UNISDR champion fights to save ancient rice terraces

Banaue rice terraces in the Philippines.
 
By Denis McClean

GENEVA, 19 March 2011 - The 2,000 year-old Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras are a UNESCO world heritage site often described as the 8th Wonder of the World. Their preservation is at the heart of an environmental campaign launched last weekend by UNISDR's Regional Disaster Risk Reduction Champion, Senator Loren Legarda.

During a visit to the Province of Ifugao, Senator Legarda, who is also Chair of the Senate Committee on Cultural Communities, noticed not only the worsening state of the rice terraces she saw there, but also changes in house construction and the impact of illegal mining.

"The Ifugao Rice Terraces symbolize harmony between man and nature. Sacred traditions, such as the rituals in time for harvest, and cultural practices have been passed on from one generation to another. However, I am concerned that we are not only seeing the deterioration of the rice terraces but also the Ifugaos' tangible and intangible culture under threat," she stressed.

The terraces are located about 1,500 meters above sea level and cover 10,360 square kilometers of mountainside. They are fed by an ancient irrigation system from the rainforests above the terraces but are vulnerable to drought. In early 2010 the terraces dried up completely. Many younger Ifugaos do not find farming attractive and prefer to work in tourism and the result in places has been the gradual erosion of the characteristic steps which need constant care and maintenance.

The Senator explained that when she visited the village in Bangaan in the municipality of Banaue, she was disheartened at what she saw. While the village still had the traditional houses, which are made of wood with cogon grass as roof material and built in a way that no nails or bolts are needed, modern-day houses were already constructed in the area.

"The traditional Ifugao houses not only preserve the aesthetic value of the terraces but also protect residents from harsh weather conditions. The sturdy structure of an Ifugao house is able to withstand strong typhoons and earthquakes. This is more relevant today as we experience extreme weather events caused by climate change," she pointed out.

During a consultation at the Banaue Hotel with government officials and community stakeholders, the Senator raised these concerns and also brought up the issue of non-compliance with the Philippine Mining Act of some small scale mining companies, particularly those in the municipality of Hungduan, which is home to one of the five rice terrace clusters on the World Heritage List. The others are Nagacadan, Mayoyao, Batad, and Bangaan in the municipalities of Kiangan, Hungduan, Mayoyao, and Banau.

Senator Legarda also said that the intangible culture of the Ifugaos, the rituals, epics, and chants, especially the Hudhud Chants of the Ifugao, which the UNESCO inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008, must continue to flourish not only by passing on from parents to children, but also by ensuring that these are included in the school curriculum.

Moreover, Senator Legarda emphasized that "with weaving, wood carving, eco-tourism and cultural tourism, the municipality of Banaue and the whole province of Ifugao can achieve further economic growth and development while, at the same time, they are also able to preserve their heritage and protect the environment."

Senator Legarda is urging concerned government agencies and community stakeholders to ensure the immediate commencement of rehabilitation plans for the Ifugao Rice Terraces.
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