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Stairway to the Sky

Stairway to the Sky

 Stairway to the Sky


ITS total length is said to be ten times that of the Great Wall of China. Some say that if its sections were placed end to end, it would reach 14,000 miles [20,000 km]—or halfway around the earth! Some even call it the eighth wonder of the world. Nevertheless, many people have never heard of this awesome sight in the Philippines. What is it? The stairway to the sky, the rice terraces of the Cordillera Central. Tucked away in the heights of Luzon, the terraces are an amazing display of beauty and ingenuity.

Why were they built? The precipitous mountains of the Cordilleras are so steep that they could normally not be used for farming. The incline of some slopes exceeds 50 percent. But ancient farmers were not deterred by this. At an elevation of 4,000 feet [1,200 m] or more, they carved thousands of terraces into the sides of the verdant mountains. Sometimes 25, 30, or more are stacked like a stairway reaching skyward. And each terrace is a cultivated pond field, lined with earthen dikes and retained with stone walls. Most are planted with rice and follow the contour of the mountains; some slopes are concave, others convex.

Of course, agricultural terraces are hardly unique to the Philippines. Terraced fields are found in other countries too, particularly in Southeast Asia, South America, and some parts of Africa. But in many ways the rice terraces of the Philippines are unique. Mario Movillon, of the International Rice Research Institute, told Awake!: “The Philippine rice terraces are on a much larger scale than terraces in other countries. They cover a big part of the mountains of the Cordillera.” A large proportion are in Ifugao Province. One cannot help but be impressed by the sheer number of terraces. They add a sculptured beauty to the natural flow of the mountains.

A Wonder of the World?

Is it an exaggeration to call them the eighth wonder of the world? Well, consider this fact: They may be the largest single  agricultural project in human history. In December 1995, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization decided to include the Ifugao rice terraces in its World Heritage List. As a result, the terraces are now equated with other sites of great historical and cultural value, such as the Taj Mahal in India, the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, the Great Wall of China, and Angkor Wat of Cambodia. But unlike other ancient construction projects, the terraces were evidently built by community effort—not slave labor. Also, they are not an abandoned site but are still actively cultivated by the Ifugao.

If you visit the terraces, you can personally experience their breathtaking beauty. You will see people working in the terraces, which range from a few square feet to 100,000 square feet [10,000 sq m]. Some workers are poking the soil with sticks to get water to seep in, singing as they go. Others are planting rice, transplanting seedlings, or harvesting their crop. If you visit when new rice is coming up, the terraces make a beautiful mosaic of varying hues of green.

Wet varieties of rice cannot survive without large amounts of water. So an intricate irrigation system is in place. Mountain streams are tapped, and water is sluiced to the terraces by a complex system of canals and bamboo tubes. Driven by gravity, a reliable supply of water is distributed from terrace to terrace. Far from being a dead monument, the terraces truly are a living wonder!

Who Built Them?

It goes without saying that these thousands of terraces could not have been built overnight, or  even in a few years. Remember, this construction was done without any modern tools or machinery. It is therefore believed that the terrace building began, at the very least, several hundred years ago.

Some archaeologists even believe that the work began as far back as 2,000 years ago. Anthropologists suggest that the builders migrated from northern Indochina or from Indonesia and settled in Luzon, bringing with them their wet-rice terracing culture. After the terraces were built, newer levels were added gradually.

How to Enjoy Them

Let us now take an imaginary tour of the terraces. First we take an air-conditioned bus from Manila to the town of Banaue, Ifugao. The trip takes about nine hours. Now we are faced with a number of options. We might decide to walk, take a tricycle (a motorcycle with a sidecar), or ride in a jeepney to various points of interest. And if we have the will and the stamina, we might want to take one of the trails that go into mountain areas that are accessible only on foot. These offer some of the most spectacular views of the terraces and give one a better feel for the vastness of this man-made wonder.

We opt to take a jeepney to the village of Batad. It takes us more than an hour of riding on the rough mountain road to reach the seven-mile [12 km] point. From here on, we hike on a footpath. It takes us through a variety of mountain vegetation as we gradually climb up to a ridge between two higher points. (There is a shorter route, but it is very steep and is not recommended for those not used to strenuous climbing.) From the ridge we slowly descend to Batad on a narrow trail.

After having walked for a couple of hours, enjoying the fresh mountain air along the way, we finally reach our destination. Here the terraces present a feast for our eyes. Since Batad is located against a concave mountain slope, the terraces are in the shape of a huge amphitheater. They paint an interesting pattern of lines, one level on top of another, like a stairway to the sky. As we approach the village, we see the old-style Ifugao houses, which dot the village like giant grass-covered mushrooms.

The people are friendly and extend a greeting to us as we pass them working in the terraces. You may be amazed as you watch the local people walk agilely along the edge of a rock terrace wall, using it as their path to get from point to point. Others climb from level to level with the surefootedness of a mountain goat, using strategically placed rocks as their stairway. A closer look reveals that they are barefoot. And all around them is this spectacular view of mountain terraces—a rare instance where man’s building work fits into and complements the environment.

Does it sound interesting? Then, by all means, if you visit the Philippines, do not pass up the opportunity to see the stairway to the sky, a living wonder that you will not easily forget.

[Box/Pictures on page 18]

Saving the Terraces

Despite the present beauty of the terraces, their continued existence is threatened. Many of the younger generation of mountain inhabitants are shying away from planting rice and are looking for employment in other areas. This could create a shortage of skilled farmers to maintain the terraces.

Aurora Ammayao, a native of Ifugao associated with the International Rice Research Institute, told Awake! of another danger: “The terraces should always be kept wet, but now there is a water shortage as a result of deforestation.” The drying up of the watershed would mean the destruction of the terraces.

Natural disasters occasionally cause problems too. In 1990 an earthquake destroyed a number of sections of the terraces when whole mountainsides came tumbling down.

Steps are being taken, though, to forestall the disappearance of the terraces. An executive order was issued in 1996 to create the Ifugao Terraces Commission. Its task? The maintenance of the terraces, including the supporting water system and the area’s culture, as well as the restoration of any damaged areas.

The inclusion of the terraces in the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) further commits the Philippine government to preserving the site. And according to Jean Tuason, deputy executive director at UNESCO’s Manila office, “UNESCO may also provide technical and financial assistance for the protection and conservation of the rice terraces.”

[Map on page 16]

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Cordillera Central

 [Full-page picture on page 17]