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The Native Perspective, Episode 12: Ifugao

The Native Perspective is a Food Circle project that discusses taking urgent climate change action in order to protect indigenous peoples who depend on their natural environments for survival, food, shelter, and to maintain their cultural identity. Because climate change affects those who rely on nature the most, it is crucial to support indigenous communities worldwide which in turn ensures the preservation of ecosystems, as indigenous peoples have developed a balanced rapport with their natural surroundings and there is much knowledge to be gained from their lifestyles for more sustainable living. The dialogue also draws talking points from ecocriticism; it examines people’s attitudes towards nature, and indigenous studies; centering and elevating the voices of different indigenous cultures and promoting their experiences. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

Wet-rice Agriculturalists

In the fields of the Philippines largest island Luzon, in the paddies where rice is cultivated, the indigenous people called Ifuago are plodding away, maintaining the spectacularly fascinating systems of their world-famous rice terraces. Their ceaseless labour shapes whole mountainsides into giant steps, which naturally has become quite the attraction for tourists.

The word “ifugao” means hill. Ifugao is also used to refer to the region where these people reside. It used to be a part of the former Mountain Province. Republic Act No. 4695, also known as the Division Law of Mountain Province, which became effective on June 18, 1966, gave it the status of an independent province [1]. Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga Apayao, and Mountain Province were the four provinces established as a result of this law.

According to one theory, the Ifugao are descended from a group of migrants who arrived in Ifugao from the Western region of what is now as Mount Province, more specifically from Bauko and Tadian [2]. The following observations form the basis of this theory: firstly, the similarity of the Ifugao and Kankana-ey languages; secondly, the almost exact similarity of the Ifugao bale type houses; thirdly, the similar method of cloth-weaving, weaving designs and colour schemes; fourthly, the presence of same place names in a number of mythical narratives and chants, and lastly, the resemblance in technologies and tools that are used for rice fields.

Small hamlets of 5 to 10 huts, dotted among the rice terraces, are home to the Ifugao people [3]. The building of the Ifugao houses—achieved without the use of saws or other such tools—as well as the artistic carvings decorating the beams and mouldings of each home captivated the early Spanish missionaries. The well-built Ifugao huts have a square shape, hardwood flooring, windowless walls, and pyramidal thatch roofs. They are supported by four strong tree trunks and have detachable stairs that were raised at night to keep out intruders and/or wild animals.

Needless to say, rice is the centrepiece of Ifuago culture, as it is perceived as a prestigious crop. The Ifugao culture exhibits a lavish variety of festivities related to agricultural rituals, from rice planting to rice eating [4]. Thanksgiving feasts are customarily held throughout the harvest season, and any agricultural activity is strictly forbidden on the final harvest ceremonies, known as tango or tungul (a day of rest). A lasting tradition during the celebrations is to consume betel nut, rice cakes, and bayah (rice beer).

But that is not all there is to Ifugao culture. The Hudhud is one piece of narrative writing typically produced by the Ifugao [5]. The Hudhud consists of chants. It is used in ceremonies and throughout the rice-planting season, harvest, and funeral wakes. The Hudhud has been recognized as a Masterpiece of Humanity's Oral and Intangible Heritage by UNESCO.

Never-ending Hardships with Farming

An agriculture that requires all of the proper conditions, it comes as no surprise that wet-rice cultivation in Luzon is under a threat due to environmental, social and economic circumstances. According to climate forecasts, the temperature in the Ifugao province is expected to rise by 1.9°C to 2.1°C by 2050 [6]. Therefore, changes in weather patterns brought on by climate change will have a significant impact on rice production. For a community that is already stricken by economic struggles for rice terrace maintenance, the risk of climate change and environmental deterioration is of great concern. To estimate the impact on rice production, future climatic trends must be downscaled to local levels using the Statistical Downscaling Model (SDSM). The simulations revealed that under two different scenarios the daily temperature increase would result in a 25% reduction of current rice fields during the rainy seasons of the 2080–2090 timeframe.

The capacity of indigenous rice terracing systems to adapt to very intense weather events is not well developed, despite their complex water management regimes. The Ifugao people are still cultivating their native rice types, which are more delicate and sensitive than the other kinds that have been introduced.

In truth, during the past 50 years, the Ifugao rice terraces have already lost nearly 15,000 hectares of their fields. According to a 2009 survey, the majority of Ifugao residents are not aware of climate change in particular, but they have already noticed its early consequences in their agricultural undertakings [7]. The impacts may be seen in their rice cycle cropping, where they changed the transplanting season from December to January each year because of the extended cold season. As owners of local climate indicators like water levels, the emergence or disappearance of certain plants and animals, and the ability to track changes in weather and agricultural patterns, farmers are in the strongest position to spot changes in climatic trends.

Both Ifugao and heritage protection organisations are left to make a compromise and acknowledge that the Ifugao rice terraces are not able to sustain these indigenous peoples' lives. As a solely annual crop that does not contribute to economic growth either, the specific type of rice that Ifugao cultivate can no longer wholly be relied on by the community [8]. For a more profitable solution, many rice fields are now being transformed into vegetable farms. In towns tomatoes, cabbages and other vegetables have already replaced rice. This shift brings out a more economically compensating way of agriculture, as the vegetables are harvested multiple times a year.

Unfortunately, this also means that vegetable gardens need chemical fertilisers and, also, that farmers aim to expand their land, causing deforestation. Hence, this transformation is an undeniable damage to the environment. The clearing of woodlots and forests also leads to a shortage of wood material, which is used for a plethora of handicrafts that are no less important to Ifugao culture, as well as it is crucial for supplying such necessities as firewood and medicine.

Ifugao culture and indigenous knowledge already showcase that wet-rice cultivation is the very foundation of Ifugao lifestyle. And while compromises ought to be made in this era characterised by climate change, it would be highly beneficial for sustainability and environment protection organisations to take Ifugao agricultural struggles into consideration and attend to them. That way there would be more opportunities to offer support to traditional terrace farming, and seek out ways to compensate the farmers through sustainable livelihood projects.

Author: Liva Puka

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  1. Ifugao Province, Philippines Genealogy | FamilySearch

  2. Ifugao in a Nutshell | GOVPH

  3. Ifugao | Britannica

  4. Ifugao Rice Culture | Historic Places in the Philippines

  5. Community Hut of the Ifugao People | Travel Authentic Philippines

  6. Enhancing Indigenous Knowledge in Rice Terraces | Our World

  7. Indigenous Peoples of Ifugao: Responding to Climate Change | Conf. Series: Earth and Environmental Science

  8. Sustainable Livelihood Offers a Lifeline to Philippines' Dying Rice Terraces | Mongabay