Not just Boracay: Banaue Rice Terraces also need help

Totel V. De Jesus

Posted at Apr 07 2018 04:02 PM | Updated as of Jan 22 2019 07:46 AM

Private sector, volunteers, local government unite to restore the Banaue Rice Terraces

An example of rice fields destroyed by erosion and neglect can be seen by tourists stopping by at the viewing point and souvenir shops the Banaue Rice Terraces. This photo of a tourist taking a selfie was taken in October last year. Photo by author

Not only the beaches of Boracay, Bohol, and El Nido in Palawan, among other world-known tourist destinations, are in need of a major reboot. Up in the mountains, the Banaue Rice Terraces have also raised the red flag. 

Often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Banaue Rice Terraces in Ifugao province covers 1, 670 hectares of agricultural land. Now, recent data revealed that a total of 600 hectares have been abandoned and need to be restored. 

The main headache here is erosion. Add to that, the loss of interest among the younger generations to farming. They’d rather go down to the cities and try their luck for a more stable income in call centers, real estate and other salary-based careers. 

But they’re not to be blamed.

“The (monetary) return of (working) in the rice terraces is not enough. Work has become a sacrifice,” admits Banaue Mayor Jerry U. Dalipog. 

“The average age of farmers in our town is 57 years old,” added Dalipog, who still goes to the rice fields he inherited from his ancestors. Banaue, he pointed out, has a population of 22,000 and about 50 percent are farmers. 

“But according to the Department of Agriculture, if you have one chicken or goat, you are considered a farmer,” he noted, seriously. “So even if you’re a lawyer and you own a chicken, you are considered a farmer.”

Farming for some long-time residents who have regular jobs has become a chore, something that needs to be done because the rice fields they inherited from their parents are there. The rest simply abandoned the land to work in the bigger cities. 

“I am a farmer. I started farming when I was 10 years old. My grandparents, my mother and father were farmers and they sent me to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. I worked for 15 years as municipal engineer and up to now as mayor, I still continue to work in the field,” he said.

Dalipog is just one of the few who stayed and despite the efforts of the local government, the Banaue Rice Terraces continues to deteriorate. Climate change has speeded up the erosion.

In 2015, Dalipog said the number was about 332 hectares of abandoned land that needed restoration. In three years, the number has doubled. If less efforts in restoration are made, how much more of the 1,607 hectares in the coming years will remain? he asked.

“We can only do so much in terms of manpower and resources,” he noted. 

WORLD HERITAGE SITE

A quick Google search gave us a brief backgrounder. The Banaue Rice Terraces covers two barangays, Batad and Bangaan. It is part of the 2,000-year-old Ifugao Rice Terraces or what the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) called the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras. The other towns in Ifugao province that also have rice terraces are Mayoyao, Kiangan and Hungduan. 

But tourists often flocked to the more accessible rice terraces in Banaue town, which sits at the foot of Mouth Amuyao. 

Ifugao elders earn a living by posing for selfies with tourists at the viewing point near the souvenir shops overlooking the Banaue Rice Terraces. Photo by author

In 1995, UNESCO gave the Rice Terraces of the Cordilleras the honor of being included on its list of World Heritage Sites, up there with the likes of Angkor Wat, Galapagos Islands and the Great Barrier Reef, among others. 

In the Philippines, those who made it under the World Heritage Site’s list under the cultural category are the historic city of Vigan and the many Baroque churches spread across the archipelago. Under the Natural category, there’s the Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary in Davao Oriental, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park in Palawan and the Tubbataha Reefs National Park in the Sulu Sea.

For some strange reasons, despite such international accolades, Banaue remains a fourth-class municipality. It is 14 kilometers from Lagawe, the capital of Ifugao province that is not even a city but also a fourth-class municipality. The Banaue Rice Terraces is under the supervision of the local government and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. 

HELP FROM PRIVATE SECTOR

In April 2016, the Banaue Rice Terraces Restoration Project was launched to raise funds, awareness and renew interest in farming. It is headed by a volunteer, retired General Jaime delos Santos. 

He said the Banaue Rice Terraces Restoration Project is a public-private partnership to restore and conserve, preserve the rice terraces in its diversity in a sustainable manner.

“Lots of funds have been brought by the government in the past years but nothing happened,” said Delos Santos. “Yes, there’s erosion and lack of interest of the community in farming. We know these are the two major setbacks.”

“So we volunteered and we created a possible solution and that is from the scientific point of view. The root cause is environmental and socio economic.” 

Early this month, they brought two Japanese scientists to the affected areas. They got soil samples brought back to Japan for proper studies.

Dalipog said with the help of Dr. Milagros Ong-How, president and CEO of Universal Harvester Inc., as part of her company’s social responsibility program, there was an initial funding of P3 million in June last year. How is also founder of ToFarm, an advocacy organization behind The Outstanding Farmers of the Philippines awards, the annual ToFarm Film Festival and ToFarm Songwriting Competition. 

This year, ToFarm launched the first-ever Banaue International Music Composition Competition (www.banauemusic.org) with a prize money amounting US$24,000.00. The aim is to create awareness on the plight of the rice terraces.

Banaue Terraces Restoration Project advocates and supporters (from left) Luz Corazon "Luchie" Roque of NAMCYA, composer-conductor Chino Toledo, Dr. Milagros Ong-How of ToFarm and Universal Harvester Inc., Jaime delos Santos of Banaue Rice Terraces Restoration Project; and Banaue Mayor Jerry U. Dalipog. Photo by author

“We’ve rehabilitated about 16 hectares. We’ve cleared another 13 hectares, planted on three hectares and nine hectares will be completed by end of April,” reported Dalipog. 

“We want to show to the young people that farming, planting rice can sustain a living,” added Delos Santos. “Kung walang nakukuha sila for the longest time, let’s change that. If they see more harvest after a year, ‘pag nakikitang kumikita, we change the mindset.”

Of the 600 hectares, based on the manpower and other resources, their aim is to rehabilitate about 69 hectares in the next couple of years.

He emphasized that a major factor is for the young people to be more interested in rice terraces. Dalipog said the Ifugao State University has been offering free education for those who want to earn a degree in Agriculture. 

General delos Santos added: “Banaue Rice Terraces will come to life again but it can’t be restored by one person, or one group. We cannot do this alone so we are inviting other corporations, NGOs and kind-hearted individuals to help us in rebuilding the terraces. Like we said, it’s not only Boracay that needs rehabilitation. We can’t let that happen to Banaue.”