A Memoir of the 8th Wonder of the World
By June Pascal
Editor’s Note: This is a condensed print version of the author’s memoir of the Rice Terraces in the Cordilleras. A full print and video version of this unforgettable experience is in the works.
In the northern part of Luzon, the biggest island in the Philippines, one will see sights that would astound both the eyes and mind.
The eyes will see unforgettable vistas, the mind will boggle at the fact that all these rice terraces, put end to end will circle the globe two and a half times over.
Behold, the 8th Wonder of the World
Rice terracing is an ancient technology, the longest human-made project, an ongoing work for almost two thousand years.
The builders of the rice terraces in the Cordilleras are inspired and engineered by ancient wisdom, where humans are part of the earth, where all life depends.
The terraces stand 5000 feet above sea level and are done with simple implements, a spoon in fact, a genius in irrigation skills and pure hard labor.
Its life source is the rain forest which sheds water downstream the whole year round.
The Cordillera region covers the provinces of Abra, Apayao, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga, and Mountain Province, with a total land area of 18,300 sq. km. and a population of 1.1 million.
Indigenous rice terracing technologies in this northern part of the Philippines include the knowledge of water irrigation, stonework, earthwork and terrace maintenance. As their source of life and art, the rice terraces have sustained and shaped the lives of the tribes.
Their technology and life practices are so formidable, they have been self-sufficient and could continue to be self-sufficient because they are a holistic world of their own.
The Igorot tribes manage the terraces all their lives. They continue to produce organic rice, beautiful non-GMO rice, of all colors – red, pink, black, spotted brown. All delicious.
The terraces also produce a full array of luscious fruits and vegetables, beautiful flowers, farm fish and shells, and timber.
All labor is a family affair, from the building of the terraces to the planting of rice. They are not governed by kings nor pharaohs. They are not slaves and do not have labor laws. They have their own sense of justice and fairness in conducting themselves.
The men go when they have time to help neighbors in their farm work. The women carry stones, huge flat rocks from the river beds to be used as cornerstones that define the depth and boundaries of the terrace. They are also in charge of weeding the terraces during summertime.
The families usually butcher a pig in honor of the gods each time they set down a new flagstone. They would later share this bounty in a feast.
There are several tribal festivals and celebrations which is a community prayer for good harvest. The harvest season means a lot of thanksgiving feasts. The concluding harvest rites called tango or tungul (a day of rest) entails a strict no no to any agricultural work.
People share bayah (rice beer), rice cakes, and betel nut during the festivities.
Although commonly referred to as Igorot, there are several ethnic tribes in the Cordilleras, each with its own ways and techniques of building the terraces. These ethnic tribes are: Bontoc, Ibaloi, Ifugao, Isnag, Kalinga, and Kankanaey.
Each tribe is so unique and distinct that it is able to define its own reputation.
Aside from the Banaue Rice terraces, there are 4 other similar terraces in the Cordilleras. The Batad Rice Terraces, Mayoyao Rice Terraces in Mayoyao, Hapao Rice Terraces and Kiangan Rice Terraces. The Batad Rice Terraces are in the village of Batad in Banaue. These terraces resemble an amphitheatre.
The Mayoyao Rice Terraces are popular for a rice variety called “tinawon”, a rare type of organic rice which are grown in red and white varieties.
The Hapao Rice Terraces are located in Hungduan, These terraces are stone-walled and date back to 650 AD. The Kiangan Rice Terraces is similarly located in Banaue, here they grow the rice varieties of nagacadan and julungan.
Rice terraces were first practiced extensively in China. From there, the technology was brought all the way down to Asia.
India planted tea in Darjeeling, and further to Southeast Asia, in the Philippines, then down to Indonesia. Migratory tribes are always looking for land where they could plant their beloved rice.
According to anthropologist Harold Conklin, the terraces are the only form of stone construction, pre-colonial, 2000 years ago that exists to this day.
The builders have a high level of structural and hydraulic engineering knowledge, he said in his book the Ethnographic Atlas of the Ifugao. Conklin’s work has made him a respected authority in the field of ethnoscience. He is from Yale University and studied the Ifugao people for 18 years, from 1961 to 1979.
Built by a primarily cooperative system based on the original tradition of rice terraces, the terraces in the Mountain Province are absolutely the property of the indigenous peoples.
No outsiders own any part of it. In short, whatever the ancestors built are for their generations to own and manage.
There is striking similarity between the Maio ethnic minority in Southwest China (Shang Dynasty) and the Igorots in self-adornments, clothing and hair.
The Journey Begins
Two old friends, seniors, embark on an adventure for a week-long road trip into the Mountain Province.
I wanted to try to make a short documentary on the rice terraces, but more on the technicality and craft of it. I believe that the knowledge of this ancient wisdom must be appreciated in this era of environmental plunder.
With that noble idea in my head I asked an old family friend to come with me. Nap readily agreed, because he had a mission to bring sacks of rice and provisions to the mission house of Sister Helene in the middle of the rice terraces of Hungduan.
I was also searching for one particular book my friend recommended on the technology of the rice terraces, the one written by Conklin.
The moment we veered from the main seacoast highway in La Union, within half an hour, the terraces were already visible.
All throughout our trip, Nap kept on admiring the new roads done by one politician or another, a sheer proof of vast improvement in the province, he said.
Our first stop: Sagada. We chanced upon the best deal in town: the Sagada Rest House. Two-hundred and fifty pesos per room. So we took one each, flashed our senior citizen cards, and with a twenty percent, we spent two hundred a night. This is about five dollars a night.
From our room, we can view the opening day of the town fiesta.
There’s the usual beauty contest from different tribes, which to me is adulterating indigenous cultures. The poor contestants were tripping all over the place due to their high heels and long gowns to the delight of the audience.
All night, all day, there was karaoke singing.
On the second day, they had the tribal parade. Nap was able to film a few moments of it.
The next dawn, fog accompanied us out of the sleeping town on our way to catch the sun’s rising from mountain tops below us. There were a large gathering of people with exactly the same thing in mind but armed themselves with instant ramen and coffee in thermos while waiting for the sun and fending off the mountain cold. After the full show, they all drove of to a better breakfast. We remained.
Nearby was a construction gang building a massive Igorot house as well as laying out wall and steps, landscaping the pathways.
That afternoon, we came back to see their completed amazing work for the day.
When I came nearer, I saw that they were finishing the stonework with cement filling smoothened by a back of a spoon.
I exclaimed, “What? You are telling me that these entire stone works on these mountains is finished off by a spoon?” The worker looked up to me and smilingly said, “It’s because we do not have a fork.”
The work crew was from another tribe, they were hired for their knowledge and craft of stonework. They would be working for another two weeks, then off to another place needing their expertise.
In Bontoc, we bought souvenirs fresh off the carver’s hands.
Then we went to the market to buy rice and supplies for the Mission of Sister Helen in Hung-duan.
Coming back to the Banaue View Inn, the kindly owner, Lily Luglug, allowed me to bring out the book from which I got all these circa 1950s beautiful pictures from. Lily is an anthropologist in Bontoc who owns a museum of indigenous history and arts.
These pictures are part of the amazing work by Harold Conklin which he collaborated with Lily’s father, Otley Beyer, an anthropologist, historian, and an expert in the Cordilleras.
In Hungduan, I carried several trays of eggs on one hand, another bag full of heavy stuff, on the other, and a walking stick.
I could not complain, a twelve-year old carried a whole sack of rice on his head ascending down to the terraces.
On our first day, I fell off a short cliff having been distracted by a toothless Igorot woman wearing lipstick. She looked so pretty that I twisted my body out of balance and safe footing. Ouch! But not much harm done as I landed in a mossy spot by the stream.
On our second day, we went on a hike to a river and hot spring that gave me a close up look at the homes and its people.
After a river bath, I sat on a big rock listening to our guide tell me stories about the terrible years of militarization, which was imported by lowlanders, including both the military and the left-wing guerillas.
He said the weapons used against them were made in Iraq and the US.
The natives grew tired of their situation and finally bonded to rid of abusive armed men in their communities through legal and extra legal petitions.
Sister Helen has lived here for more than ten years now. Her mission is to ask for whatever help she can get in order to provide sanctuary for abused and hungry children.
A little round chapel was built through donations and this served as a meeting and prayer place. Our young cook led the prayers as well.
A two floor dorm for girls is separate from where the boys are billeted.
For ten years and counting, she has around a hundred kids graduated all the way to college. She would knock from one rich politico’s door to another and ask for donations for the kid’s tuition fees, school supplies, transport, food money. Some children have migrated to the States, some married off, some come back and donate, some help, some don’t.
Sr. Helen is a firm believer of Jesus who taught, “Knock and the door will open, ask and you will receive.”
We stayed a day more in Hungduan to accommodate Sister Helen’s request for me to conduct an art class for the children in the villages.
The kids came, some parents too, and a group of teenage girls eager to learn about sewing.
After the drawing class, the kids left with their drawings as I turned to the teenagers and the women. I showed them a short video of my recycled fashion just to give them an idea of what I do, as an artist. They quickly got it. I told them that just with needle and thread, all these designs and ideas were totally doable by anybody who wants to do so and they all seemed to agree.
Towards the end of our trip, just one more item on my checklist I wanted fulfilled. I wanted to be able to take a picture of a native mountain woman’s feet and hands.
I’ve always thought it incredible that bare feet would grow like stumps using toes as strongholds.
Lo, and behold, I saw this old woman sitting by the roadside getting some sun. With our mission accomplished, we head on to the lowlands, ever so grateful for a safe return.
In retrospect, I look back at the magnificence of the rice terraces and feel concerned of their challenges. These are mainly the erosion of soil and out migration of the young members of tribes who are not so enthusiastic about organic farming any longer.
I wish that through this little piece of work, we continue to marvel at the terraces and support its people. They are the last few humans who know how to take care and respect the earth and human life. (Photos by June Pascal and the Harold Conklin collections)