be no reasons for tourists to be coming here” (BW18). However, no matter how spiritually or practically Ifugaos perceive the value of the terraces, the terraces are changing.

1.1        Changes in the rice terraces

Seeing the famous rice terraces in Ifugao for the first time was memorable (Figure 23 to Figure 27). At some turn on a road or a trial, between houses and trees, terraces appeared. As I approached, the full view opened. At the valley of the mountains, a creek was running through a settlement of houses. Surrounding the settlement were large flat terraces where tall rice plants swayed with in te wind like waves on a lake. Eyes lifted up, at the mountainside, only walls of the terraces could be seen. While looking vertically as the terraces became steeper made me nervous, zooming out to the panoramic view of these hundreds of absolutely parallel horizontal curves of terraces walls was greatly soothing.
Figure 23: Rice terraces in Nagacadan, Kiangan
Figure 27: Rice terraces in Mayoyao
However, the more one enjoys such views, the more he or she may feel sad if shown contrasting photos of the rice terraces from the past and now (Figure 28 to Figure 39).
Figure 28: Rice terraces in Banaue in 1960s (Credit: Harold Conklin)
Figure 29: Rice terraces in Banaue in 2013[3] (Source: Google Earth)
Figure 37: Stone walls of Batad rice terraces in 2016
Figure 39: Rice terraces in central Banaue in 2016[5]

1.1.1        Degradation

There are two kinds of degradation in the rice terraces, those that have partial walls collapsed due to landslide (Figure 40), and those that are no longer well-tended. Landslides in the rice terraces have been a problem and that is the reason that, whenever conditions permit, Ifugaos would use stones to build the terrace walls and irrigation dikes[6]. Despite this continuous effort to maintain the terraces, up to a quarter of the walls and dikes were still damaged in recent years (Bantayan et al., 2012; Calderon et al., 2015; Gomez and Pacardo, 2005).
Figure 40: A farmer planting corn in a recently collapsed terrace
Although some rice terraces are still standing, Ifugaos consider them degraded when they are no longer tended by farmers. Signs of such degradation are weeds on the walls or complete abandonment. The interviewees told me, “now you see there are so many grasses here. But before no, it was very clean” (RF1) and “now it is different. There are a lot abandoned. During 1960 to 1963, all rice fields in all mountains were cultivated. That was a unique and beautiful view” (RF6). Compared with the damage from landslides, the degradation of rice terraces due to poor maintenance or abandonment may be more prevalent (Figure 29 and Figure 37).
The interviewees explained the reason for the degradation. For landslides, one said, “now this kind of worm that was brought from other countries, causes landslide” (RF6). These large earthworms are believed to be able to dig holes deep into the soil and through the wall and thus washing the soil off and collapsing the terrace[7] (Gomez and Pacardo, 2005; Hong and James, 2008). Yet this problem also existed in the 60’s (Conklin, 1980), but “in the past, if some terrace was eroded, all people would work on the stone wall” (BW7). Another interviewee explained further that “those who know stonewalling are all very old. Now what the young do is only study and work outside [Ifugao] so they did not study on how to make a stone wall. So nobody can repair it” (BW9).
And the reason for the less-tended terraces is that “[farm] labor is low [paid] and most of the young people prefer to study or go to the city to find jobs and make money”[8] (BW17). While the population of Ifugao is increasing, it may be surprising that farm labor is shrinking. What I observed was that many farmers are tenants, leasing the fields from their relatives who were temporarily livinging outside or had completely migrated to other areas. Despite still farming rice, most of these tenants have other jobs in business or public service to have income to supplement daily expenses and thus are not able to spend much time tending to the terraces. Moreover, “if the relatives all migrated, as I observed, many are not here. And now farmers are also investing in the lowland [farms], so some [terraces] are abandoned” (BW3).
All reasons for tending less to the terraces can be concluded as economical and preferential. One interviewee frankly said, “in order that my children have a better life, I am in favor that they not to work in the rice field, if they can find a job instead of working in the field from morning to sunset. Then it is ok. Nowadays money is more powerful and rice is easy [to get]. That is why money buys everything and rice cannot. So I guess to have a job is better so that if you also have children, whatever they want, you can give [to them]. If you concentrate in the rice field, you will not progress. If you are at a restaurant, you meet other people and you eat good food” (RF5). Another interviewee said, “for example, this young girl[9], she has not lived in a native house and she is used to these modern houses. And now few have tried to work in the rice field because they have no time because they are studying. So even if you teach during vacation, now especially if you are living in town, of course, you have no time to work in the rice field. So somehow they lose attachment to the rice terraces culture. So the more they are away from the terraces, the more they are getting out of the Ifugao culture” (KE4).

1.1.2        Conversion to residential use

A number of interviewees disagreed that the terraces will be degraded, but they saw a change in the terraces at the other extreme. Rather than being abandoned and becoming a jungle, “Ifugao rice terraces may become urban jungle”, as reported in an article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer[10] (2015). Not only in the municipality of Mayoyao as reported in the news article, but also in Banaue, Hungduan, and Kiangan, the problem of converting rice terraces into residential use was reported by the interviewees (Figure 41). A tourist once complained to me that “if you live in the city and look at the pictures and postcards, you see only the terraces, but here you see the houses in the terraces” (VI10).
The observation by an interviewee was “the children study outside [of Ifugao][11]. And when they finish their courses, they find a job outside. And after how many years they would come back, and soon one of the terraces would be turned into a house” (GW6). Another interviewee shared the same observation and explained, “they destroy the plant fields to put up a building because maybe they don’t have anywhere to put [it] up and there is no regulation, no provincial or municipal regulation that forbids building along the rice terraces” (KE6).
While it is true that in Ifugao land for residential use is limited, there actually has been regulation. A municipal government worker told me “one UNESCO policy is that in the heritage site, there should be no destruction in the rice terraces area” (GW6) and “the previous mayor (of Hungduan)[12] made a law prohibiting owners of rice fields from building houses in their fields, but still it was not followed because of the growing population” (GW6). But many more interviewees explained to me their opinion “because the rice field is privately owned by members of this community, they have the right to convert it to whatever they want” (GW6) and “the parents have nothing to give to the children, so they have to build for their children to stay. That is sharing in order that the family will not go away” (RF5).
Figure 41: A hotel overlooking rice terraces built on a terrace
It is obvious that Ifugaos are facing a dilemma with their inheritance of the rice terraces. The choices seemingly are either to turn away from local rice production and let the terraces degrade with time or convert them into residential use. Are these the future of the rice terraces in Ifugao? What are the reasons and what are Ifugaos planning to do?

1.2        Future of the rice terraces


1.2.1        Inheritance system

When passing their rice fields onto their children, Ifugao parents do not divide the land. The inheritance system according is that “for families who have rice terraces, their eldest son gets the property from the father and the second child gets the property of the mother and whatever is bought, that will be for the younger ones” (KE3).
This pro-primogeniture inheritance system, designed to maintain the economic status of the family by keeping the main property undivided (Dumia, 1979), has been termed as unfair to the younger children as it creates a relative advantage for the eldest child.
Two social effects of this inheritance system were observed having the same result. The first effect is that the eldest child, with this initial capital from the parents, would be able to focus more on income generating activities, instead of rice farming. Therefore, the result is that they often lease the rice terraces, and with that capital, they are able to move out of agriculture to risk in investing in other businesses or migrate to other provinces or even foreign countries. The second effect is that the youngest child, inheriting almost nothing from the parents, naturally has no practical advantage of staying and working as a farmer. With opportunities from other places (such as working as a labor in a foreign factory) or tourism businesses in Ifugao, the youngest children in the family tend to move away from farming as well. While this inheritance system does maintain the economic status of the family, with the social change in occupations, it becomes a possible reason for Ifugaos to give up the terraces.

1.2.2        Tenant system

For those who do not inherit any land from their parents, they can lease a rice field from the landowners, which is what more than half Ifugao farmers are doing now. Although there are some cases where tenants paid a fixed amount of rent and own all the harvest, the traditional tenant system is most widely observed, where the tenant and the owner of the field split equally the harvested rice. One interviewee described the system where “the tenants will do the work of cleaning, cultivating and planting but the owner will help during the harvest. So we provide the drinks, the foods and the snacks” (KE3). But with the owner moving farther away from their fields, “the farmers do not like the fifty and fifty [system] anymore, so that [has] changed. If we use the fifty and fifty system, I help during the harvest” (KE3). When I asked how this change happened, the interviewee continued, “when they got educated. When they knew that they are at a loss so they said we suppose we [should] do it this way. Of course, because we cannot go to the rice field we said ok” (KE3). So in such new cases, tenants are getting two-thirds of the harvest. However, there were objections to this change. Some interviewees complained that the tenants “can not ask for more [than half] because actually, that is what they have been following…that is the culture” (KE1).
The tenant system worked in the past by providing those with no land with a way to feed their families. But today, with increasing opportunity cost of farming, the incentive for leasing rice land is not high enough and thus farmers have to work for other businesses to earn enough money to feed the family, regardless of other expenses such as health care and education of their children. Therefore, if this tennant system is not adjusted (to redistribute revenues made in non-farming sectors to farmers), the number of farmers in Ifugao may continue decreasing and thus more rice terraces may degrade.

1.2.3        Future farmers

It is important to note that although Ifugaos admit various challenges exist for the rice terraces, most of them do not believe that the rice terraces will disappear. Constantly I was told that, “for sure it will always continue that there are people tending to these rice fields” (GW2) and that “we will still maintain our rice terraces even we are busy in [our business]. For example, we can hire one woman to clean our terraces” (BW13). Indeed, for many interviewees who are no longer working as farmers, hiring a tenant or day laborer is the solution for maintaining the rice terraces.
I asked why they were confident that there would be farmers or laborers in the future and I was repeatedly told similar answers. “Most of us, we go to school, but when we reach high school, some don’t like to go to school anymore, and some due to finances, they don’t go to school. And some, even if they finish their studies, if there’s no available job, will get married and stay here. They need to work in the field” (BH18), said one interviewee. Another interviewee questioned back to me saying, “you think everyone will finish their education?” (BH16).
While Ifugaos are proud of their heritage and do want to preserve it as indicated by the interviewees at the beginning of this chapter, the idea that this heritage will be maintained by the “unfortunate” people, who have no other choices, inevitably seems to be a paradox.
Some interviewees, witnessing this long trend, felt that “in fact, sometimes when I am alone at night, I thought of what will happen 50 years from now to my little rice field that I have given to my children, who don’t take care of it and just rent to the tenants. Suppose it will be eroded and all destroyed. It can be a loss of ancient engineers who had done that and gave us a great aesthetic beauty and if that will be lost, I will not believe [the terraces will be all destroyed until] at that time. But at least I will not see. I really do not know” (KE10).

1.2.4        Proposed intervention measures

Seeing the threats to the rice terraces, Ifugaos proposed several measures to conserve the terraces. Many interviewees and previous researches called for government intervention (Calderon et al., 2011). Because “if ever a rice terrace has a landslide, it will take a big amount to put it back” (KE4), Ifugaos are calling for government assistance in repairing terrace walls. One interviewee suggested that “it is high time the government should help to subsidize the farming if they want to maintain the rice terraces, especially when the terrace is eroded. The government should help, and give funds” (BW12). Or else, since the rice terraces are World Heritage, and “some of the UN countries are very rich, they should help us subsidize our rice field” (BW12). However, an interviewee pointed out an interesting premise of government intervention that “if there is no tourist coming in, the government will not improve the rice terraces here” (RF7).
As mentioned earlier, one reason farmers are not spending much time tending to the terraces is that the incentive, compared with other work, is too low. One proposed solution is to encourage farmers to make money by selling the traditional tinawon rice at a premium price. An interviewee told me in the above-mentioned cooperative office that sells the traditional rice, “all the members who are selling the rice are active in maintaining the rice terraces, but those who are not participating [at the cooperative], abandoned their fields” (BW3). However, it is controversial as one interviewee said “I do not like to sell, because my father before said if you have rice to eat for food, do not sell it, because even if you sell at high [price], the money will come and go. I don’t know, but that is the advice from my father. Never sell the rice at home because it is a gift from God” (RF4). The cooperative was challenged by some government officials as well. But farmers from the cooperative defended themselves saying to the officials that “it is good to you because you are politicians, and you have a salary. We would not sell if you give us money” (BW3). And some said, “I have a cell phone, but not money. I have children so why you are telling that [I should not sell]. So it is up to us because we don’t have money”[13] (BW3).
The last solution is family education. Many Ifugao families have the tradition where elders in the family would bring their grandchildren to the rice field to show and teach them farm work. Elder interviewees told me that “we must implant in the mind of the children that even if you are educated and have good jobs, do not forget where you are from” (RF5) and it has worked for the current generation of farmers. When reflecting on the most important lesson in life, one farmer interviewee told me “what is very important for me now is from my childhood what my parents taught me, which is that you know how to work in the field because if you have no job you have no way to get your food” (RF8).
In the past, Ifugao ancestors built the rice terraces for food and applied their spiritual beliefs onto the production activities in the terraces. Today, the rice terraces provide Ifugaos with food and income from tourism and are a key source of their identity. No matter how much effort is being made to conserve the physical appearance of the rice terraces, the one change in the terraces is that they are no longer ancillary to Ifugaos (as mentioned by the tinawon legend)[14] but a necessity both practically and spiritually.

[1] The history of the rice terraces meant a lot for Ifugaos. In a seminar I attended where the reporter claimed the history of the terraces to be only 300 years, a question was raised from the audiences that Ifugaos had been proud of the long history of the terraces and if that the wrong, what if tourists would not come any more. The reporter responded that it should make Ifugaos equally proud as their ancestors were able to build the terraces in a relative short time.
[2] The commercial rice is cheaper than tinawon rice at the market, but relative to the low income, it can be a major expense in a family.
[3] Comparing the photo taken in the 1960s, an increase in forestation is apparent.
[4] More grasses on the edge of the rice terraces.
[5] Comparing with the area in 1903, the large rice terraces in the center are converted to buildings and residential land expanded.
[6] Sources of the stone are from the river and the mountain. The stones of the walls of lower rice terraces are usually rounded while those of higher terraces are square (from breaking boulders).
[7] Deforestation in the mountains above the rice terraces was believed to be the reason for landslides in terraces (Eder, 1982). However, it was not mentioned by the interviewees. I believe that the reason for terrace wall collapse is the contraction and expantion of soil which drags and pushes the wal, weaking its stability.
[8] A research found out that only one forth of young people would likely be involved in farming (Dizon et al., 2012).
[9] The interviewee was referring to a ten-year-old girl, who according to her grandmother, walked on the edge of the terraces with hands on the ground.
[10] The Philippine Daily Inquirer is the widest read newspaper in the Philippines.
[11] Many interviewees, if graduated from a college, studied in Baguio city.
[12] There was such regulation also in Banaue.
[13] The speeches of the farmers were not from direct interviews but reported from an interviewee.
[14] The relations between Ifugaos and their rice terraces may be confusing. As the tinawon legend says, the rice terraces were built after Ifugaos obtained the rice seeds. A recent archiological research also argued that rice was not central to Ifugaos (Stephen B Acabado, 2012).