Tuesday, February 01, 2005

In Awe Of Batad

I have been fortunate to visit the Cordillera mountains of northern Luzon, Philippines, on three occasions. The last time was in May 2003 with Roli and Christine when we made the lung-pumping trek to Batad. You can get a sense of what we witnessed from this and this. Batad is the site of perhaps the most perfect of the incredible rice terraces across the region - a natural ampitheatre out of which the Ifugao people have literally carved vertical gardens that have been called the "stairways to the heavens". They have created one of the oldest granary cultures anywhere in the world. I remember carrying a bulol, the Ifugao's rice god idol that guards against evil forest spirits, as a present for a friend halfway across Asia. I wonder where it lives now.

These reminiscences are prompted by a "Letter from Philippines" by Tibor Krausz printed in the Guardian Weekly. There are a few infelicities, such as his over-romanticised view of "
traditional communities of a few dozen families shielded from modernity by stern magnificent mountain ranges". Anyone who knows anything about the economy and political ecology of the Cordilleras understands the ways in which "modernity" and capitalist development have penetrated the livelihoods of the Ifugao people. But Krausz is struck by the sheer scale of human endeavour in the same way as I was:
The rice terraces of Northern Luzon in the Philippines are the pyramids of agriculture or the Hanging Gardens of Banaue, if you will. If lined up, Banaue's terraces would outspan the Great Wall of China. And unlike other old wonders of engineering, the terraces are still in the making after two millennia. Employing spades and digging sticks, countless generations of Ifugao farmers have cultivated rice on thousands of paddies hugging mountainsides. Constantly guarding them against natural erosion, they have fortified terraces with packed-earth and loose-stone retaining walls, supporting an elaborate system of dykes.
There is something else here as well. Nearly all the great monuments of Southeast Asian civilisation - Angkor Wat in Cambodia or the Borobudur temple complex in Java or Ayutthaya in Thailand - were the products of centralised states with highly stratified divisions of labour. The Ifugao rice terraces, by contrast, were built and are maintained by very loosely organised
social groups for whom cooperation and the operation of collective kinship obligations are paramount. This observation is not to meant minimise the role of social conflict; blood feuds remain a common means for resolving disputes and social stratification is based on accumulation of rice and the prestige that goes with it. But the cooperative principle drives the exigencies of survival most of the time. In this, as in much else, the people who built the rice terraces in the Cordilleras - with the richness of their indigenous knowledge - have much to teach the development experts and other charlatans of modernisation.


Post a Comment

<< Home