The Ifugaos: From the Philippine Highlands to the World

Watching over the scenic landscape of Batad rice terraces, the most famous among the World Heritage-listed clusters.

In July this year, the town of Banaue suffered heavy damages and losses due to flash floods. Not only did it put a halt in tourism, on which a large part of the community depends, but also in agriculture and food mobility. Despite the devastations, I never doubted even for a second how resilient the Ifugao people are.

As one of the oldest indigenous people inhabiting the Philippines, this was not the first environmental crisis they have faced, and definitely not the worst. And, if there is one lesson we have learned time and time again, it is that the Ifugaos always thrive. After all, they have been successful in preserving their unique way of life for centuries, proudly bringing it forward and making it relevant in the modern age.

The World Heritage-listed Bangaan rice terraces and its picturesque central hamlet.

The Ifugao homeland in the Cordilleran highlands corresponds to a small province of the same name. Previously, it was thought that they have settled down in the upland for more than 2,000 years already, recent studies show that it may even have just been as recent as 300 years ago. Nevertheless, there is no denying their solid presence and contribution to shaping the Filipino identity through their exceptional traditions and an extensive system of built-heritage that is renowned all across the globe.

A local who earns a living by letting tourists snap his photos at one of the viewpoints of the Banaue rice terraces. Authentic mid-century standing Bulul from Hengyon (left) and Hungduan (right). Private collection of the author, acquired from Floy Quintos.

The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras UNESCO World Heritage Site holds the prestige of being the first “Cultural Landscape” to be included in the roster upon its inscription in 1995. As such, the key to a better appreciation of the property is to see it in relation to its environment and its people. The Ifugaos’ farming method has been recognized by the Food and Agriculture Organization as an outstanding agricultural system, meriting it to become a pilot for the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) in 2002.

Among the five clusters inscribed (which also include Hung-duan, Mayoyao, Bangaan, and Nagacadan), the most popular and easiest to get to –as well as the smallest— is Batad. The walls were constructed using the dry-stone technique, wherein the oldest surviving sections are said to be in Hung-duan. Some even claim that if only the walls were laid in one straight line, it would end up longer than the Great Wall.

At the main viewpoint for the rice terraces in Banaue poblacion. An elderly woman making sure her paddies are well irrigated while along the ancient walls of Hungduan rice terraces. Tappiya waterfall in Batad is said to be where the ancestors of the villagers dwell.

The practice of rice terracing has never been unique to the Philippines. The Hanni rice terraces in southern China, for example, have also been designated as a World Heritage Site in 2013. Nevertheless, the unparalleled attributes that make the rice terraces in Ifugao stand out are their altitude (reaching as high as 1000 meters) and steepness (at 70 degrees maximum tilt). The American Society of Civil Engineers named them as a Historic Engineering Landmark for water supply and control, and in 1997 the group came to the Philippines and proclaimed them the 8th Wonder of the World.

Until the inscription of Bali’s Subak system in 2012, the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras were the only World Heritage Sites dedicated to the production of the single most important crop, rice. However, it was not always about praises and glamor.

The entire Ifugao rice terraces have been listed twice (2000 and 2010) as one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World by the World Monuments Watch. These were made in response to the two waves of a massive abandonment of the rice terraces by farmers: they fled to the cities for greener pastures leaving the rice terraces unattended and crumbling.

At the same time, the indigenous rice variety that adapted well in such high altitudes was also substituted by more prolific and easier-to-produce cash crops, creating serious shifts in the cultural landscape’s integrity. Given the alarming status then, the five inscribed rice terraces clusters were also placed on the World Heritage In Danger List in 2001 until significant improvements and reparations were finally secured 11 years later.

An Ifugao sifting rice grains using a bilao under a traditional bale (hut) in Batad village. A woman chanting while working in the fields. Nagacadan Rice Terraces in Kiangan town during rice planting season. Traditional bale (Ifugao huts) are still in use in Bangaan village.

Also integral to the Ifugao life cycle is a set of ancient songs called Hudhud. Performed only during special occasions, it is made of more than 200 stories and can take days to complete one. The lead chanter sets the introductory notes and is then picked up by a chorus of women. Hardly ever transcribed, the Hudhud is largely just in the memory of the people, where the chanters rely heavily on cultural and environmental stimuli to help them remember the chant. Efforts are being undertaken in bringing the Hudhud closer to the younger generation, one of which is the institutionalization of Hudhud Schools of Living Traditions. Another tradition that has gained international attention recently is the age-old tug-of-war in Hungduan called Punnuk. The ritual executed by three villages is a ceremonious event to mark the culmination of the harvest season. The Hudhud and Punnuk are both declared as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Another global celebrity that originated from the Ifugaos is the Bulul, a wood-carved icon of the rice guardian deity. In October, the Bulul has become so popular that an archaic specimen was auctioned at Christie’s in Paris with an estimated value of USD210,000-300,000. Each town in Ifugao traditionally had its own style in crafting the figure, which has to undergo rituals involving animal sacrifices and liquid libations in order for it to be initiated as a legitimate Bulul. The last authentic pieces are said to have been made in the 1950s. As most of them are already in private collections or museums here and abroad, they are getting harder to come by. Commercial reproductions sold as tourist souvenirs, however, are not at all difficult to find.

 Indeed, the Ifugao people have left remarkable impressions way beyond our borders. They are creative, determined, and, most importantly, unique. Their will to survive amidst rough uneven terrains and harsh changes of times is commendable and ought to be emulated. With farming traditions and their lifestyles still very much intact, the cultural landscape of the Ifugao people is an enduring portrait of what makes us proud and inspired being Filipinos, then and now.

Image credits: Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero


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