Globalization eroding PHL indigenous peoples’ watch over the environment

In Photo: An Igorot checks his rice field.

By Michael A. Bengwayan | Special to the BusinessMirror

BONTOC, Mountain Province—High in the mountains comfortably nestled upon the lofty heights of the Cordillera mountain ranges of the Philippines, tribes hold the key to information that can unlock a model of conservation.

For them it is not only about trees, animals and plants; it is also a way of life. It is a life that provides a playing and training ground for their children, and as they nurture the land, they are nurtured by it. It is their wealth.

The indigenous Igorot (a collective name for the tribes of the Cordillera) practice the development and management of centuries-old forests, rice land, home gardens and watersheds, where forest denizens and rivers and springs abound.

But these are becoming a thing of the past. Like most anyone else on Earth, globalization is slowly but surely creeping into the traditions of the Igorot, endangering its food security, bond with the land and resources, and laying to waste what has been protected for centuries.

Mining, commercial agriculture, pesticides and chemicals, destructive farming practices, logging and anything tied with cold cash, and greed are laying havoc over the land.

For instance, the age-old tayan (forest woodlots) here, known as lakon in western Mountain Province, as well as the muyung and pinugos woodlots of the Ifugaos are on their way to fading out.

The indigenous technology used in the famed Banaue rice terraces and in many rice terraces in the five provinces of the Cordillera region—Mountain Province, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga, Abra—and many more indigenous know-how are equally threatened.

The terraces date back to some 2,000 years ago. Conservation is not new to the Igorot families, especially the Ifugaos. A system of blood ties, collective responsibility, heredity, litigation and indemnity provides the bond that keeps the people together.

However, many laws have been passed that undermine the life, caretakership and knowledge of the Igorot as a whole, through disinheriting them: first through Spanish colonization, then American and, in modern times, the Philippine government.

Two thousand years ago, the Ifugao carved out the terraces by hand, creating farms from the mountain sides, a practice that has become a part of their daily lives. They do not consider themselves as owners of the land, but as caretakers.

The Bontocs in Maligcong did better: they used boulders to carve their rice terraces, hauling the huge rocks with the help of water.

As caretakers, they have a social responsibility for the muyung (woodlots) that are above the rice terraces. If someone wants access to the resources, he or she has to ask permission; when permission is granted, the person who has benefited from the resources contributes toward the environmental balance of the muyung by clearing an area of weeds before leaving.

The exchange is one of obligation and responsibility—not money—for the use of this man-made landscape of alternating woodlots and rice paddies.

This reciprocity is extended to other aspects of the lives of the Ifugao. In the National Schools Maintenance Week, in May this year, Ifugao parents contributed their time and resources in the repair of their schools. Roofs were painted, footpaths fixed, ceiling boards replaced, furniture repainted, gardens were cleaned, broken windows replaced and other damages fixed.


Muyungs are noteworthy features of Ifugao families. Muyungs are woodlots that are privately owned by way of inheritance, although there are also communally owned muyungs.

Most often, it is the youngest daughter who inherits the muyung. This practice is believed best because the older members of the family are present to help in the conservation of the muyung until the youngest is of age and can decide what she will do to manage it.

And so the customary laws were set by the elders a long time ago that in case the daughter does not marry, she will have a place to get her timber, fuel and other house needs. Muyungs are seldom sold, except in dire financial need.

The Ifugao families know that with the development, preservation, and management of a muyung comes water to irrigate rice fields and vegetable plots, food for the table, timber for shelter, medicine for the sick, firewood for cooking, and natural resources for customary and cultural practices. The famed Banaue Rice Terraces are dependent on the muyungs for irrigation.

Below all muyungs are rice terraces known as kaingin or habal—swidden farms, which are temporary plots of land that are maintained by cutting back and burning off the vegetative cover.

This system allows water from the muyung springs and brooks to irrigate rice fields and prevents topsoil erosion. Cutting or harvesting of the trees is done strictly on a selective basis, as wide-scale cutting is not allowed.

The elders of families and clans are the ones who are authorized to choose and mark the trees that can be cut. Men do the cutting, but children help cut branches of fallen trees, from which they clean off the twigs to bring home as firewood.

Planting is done by all family or clan members. Family members, including children, regularly weed and prune their muyungs as a part of the regular upkeep, but most of the work is done by the women. Violations of customary laws, and related regulations call for strict penalties and fines.

Today, some parts of the muyungs are being turned into small areas for vegetable production because many families are in need of cash. Many fruit trees are also being integrated to provide family income.

In recent years the mining industry has threatened the local environment and the traditional ways.

Exacting might over right, the mining contractors, an interfaith stance, call out:

“That Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

“And the Earth We have spread it forth; and made in it firm mountains and caused to grow in it of every suitable thing. And We have made in it means of subsistence for you and for him for whom you are not the suppliers” (Al Hijr 15:19-20).

“[Land is] a gift from Magbabaya to a people he has put in a place in order to develop and guard Creation. As a divine gift, it could not be owned by anyone for one cannot own that which gives life” (Dibabawon Tribe).

The United Nations Development Programme considers the agricultural technology of the Ifugao as a fine model that should be replicated elsewhere, and no local conservation initiative could afford to ignore it. However, just as many of the features are not apparent to the unaware observer, so too is the system of belief, that gave birth to the Ifugao conservation practices.

Bengwayan has a masters degree and PhD in Development Studies and Environmental Resource Management from University College Dublin, Ireland, as a European Union fellow. He is currently a fellow of Echoing Green Foundation in New York.

Image Credits: Cordillera ecological center