The brittle steps to the Sky

The Rice Terraces around Banaue



With the exception of the pyramids in Egypt the classic seven “Wonders of the World” have been destroyed in the course of history. Many historical monuments are now competing for the title "Eighth Wonder of the World", so for example the Chinese Wall, the Vatican City or the Acropolis.  

The Philippines also assume to have an "eighth Wonder of the World". We are talking about the rice terraces in and around Banaue, a little mountain village in the central Cordilleras in northern Luzon. These terraces are poetically also called "Stairways to the Sky". The construction started more than 2000 years ago. The terraces were not built by slaves with the purpose of protection of a dominion or in honour of a ruler but represent a unique agro-technical culture building which was created thousands years ago by rural village communities in arduous hard graft with primitive equipment. The rice terraces are the single bigger buildings in the Philippines which have their origin from the time before the Spanish colonialization. So they are a very meaningful culture historical monument.

Rice terraces can also be found elsewhere in Asia. But these other ones are not so elaborated and do not reach the size dimensions as the terraces around Banaue. The terrace fields nestle themselves with wealth of forms spectacularly for miles and miles along the steep mountain flanks. They can reach from the foot  to the top of the mountains. The plots altogether have only a size of round about 20,000 hectares, but if laid end to end they would stretch a distance of about 25,000 km. For instance, the length of the Chinese Wall is only approximately 6000 km.

The rice terraces have an ingenious irrigation system. The water of mountain springs is conducted via dams, sluices and bamboo pipes to the upper terrace fields. Then it is passed on by openings to the deeper paddies. The number of the terrace plateaus per mountain is frequently more than ten. Sometimes the paddies have only a length and wide of some metres. The retaining walls or ramparts are up to thirty centimetres thick, are manufactured from loam and /or stones and can reach a height of more than seven metres. One can imagine that it was not very easy – in the case of stone walls (i.e.. terraces of Mayoyao) - to get the stone material up from the river beds and to design the gradients so, that the lower fields could get also sufficient water.

A traditional native rice type is cultivated which, however, allows only one annual harvest in the rule. Occasionally more productive rice species is planted, which is considered as less tasteful. The fieldwork does not allow the use of water buffalos or machines, because the plots are regularly too small and difficult to access.  The time of field tilling varies and dependents on the degree of coldness in the winter. Usually the terraces, which are prone to break down, are repaired, ploughed and irrigated December / January. At that time, the blueness of the sky is often mirrored very delightfully on the surface of the plots. In February / March the rice shoots are set, later they get separated. The young rice plants show particularly within the months April/May a delicate, velvety green. The rather meagre harvest of rice is takes place in June to  August.

Occasionally vegetable fields can also be found on the plots, which are not so sunny. A new trend is fish-farming to cultivate fishes in the plots like tilapia, carps and crabs for the sale.

How to come to the remote rice terraces around Banaue, which are about 330 km north from Manila? Some visitors fly first to Baguio and there they hide a bus or jeepney, which takes them on sharply bending roads in 3-4 hours to Banaue. Others go directly from Manila by bus.  The length of trip is approximately eight-hours. In the tourism advertising the village Banaue has an outstanding reputation with regard to the famous rice terraces.  This is not quite correct because the place with the most beautiful view ("Viewing point") is a little bid outside from the place.  Not everybody likes Banaue. Some are bothered by the dirty streets, the incongruous quonsets and the lower level accommodations (with the exception of “Banaue Hotel”). One stall follows the other, offering the tourists for example blankets, cloths, wood carvings, basket goods or orchids. Here we meet a kind of commercialized folklore circus. We can see betel chewing older men in their traditional folklore with coloured chicken feathers on their or cigar smoking old women. Taking a photograph is normally only accepted on payment of a little contribution. Some experts recommend other places, like Batad (12 km further), Bangsaan, Mayoyad, Kiangan or Hungduan (25 km remote of Banaue). The terraces there are considered as more beautifully and preserved (for example the terraces of Batad, which remind of an amphitheatre) and it is told that the population is more native there.

It is controversial if the help of a tourist guide is necessary. Some guidebooks claim, that the ways are “clear”  - there would be no need for a tour guide. Other books refer to the labyrinthine structure of the terraces, the height and narrowness of the temporary slippery walls, which could require balancing  and plead therefore for a tourist guide.  

The UNO declared in 1985 the rice terraces around Banaue as World Heritage. The declaration emphasis the historic-cultural importance of the terraces. The terraces of Batad, Bangaan, Mayoyad and Hapao and Kiangan are also part of the Heritage. Commissions for their protection were appointed and removed and a stamp with the picture of the terraces was published. But only sixteen years later – in 2001 – the "Stairs to the Sky" were relegated by the UNO in the “Red List” of “World Heritage in danger”. It was discovered that almost thirty per cent of the terraces were not managed any more and are threatened by decay through cracks. Other critical points have been the commercial visual pollution by huts and stalls and the use of concrete in the context of repair works.  

The causes for the decay are not fully clarified. Nature and economic causes are cited.

Fact is that have the water inflow to the terraces have become poorer. Farmers are telling that the earthquake in 1990 spilled various springs, which take now an underground course. Other reasons are deforestation and land conversion. Analysts refer to lumbering caused by the wood carver trade and an increased water consumption by more and more tourists. However, these presumed tourism effects are not yet cleared up thoroughly.

The water scarcity has already in recent past as consequence a kind of “water war” between the villages of Fidelisan and Dalican on the one hand, the villages Butbut and Betwagan on the other hand. In the course of this "water war" also hostages were taken mutually. But now the situation has relaxed after a new laying down of border areas.  

Besides snails and harmful rats a new evil culprit was found now. It is the giant earth worm ("Olang"), which belongs to the species Polypheretima elongata. Huge numbers of the worm have now been found in the earth of the plots.  The earth worm gets up to 45 centimetres long and reaches the thickness of a finger. It seems that the worm reproduces itself without sexual partner, because all found specimen have been female. It is assumed that the dryness of the upper forests forced him to migrate down to the terraces. He nibbles at the rice roots and penetrates deeper, moister layers of earth if the upper ones are too dry. He also bores into the terrace walls. The consequences are crack formations and leaking. The terraces dry out more strongly. If now it begins to rain heavily a whole wall can collapse - crashing down to the next deeper layer with tons of weight (1). Classic Pesticide proved to be less suitable also for environmental reasons, the Ifugao rice farmers try now to combat the harvest loss by the worm "Olang" with other measures. The fields are now more frequently flooded  - so that the worms come to the earth's surface. Here he becomes victim of chickens, ducks, pigs and ants. Furthermore a “friendly” species of rat (striped shrew rat) was discovered, which does not only eats the earth worms but also the "Golden Apple Snake" without destroying the rice plants. The farmers have now been trained in the identification and care of this rat. Moreover, new rats of this species have been “imported” from other regions. Finally the farmers have been suggested to make an economic use of the worms. The Igorots detest worms as a food – but in other parts of the country it is an nourishment. Now some farmers are practising worm-farming. Also fish-farmers are belonging to the buyers (2) of the worm.  A new system of traps was developed  to reduce the number of harmful rats. But some Igorots are also eating these rats.  

The lacking competitiveness of produced rice is another very serious reason for the decay of the rice terraces. It was already mentioned that the tilling of the fields is very labour-intensive and arduous and in the rule only one rice harvest per annum an be expected. Sebastian Berger quotes in his article a farmer smallholder as follows:

"A 10 square yard paddy would yield about 7 lb of rice a year, selling for less than ₤ 2.Repairing a wall cost  ₤ 60, as stones have to be brought from far away and lorry hire is expensive. It is an investment that can take 30 years to repay.“ (2)

Abandonment of fieldwork and migration are the consequences. The area had always to record stronger migrations since only the oldest son has a hereditary right on the paddy-fields. But now the little yield and income from the paddy-fields pushes the migration especially of the younger generation. Manila is offering more favourable jobs and even other jobs in the Banaue area i.e.. as  tourist guide, street trader, jeepney driver or bell boy  or  are more lucrative. And the fields remain untilled.

The future existence of the terraces is uncertain and problem solutions are looked for which slow down particularly the migration. Commissions and Task Forces were established and cancelled in the past. Now the province governor has again the direct responsibility for the terraces. In 2002 the UNO has made available 75.000 $ for the preservation of the rice terraces and the national government granted 50 million pesos for a preservation programme. But these funds are only a drop in the ocean. Further sponsor funds are needed.

Whether a stronger regulation of the number of the visiting  tourists is the right way -  as it is sometimes demanded - remains very questionable. Surely in the little villages a critical upper limit of tourists is reached very quickly. But till now no real invasion of tourists is recorded. A soft tourism should be promoted to keep the younger generation at least in the area. May be that  economy liberalism is sometimes a solution – but to preserve the terraces governmental subsidies for the rice farmers in this area seems to be urgent.

Otherwise the millennia old Rice terraces around Banaue will not survive the next decades any more. Then a very meaningful cultural heritage - the Philippines can be proud of - would be lost irretrievably.

© Wolfgang Bethge, 2006

(1)   Carlos D. Marquez, Ridding Philippine Rice Terraces of Rats and Worms, 10.16.2006, programmes/index.cfm? fuseaction = readFeatures &itemid = 446 & language = 1

(2)  Sebastien Berger, Giant worms destroying ancient Rice terraces, 03/03/2006, 03.03.2006