Stairways to the sky: sustainability & rice in the Philippines


The rice terraces of central Luzon’s Cordillera mountain range in the Philippines climb up the steep valley-sides like bleachers designed for an audience of giants. This remarkable human-made landscape was inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage monuments in 1995.

The neat ranks of flat-topped pond-fields have also been called ‘a stairway to the sky’ – a metaphor that invokes the mythical origins of the native rice varieties grown in the area. According to traditional tales, these special rices were given to the Ifugao people by the gods of Kabunyan, the Skyworld.

In exchange, the Ifugao people showed the Skygods the secret of cooking with fire. But the aromatic rices from the Skyworld came with conditions attached. The Ifugao had to promise that they would dutifully perform several rituals that would protect the rice plants from pests and diseases and ensure bountiful harvests.

The 1975 Filipino feature film Banaue: Stairway to the Sky imagines the terraces as the product of hard work by a single generation of Ifugao migrants, but in reality the extensive modification of the mountainsides must have been the cumulative result of skilful labour by many generations of Ifugao rice farmers.

The popular consensus among Filipinos, relayed faithfully to thousands of tourists every year and repeated by UNESCO in the World Heritage citation, is that the rice terraces are more than 2,000 years old.

Recent archaeological and ethno-historical research casts doubt on this belief. In fact, the terraces appear to be about 450 years old (PDF). This means that they date from a period when Spanish colonisers of the Philippines were first penetrating into the interior of northern Luzon. This timing suggests that the famous terraces may be a product of the colonial encounter: as the Ifugaos tried to distance themselves from the Spanish threat, they retreated from low-lying regions into mountain refuges. The population of the mountain areas grew and demand for food increased, so the Ifugaos opened up new agricultural terraces on higher and higher valley slopes.

A delicate transition

If this theory is correct then it may help to explain why UNESCO has regarded the Ifugao rice terraces as at risk from multiple threats since 1999. The ways of life that maintained the rice terraces for several centuries have changed dramatically. Spanish conquistadors no longer threaten the Ifugaos. Instead of outsiders being kept out, roads, hotels and guest houses encourage lowlanders and foreign tourists to visit the region.

Food security in the Cordilleras no longer depends solely on what the indigenous people can grow for themselves – indeed, local grain traders sell many popular rice varieties imported from lowland areas. Some of the terraces are being used to cultivate high-value vegetables instead of rice. Packaged food and other consumer goods are widely available in the mountains.

In other words, the region is undergoing a delicate transition. The traditional ways of life that created and sustained the rice terraces for many decades are gone and they will not return. If the terraces are to be preserved, it will have to be as a feature of modified farming systems and new rural livelihoods that are economically, ecologically and socially sustainable, which will be capable of maintaining not only the terraces themselves but also the landscapes and bio-geophysical cycles of which they are merely the most eye-catching part. This makes the region a fascinating place to explore the interaction of social, technological and environmental dynamics and how they might be integrated as pathways towards a sustainable future.

Today, motivations to sustain the rice terraces have changed. To protect the World Heritage designation and continue to attract tourists the terraces must be preserved, but growing traditional rice varieties on steep mountainsides is a laborious enterprise at a time when many young people are seeking more attractive opportunities elsewhere. Local people and government officials say that many terraces have been abandoned.

The terraces have always been under constant assault from wind and rain and require regular maintenance. This work used to be done in the off season by working parties of men from the communities, but nowadays this work is often neglected. As a consequence, steady erosion and occasional landslides are taking a toll on the terraces. Unchecked, these processes might eventually restore the valleys to their natural contours.

New threats: snails, eels & worms

Some new threats to sustainable farming on the terraces arise from well-intended development interventions in the past. For example, the Golden Apple Snail is an invasive pest that thrives in the terrace pond-fields. It was introduced to the region in the early 1980s as a protein source for local people. Ifugaos preferred to eat their indigenous snail species, but the new species has multiplied so well it has largely driven out the native molluscs. Its voracious appetite damages the rice plants and lowers crop yields.

Swamp eels, said to have been introduced to the area by a US Peace Corps volunteer in 2008, are another threat. The eels are good to eat, but farmers complain that they bore holes in the rice terraces, holes which drain the water and undermine the terrace walls.

The eggs of giant earthworms are believed to have been introduced when the Philippine government imported an unsterilised batch of organic compost from another Southeast Asian country. Local people say that the giant earthworms enjoy the drier conditions of abandoned and unirrigated terraces, and that their relentless tunnelling also damages the terrace walls.

What options do rice growers have?

All these agro-ecological factors pose a formidable challenge to rice growers. The Ifugaos’ traditional tinawon rices are naturally rather low-yielding, and can be cultivated only once per year (tinawon means ‘once-a-year’). Consequently, in many cases they produce sufficient rice only for household consumption. If a small surplus is produced it earns only a low price on a market dominated by high-yielding rice types grown elsewhere, so farmers have little incentive to grow labour-intensive tinawon rice for the market.

Nonetheless, some Ifugaos cherish their local rice varieties along with the food, cultural heritage and landscape that go with them. A few entrepreneurs, conservationists and local rice growers hope to revive terrace rice culture by exporting ‘heirloom’ rice varieties to affluent consumers in Manila and overseas. A social enterprise called Eighth Wonder started exporting very small quantities of Ifugao rice to the United States a few years ago.

I am working with Prof. Glenn D. Stone of Washington University in St. Louis (USA) to try to understand how rice cultivators, in particular, are approaching the options and challenges that confront them in this dynamic setting. We are focusing particularly on how rice growers change their technical practices and what this can tell us about the ‘skilling process’ – that is, the individual and social process by which farmers learn from each other and from observing the behaviour of their crops, soils, pests and so on, as they change and adapt their technical practices.

To make the study particularly interesting, we are comparing the skilling process in the rice terraces of Ifugao with that in the plains of Nueva Ecija province, a few hours’ drive south of the Cordilleras. Here, the rice cultivation system and the surrounding social institutions, economic frameworks and agro-ecological features are different in many respects. Not even the rice itself is quite the same; in Nueva Ecija, high-yielding varieties and hybrids are common.

In this project, we are approaching technical change in small-scale farming as an authentically innovative process. By studying the skilling process in contrasting settings, we hope to explore how this grassroots innovation happens in practice. This will contribute to the STEPS Centre’s work by shedding light on how the social, technological and environmental components of the farming system interact. From these interactions, new development pathways will be built. This will help us to understand how more sustainable pathways can be created and selected in future.

Dominic Glover is a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and a member of the STEPS Centre. He recently returned to the UK from an extended visit to the Philippines, where he carried out preliminary research for a project on rice cultivation systems.

Photo: pi_08 by Allyson Tachiki on Flickr (cc-by-nc-sa 2.0)