The stairways to the sky
The Banaue Rice Terraces in the province of Ifugao is recognized as a civil engineering project believed to have been completed in 2000 B.C. (PIA photo)

Rice cultivation is an industry common in most Filipino communities but rice paddies carved along steep mountain slopes are one of the features unique in Cordillera provinces.

The Cordillera’s rice terraces are found in Ifugao, Mountain Province, Benguet, Kalinga, some parts of Abra, and Apayao.
Over the years, the different provinces have come up with their own systems of preserving and managing the rice terraces as livelihood and food source.

These systems, utilizing local knowledge on biodiversity, agro-ecosystems, and agriculture are entwined with the ways of life of the Cordillera people.

Food security and the Cordillera rice terraces

Food security is among the global issues that the Sustainable Development Goals wants to address by 2030.
The Asian Development Bank reported that between 2007 to 2008, the export restrictions placed by rice exporting countries and the panic buying of rice importing countries like the Philippines increased rice prices up to 149% leading almost a billion people into poverty.

With its vast rice fields, massive vegetable and fruit gardens, rich seas, lakes, and rivers, the Philippines still recorded 8.2 million Filipinos below the food threshold and 3.1 million families experiencing hunger.

The Cordillera, which is home to 1.7 million people mostly dependent on agriculture, also saw three percent of its population experience hunger in 2011.

“Our population is getting bigger but our farms are not,” an indigenous peoples leader of the Cordillera said as he discussed land conversion and decreasing water supply during the NAPC-led Conference on Cordillera Rice Terraces in Banaue, Ifugao.

These issues, coupled with climate change, ecological disruption, poor agricultural support, and socio-cultural factors have deteriorated the condition of the rice terraces.

“Kaming mga farmers ay marami kaming problema sa earthworm, isang hair-like na worm. They go inside the soil so maraming paddies ang nae-errode na sa amin sa Sagada,” farmer Esteban Solang shared.

As a result, food sufficiency and other survival needs are affected by the high cost of prductivity and low technological support.

“I opted to sell the rice surplus of my family. Instead of selling it to my neigbor who is short of rice, I have to sell it outside for a better price.” This is among the concerns raised by a farmer from Barlig as he talked about the challenges of sending his children to school while providing the family food.

Beyond Food Security

In most of the previous interventions for the rehabilitation of the rice terraces in the Cordillera, the socio-cultural component has only been an add-on to conservation efforts and plans.

University of the Philippines-Baguio Cordillera Studies Center Director Dr. Leah Abayao highlighted the need to incorporate the socio-cultural aspect as an integral part of the conservation and rehabilitation plan of the rice terraces.

Abayao said the rice terraces, more than just a food source, is a reporsitory of the Cordillera identity including local knowledge and cultural heritage.

Factors such as land, irrigation systems, indigenous knowledge and practices necessary for the sustainability of the rice terraces are embedded in the culture and tradition of Cordillera communities.

Responding to the challenge

Recognizing the importance of the rice terraces in the survival and identity of the Cordillera people, NAPC, as the government’s coordinating agency in poverty reduction, facilitated the IP-Cordi convergence.

The convergence aims to rehabilitate and conserve the rice terraces; protect critical water sources, watershed, and biodiversity; strengthen indigenous knowledge systems and practices; and promote appropriate agricultural development towards food security in the Cordillera.

IP-Cordi involves provincial and municipal government units, concerned regional line agencies, academic institutions, and the Center for Development Programs in the Cordillera, a non-government organization.

Through consultations and community validation, NAPC has also crafted a five-year development plan to serve as a blueprint of the IP-Cordi convergence.

The pro-farmer and pro-indigenous people development plan 2019-2023 aims to increase forest cover by at least 10%, increase land productivity by 20%, decrease production cost by 20% through improved technologies, enhance indigenous knowledge systems, and explore the creation of a Cordillera Rice Terraces Office with a regular budget allocation and effective participation of indgeous peoples organizations in policy development.

NAPC presented the plan during the Conference on the Cordillera Rice Terraces where participants composed of farmers, indigenous peoples representatives, leaders, line agencies, LGUs, and other stakeholders discussed issues and shared best practices to improve the IP-Cordi convergence towards food security.