IT WAS during my college days, more than three decades ago, that I first heard the phrase, “Save the Rice Terraces.”
And like anybody who has been visiting the Cordillera interior, I have seen the ever-increasing number of abandoned rice terraces along mountain slopes throughout the years.
This sad reality continues to this very day.
So what does the phrase, “Save the rice terraces,” mean to me?
“Like stairways to the sky,” these engineering rice production wonders were carved on mountain slopes by our ancient Filipino forefathers with crude tools and their bare hands.
Some of these structures are eroding, no longer cared for or caressed by current-day farmers the way their ancestors have done.
The rest of the rice terraces are either returned to the forest or put to other uses like housing or vegetable farming.
The value of heirloom rice was not fully appreciated. Some farmers, needful of cash, even had it sold like ordinary rice to the National Food Authority and at the local market.
The sad reality reminded me of a memorial inscription that I read years earlier in Banaue, Ifugao about the rice terraces being found in Aurora Province, Cagayan, all the six Provinces of the Cordillera, and some parts of the Ilocos Region in earlier times.
Much of the rice terraces disappeared from the landscape as farmers continue to migrate to urban centers or other areas in search of better livelihood. They left behind them, their distinct and rich cultural legacies and traditions which could be totally lost to their children forever.
There is no doubt that with the loss go the importance of hundreds of heirloom rice varieties that were once grown in the rice terraces; and the roles of these structures to the local climate, environmental quality, rural development, and overall quality survival in the Cordillera and Northern Luzon.
In the 1960s-70s, it was notable that where the rice terraces are, there you find communities and residents caring for their local watersheds for irrigation and potable use.
The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) acknowledged that the Cordillera is the watershed of Northern Luzon.
In the rainiest region of the country, watersheds in the Cordillera mountain ranges of Northern Luzon sustain the flow of water into the power and irrigation dams, prevents flashfloods, siltation, and erosion that damages infrastructures, farms, and communities downstream.
These thoughts weighed heavily on my mind when I met a former officemate at the Philippine National Volunteer Coordinating Agency, Ms. Maria Victoria (Vicky) Garcia in Sagada, Mountain Province in CY 2000. This time, she is the Director of Rice Inc., a non-government organization that partnered with the USA-based Eighth Wonder Inc. headed by Ms. Mary Hensley that implemented the Cordillera Heirloom Rice Project (CHRP).
During our meeting, Ms. Garcia informed me that through the CHRP, they are helping and encouraging the farmers and their communities preserve the distinct culture and traditions behind the sustainability of the rice terraces.
The project was an offshoot of Ms. Hensley’s master’ thesis study and later validated by researchers and experts from the academe in the USA.
To carry out their objectives at various levels of the value chain, the CHRP was implemented as “an enterprise of brave and sacrificing hearts.” It carried out its activities with meager resources, volunteerism, “sweat, blood, and tears.”
Soon, under the Project, provincial rice terraces cooperatives in Kalinga, Ifugao, and Mountain Province were organized and federated with an office in Banaue, Ifugao.
In the initial years of the Project, the members of the heirloom rice producers’ cooperatives were already working together in producing and the marketing of high-quality heirloom rice for export and home consumption.
The CHRP has put in place the necessary mechanisms and strategies for these activities in coordination with the Department of Agriculture-CAR, local government units (LGUs), academe, Agricultural Training Institute (ATI-CAR), Philippine Rice Research Institute (Philrice), and Philippine Postharvest Research and Mechanization (Philmech).
The project also enlisted the support of the National Irrigation Administration (NIA-CAR) for processing and transport support.
As a result, the value of heirloom rice was up-scaled, processed, packaged, and sold as a specialty food product at the local market twice its original value.
For export, an initial 869 kilograms of quality heirloom rice was shipped to Montana, USA in CY 2005. This dramatically rose to 17 tons in 2007, and 29 tons in 2013. Over 12 years, the project helped the farmers consolidate and sell nearly 200MT of heirloom rice, with farmers receiving over P12 million pesos. The heirloom rice continued to be exported to other parts of the USA and Canada until CY 2016.
RICE, Inc also sponsored an Adopt-A-Terrace program that offered a community and farmer- based solution for repairing damaged and severely eroding terraces.
From 2011 to the present, the NGO has distributed over 1 million pesos raised through private donations in the form of cash grants to 219 farmers. This included a terrace restoration campaign after typhoon Ompong and Rosita in 2018.
Critical aspects of the enterprise have taken shape especially the support of the private sector here and abroad, particularly the organization of professional chefs, international non-government organizations like Slow Food, governments (the White House exhibition of Cordillera heirloom rice), business organizations like Kellogg, hotels, restaurants, marketing organizations, and active media promotion in the USA. Heirloom rice from the Cordillera was also included in the arch of taste and heritage list through this enterprise.
The Cordillera Rice Terraces was featured on the cover and center pages of the National Geographic Magazine, and the Smithsonian sent a researcher to study and feature the rice terraces in its publications.
The success of the CHRP would have highlighted the 8 paradigms of DA Secretary, Dr. William (Manong Willy) Dar, “New Thinking in Agriculture” strategy, particularly the need to modernize agriculture, promotion of exports, farm consolidation and engaging the private sector, LGUs, and the academe in meaningful and productive partnerships.
However, the initiative failed to prosper arising from the failure of the government to fully appreciate its role in supporting and advancing a private-sector-led agricultural value chain development initiative.
According to Hensley, “had the DA-CAR/IRRI used their resources and expertise in support of the regional cooperative model, the synergy could have created a thriving domestic and global export market for heirloom rice.
“I still think about Kellogg’s proposal to buy 100 tons of Ominio sticky rice from Mountain Province and Ulikan/Minneangan varieties from Ifugao and Kalinga. This could only be done if all the stakeholders- farmers, government, and private sector entities worked together. What an incredible opportunity wasted,” she lamented.
In our concluding article, we shall present some reactions by Secretary Dar to this article.