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‘8th Wonder  of the World’

In the first week of May, my wife, Lina, traveled 16 hours by bus from Manila to Tabuk, the capital of Kalinga Province. Kalinga is one of the provinces home to the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the rice terraces of northern Luzon’s mountain Cordillera.

Why the Eighth Wonder? The landscape of irrigated terraces carved into steep mountainsides is stunning. The terraces cover 20,000 hectares, almost 50,000 acres, and they once stretched from Cagayan Province on the northeastern flank of the Cordillera Mountains to as far south as Quezon Province, an even vaster area.

Indigenous farmers have built the stone and earth walls over the past 2,000 years. They also developed an intricate irrigation system that channels water from forests above the terraces to feed all the terraces below. This forest, or “muyong,” is managed communally to assure the water supply. Tribal farmers have been growing rice at over 1,000 meters for centuries using sophisticated traditional practices.

In 1995, UNESCO declared five of the most spectacular terrace areas a World Heritage Site, the first site ever designated as a “living cultural landscape.” UNESCO wrote, “The fruit of knowledge handed down from one generation to the next, and the expression of sacred traditions and a delicate social balance, the terraces have helped to create a landscape of great beauty that expresses the harmony between humankind and the environment.”

So the terraces are not only an engineering masterpiece, they are perhaps the ultimate expression of the theme of relationship that has been the subject of my columns about the Philippines: the relationship between the farmers who must manage this system together, and also between them and their environment.

The mountain tribes have a warlike past. They fought off invaders from the lowlands, including the Spaniards, who never conquered the Cordillera during their 333 years of colonial empire. They fought each other, too, and they also reached peace accords. Once on a hike in the area of Batad, our guide showed us a place set aside for meetings in time of conflict, where warring peoples could talk with a guarantee of safety. The tribes were able to work together in creating and maintaining the terraces.

Over centuries, they have developed more than 300 rice varieties, some unique to the Cordillera, others found only there and in Madagascar and Indonesia. These rice varieties have a broad genetic base. They grow in cold climates, store well, resist pests and disease, require little fertilizer (and all organic), cook easily and taste wonderful. It’s no wonder the farmers prefer their traditional varieties! (If you’d like to try some, Mariposa Museum sells several varieties in the gift shop.)

Lina traveled north in May to visit with some of the farmers who grow this rice and market it through an economic initiative supported by a Filipino non-governmental organization called Rice, Inc. From Tabuk, she traveled two hours by car over a bumpy and rocky road to a village called Pasil. As president of Rice Inc.’s Board of Directors, Lina awarded certificates to rice farmers in the Adopt a Rice Terrace program. Each farmer received the equivalent of $100 to rehabilitate their terraces. Rice Inc. raises money from sponsors throughout the Philippines and abroad to assist in this project.

Keeping the terraces intact, and giving these subsistence farmers an incentive to continue growing their traditional rice, will maintain not only the landscape but also an ancient way of life and the heirloom rice on which it depends. Without an economic incentive such as a market for their rice, fewer and fewer farmers will farm the terraces; young people will not learn how to grow rice from their elders, but will instead travel to the cities; and, over time, this whole intricate system will fall into decay. You can read more about this project at www.heirloomrice.com.

During her five hours in Pasil, Lina was invited to a healing ceremony for a sick child; 150 people gathered to eat together, then dance and hear speeches. Lina was asked to speak and also to sing. She did not deflect the invitation, but instead gave an impromptu speech and sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” in Tagalog! Can you imagine 150 people gathering in one of our yards to eat and dance together to help a child get well? And inviting a stranger (some thought Lina was Japanese!) to perform? And the stranger accepting the invitation? This is one more example of the importance of community and relationship in Filipino culture.

Lina arrived in Pasil at 10 a.m.. She left at 3 p.m. in the car back to Tabuk and took the 5 p.m. bus to Manila. She got in at 6 a.m.. All in a day’s work!

David Blair of Harrisville is the cofounder and former executive director of the Mariposa Museum & World Culture Center in Peterborough. He writes about his travels and life the Philippines.

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