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
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.
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
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 –
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
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
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.
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:
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.“
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
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
Marquez, Ridding Philippine Rice Terraces of Rats and Worms,
readFeatures &itemid =
Berger, Giant worms destroying ancient Rice terraces,