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How do you preserve a legacy like the Ifugao Rice Terraces?

By JH CORPUS Published Nov 11, 2023 5:00 am

As temperatures rise, as water sources are depleted, as storms loom larger and larger with each season that passes, climate change is one of the greatest threats to our heritage sites. The resulting impact on inherited traditions and knowledge in turn affects values, livelihoods, and identity, with profound consequences for communities.

In the Philippines, we have a highly valued living heritage site listed on UNESCO's World Heritage Site roster, namely, the Ifugao Rice Terraces of the Cordilleras. Sadly, this site is facing the threat of climate change.

From Oct. 10 to 14 in Banaue, a conference entitled “Climate Risk and Resilience at the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras” was organized by Preserving Legacies and ICOMOS Philippines in partnership with National Geographic Society, Climate Change Network, and funded by Manulife.

A diverse population of participants in attendance tells of the urgency that climate change has had on the rice terraces and has attracted worldwide attention. Representatives from the local governmental units of Kiangan, Hungduan, Mayoyao, Bangaan, Batad, and Banaue, stakeholder’s organizations, and local community members were in attendance, along with natural and heritage site custodians from Cambodia, Togo, Colombia, the United States, Ireland, Jordan, Bangladesh, and Tunisia.

View of the Ifugao Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras

Also represented were the Rice Terraces Farmers' Cooperative, Roscoe Kalaw of the Provincial Tourism and Heritage Office, Susan Nool, formerly of the DENR and at present a policy consultant; Esther Nalliw-Licnachan, provincial officer of the Commission on Indigenous People; Engr. Arnold K. Bacnog of Provincial Disaster & Risk Reduction Management, Engr. Francis P. Pacio of the Department of Trade and Industry, Jovi Ganongan of DOT Cordilleras, Vice Governor Glenn Prudenciano, the Office of the Governor Jerry U. Dalipog, Karl Albais of the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA), Rajee Florendo of UNACOM, climate scientist Dr. Ma Laurice Jamero, and Tina Paterno, former president of ICOMOS Philippines. 

The conference opened with the Kiangan rice harvest festival, a lively celebration of the entire community that included preparation of rice-based food and drink, music, dancing, rituals, and chanting. Site custodians participated alongside the community to celebrate the momentous occasion and to witness the intricate traditions that accompany the rice harvest.

The Kiangan Harvest Festival: Dr. Victoria Herrman, project director, participates with the elders in a traditional harvest ritual.

During the conference, keynote speaker Marlon Martin, founder of the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement (SITMo), presented initial findings from focus group discussions conducted with the Ifugao community to identify community values considering climate change. For the Ifugao, the environment, farming, traditions, and the spiritual world are concepts that have never been divorced from each other. They all act in symbiosis. In fact, he remarked that it is this interdependency that has formed the worldview of the Ifugao and continues to be a thread in Ifugao society that extends back to the ancestors and to the future unborn generations. To paraphrase his initial findings on the Ifugao’s values: the rice terraces supply more than sustenance; it is collective responsibility and continuity. Without the rice fields, the Ifugao would not be Ifugao.

The goal was to integrate scientific, local, and indigenous knowledge to find sustainable and culturally appropriate adaptative solutions. As a result, the solutions fostered better approaches to adaptation and learning from past ancestral practices to safeguard values for the next generations.

In a separate presentation, Dr. Maria Laurice Jamero, Resilience Coordinator, Klima, Manila Observatory, delivered a stark picture of the effects of the changing climate of the region. Even what can be perceived as slight changes such as heightened temperatures of one to two degrees can have disastrous consequences, making drastic impacts that would threaten the very existence of the Ifugao.

Interestingly, the replies of the Ifugao to describe the climate over the last decades correlated with Dr. Jamero’s findings. Using their vernacular, they echoed the phenomenon that Dr. Jamero highlighted, especially their experiences of landslides (gode), flashfloods (olwang), and invasive pests (dudun).

Armed with this knowledge, at the heart of the conference, there were breakout groups. Each breakout group was a mixture of international, local, provincial, and national representatives. All attendees had a “place at the table” and discussed the information that was provided from the presentations and balanced that with their own experiences. The goal was to integrate scientific, local, and indigenous knowledge to find sustainable and culturally appropriate adaptative solutions. As a result, the solutions fostered better approaches to adaptation and learning from past ancestral practices to safeguard values for the next generations.

The Preserving Legacies program encompasses eight sites globally that are considered cadet sites; they have been chosen to fully engage in climate heritage training and a peer-to-peer learning experience.

Site custodians will shadow the full process of two pilot sites located in Petra, Jordan, and the Ifugao Rice Terraces in the Philippine Cordilleras, including attending the pilot site’s workshops, to better prepare for their own assessments in 2024.

Breakout groups featured local, provincial, and international site custodians to find solutions to mitigate climate change in the Ifugao Rice Terraces.

All 10 participating sites will help grow an international community of practice focused on climate action at the intersections of cultural heritage and climate adaptation.

Tina Paterno, project director for the Philippines, states, “By working and sharing experiences, this project can better develop and present culture-based solutions to many climate challenges and build more resilient communities. The joint efforts will document, study, and utilize diverse knowledge, skills and practices, inherited and adapted methods of learning and technical know-how to build resilience and transform communities to meet climate-adaptation goals.”

Victoria Herrman, National Geographic Explorer and project director of Preserving Legacies, adds, “[We] firmly believe in the power of cultural and heritage for climate change. This important project will empower communities and site custodians to protect their heritage from the images of climate change. It will also provide them with a platform to their stories and their valuable experiences with the world.”