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Rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras: a millennial tradition endangered

Written by Ana Bossa-Castro, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management.

Rice is a staple food essential for 3.5 billion people worldwide, providing more than 20% of their daily calories. Asian rice was domesticated 8,200–13,500 years ago in the Pearl River valley region of China. Since then, farmers and breeders, and more recently scientists, have modified and improved practices to optimize the production and obtain better yields.  Not only have they identified better techniques, but also controlled pests, diseases and abiotic factors, such as drought, heat, cold, salinity, to finally obtain high yielding varieties currently grown worldwide.

However, not all rice growing regions have gone through modernization in the cultivation of this millennial crop. The Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga and Mountain Provinces, in the Philippine Cordilleras, harbor ancient rice terraces that are believed to be over 2,000 years old. These terraced rice fields span a land area of 7,700 square miles and range in altitudes of 2,300 to 5,000 feet above sea-level.  If they are put end to end, their length would encircle half of the globe. They were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.

The farming techniques used on the terraces have been mostly unaltered over its existence and have been transferred orally from generation to generation. These lands have been inherited and have no written titles. The knowledge and traditional practices, involved in the rice cultivation, are linked to ritual ceremonies to invoke their ancestors to “guard” their crops, starting from the sowing of the rice seeds up to the postharvest.

Labor is distributed between men and women. The cycle starts with the seed selection, performed by experienced women who harvest rice and choose the best seeds for the next season. One month before planting, land preparation is conducted by men. When the season starts, rice seeds are germinated in water or mud, and exposed to sun light. Transplanting occurs 45-60 days after germination and is carried out by women. One or two months after transplanting, weed management is done by women, who manually remove all weeds that have grown in the paddies. Rice harvest is shared by men and women, as women collect rice bundles in the terraces, men transport them for storage. Post-harvest activities include sun-drying the rice bundles for several days, then performing manual threshing and milling. Finally rice seeds are ready to be stored and/or distributed. The terraces receive water through an ancient irrigation system from streams and springs tapped and channeled into canals that run downhill ensuring a continuous flooding. Composted weeds and rice straws are used as fertilizer treatment, avoiding the use of any chemicals, therefore this farming system is considered to be organic.

Rice cultivated in these terraces are heirloom varieties, the most common ones are called “Tinawon” and “Linawang”. “Tinawon” is planted once a year, it has big grains and it is aromatic. “Linawang” or “Pinidwa” is planted twice a year, it has smaller grains and it is non-aromatic.

Heirloom varieties are “resilient”, which means they contain resistant traits to biotic stress and tolerance to abiotic stress. These varieties also have greater nutritional value than regular white rice, such as higher quantity of antioxidants, phenolics, flavonoids and vitamins. Besides, they have exceptional cooking quality, flavor, aroma, texture and color. Particularly, heirloom black rice contains anthocyanin antioxidants, which show potential for preventing heart attack, cancer, and other diseases.

Despite the potential of heirloom rice as a lucrative livelihood for small-holders, its maintenance is threatened by recent social changes in the population. Younger generations are losing interest in keeping their ancestral traditions because of the hard and intense work responsibilities. Frequent typhoons that affect the region discourage interest in farming as they begin to look for less labor-intensive jobs. Organic farming and the use of unimproved varieties increases costs and limit yields.

Therefore, the Department of Agriculture from the Philippines and the International Rice Research Institute established the DA-IRRI Heirloom Rice Project as an initiative to enriching the legacy of the heirloom rice by empowering local communities. This project is aimed at enhancing the productivity and livelihoods of farming communities, conserving heirloom rice varieties and encouraging consumers to eat healthier rice.

They have designed several participatory activities to promote heirloom rice production, improve farm productivity through sustained availability of clean, good quality seeds, enhance local capacity for organizing and developing entrepreneurial skills among farming communities and linking farmers with global markets and international chefs interested in including heirloom rice in their dishes.

The project will also seek the geographical indication (GI) registration of these heirloom rice varieties to local communities, preventing its use by a third party whose product does not follow the appropriate standards.

We hope this effort to value heirloom rice varieties and these farmers and will create conditions so this millennial tradition can be maintained for a long time and benefit the world population.

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