Philippines, Luzon, Banaue, Ifugao man in traditional dress

Exploring the Banaue rice terraces, Philippines

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By Kiki Deere
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The Banaue rice terraces were once a colourful collage of winding fields that clung onto a mountain-side in Ifugao province in the Philippines. After being almost completely abandoned by the locals, these plantations are now being revived as young farmers return to work on the paddies. While researching the new Rough Guide to the Philippines, Kiki Deere was awestruck by the sheer beauty and functionality of the Banaue rice terraces.

I follow my guide Elvis along a narrow path that snakes its way through verdant scenery. We clamber up a series of little stone steps that precariously jut out of the mountainside. “We’re heading to the viewpoint!” Elvis exclaims in excitement. I am too busy trying to balance along the stairway to avoid an unpleasant fall, and it’s not until we reach the top and I turn around that I realise what surrounds me: an awe-inspiring view of rice terraces that weave around the mountainside like a giant stairway. “If you joined these rice paddies end to end they would reach half way round the earth”, he tells me.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, these stone and mud rice terraces delicately trace the contours of the Cordillera Mountains in Northern Luzon, and have been central to the survival of the Ifugao people since pre-colonial Philippines.

Banaue rice terraces, Ifugao, PhilippinesPhotograph by Kiki Deere

This living landscape, with its intricate web of irrigation systems harvesting water from the mist-enveloped mountaintops, reflects a clear mastery in structural techniques and hydraulic engineering that have remained virtually unchanged for over two millennia. The art of maintaining the terraces was passed orally from generation to generation with traditional tribal rituals evoking spirits to protect the paddies. To this day, bulol rice deities are venerated and placed in the fields and granaries in order to bring abundant harvests and protect against malevolent spirits and catastrophe.

“When I was seven I would head to the paddies with my grandfather. He would teach me how to repair the dikes, flatten the area. I rode the buffalo which would play like a dog sometimes; run back and forth, roll down…” Elvis’s voice is filled with warmth as he recounts his childhood experiences, and I sense a twinge of nostalgia for those carefree boyhood days spent working in the fields.

“The rice that we harvest here in Ifugao is only for personal consumption but sometimes it’s not enough. On average, an Ifugao family has five children, plus the parents. That’s a total of seven mouths to feed. And we eat rice three times a day.”

The average Filipino consumes over 120kg of rice a year. Commercial rice, as it is known up in the Cordilleras, is grown in mass quantities in the lowlands with the use of fertilisers, and is exported mainly abroad.

Batad village, Banaue rice terraces, Ifugao, Philippines

“Remember that there are bad harvests, too – when the rice we grow here is not enough we end up buying commercial rice from the low lands”, Elvis goes on to tell me. It is therefore very rare that an Ifugao family has excess rice to sell.

For Ifugao farmers, the terraces are the only source of income. With a daily wage of less than US$6, increasing numbers of young Filipinos have, in recent years, migrated to urban areas and renounced fieldwork. As a result, a number of rice terraces have been abandoned and are rapidly deteriorating. The situation reached such a worrisome degree that the terraces were placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger in 2001.

But Elvis tells me the situation is now improving: “In the last few years I have seen most of the abandoned paddies being revived. I’d say over 90% are being used at the moment.”

As the price of a sack of rice (50kg) now stands at US$45, a four-fold increase from the mid 1990s, the paddies are slowly being tended for again, with youngsters returning to their home province to work with their families.

Batad village, Banaue rice terraces, Ifugao, PhilippinesPhotograph by Kiki Deere

In the last decade, programmes have been put in place by the local government to conserve this living natural landscape, and in 2012 the terraces were successfully removed from the Danger List. Yet, the area continues to face new challenges. Climate change and powerful earthquakes have caused dams to move, thereby re-routing water systems and affecting the hydraulic system of the terraces. The Ifugao must overcome these challenges in order for the terraces to function as a balanced whole, with sustainable tourism proving to be one of the answers.

An elderly lady stoops in a field, a scarlet shawl wrapped around her head to protect her from the sun’s scorching rays. In the neighbouring terrace, a lean fellow stands knee deep in a viscous layer of mud, his coarse hands tightly wrapped around a wooden shovel. He is levelling the field for the upcoming planting season. This time of year – November and December – is commonly referred to as “mirror time” after the paddies’ glassy appearance as they lie covered in a layer of water.

Other months bring an array of different colours: “Planting time is in the middle of January, until about the middle of February. Then the rice needs a bit of time to stabilise. Around April the terraces are at their greenest, in June and July, during harvest time, they become yellow, and in August they are golden with ripe grain, and then brown.”

I try to picture the terraces in their different stages, morphing into a rainbow of hues throughout the year, and remember how much these 70-degree slopes have shaped the lives of the people around them. I look across the mountainside to a small hamlet that comfortably nestles within the terraces, a tapestry of harmony between humankind and nature that is truly a sight to behold.

If you want to explore more of the Philippines, you can buy the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget now, and look our for the new updated version coming in August 2014.
Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

The Rough Guide to 2014 is out! Find the top countries, cities, and best-value destinations to visit in 2014 here.