Tourism killing world's eighth wonder

The Banaue Rice Terraces in the northern Philippines are considered as the world's eighth wonder. Long plagued by an earthworm menace, this UNESCO World Heritage site is now faced with a new, more dangerous threat: tourism.

by Maurice Malanes

THUMB-SIZED and two-foot-long giant earthworms that burrow deep into the Banaue Rice Terraces in the northern Philippines have been blamed for the deterioration of the world's eighth wonder, now a UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage site. But a new study says a bigger culprit is tourism.

Actually an old problem, the earthworm menace has worsened since the early 1990s when water for the rice terraces began to dwindle. Some 300 kilometres north of Manila, the rice terraces are carved around steep mountains in Banaue town in Ifugao Province, one of six upland provinces in Luzon island's Cordillera region.

Earthworms reproduce more with less water. The more earthworms there are, the more water is lost. As the topsoil dries up with the lack of water, the earthworms go deeper into the soil as they seek areas that are still moist. Water seeps through the holes earthworm bore, causing the soil and terrace walls to dry up and crack.

So where does tourism figure in the problem? The new study by Wilfredo Alangui of the private Tebtebba Foundation, a Philippine-based global policy research centre, pointed to tourism as the main factor in the fast extraction of forest resources, which happen to be the watershed of the Banaue Rice Terraces. 'Tourism has encouraged the commercial production of woodcarvings and handicrafts and this helped deplete local forest resources,' said the study. The study added that with a highly commercialised woodcarving industry, even Ifugao's indigenous forest and watershed management system is disintegrating.

The study cited Banaue's muyong (clan or family-managed woodlot), which local folk traditionally use for basic needs such as firewood, medicine, and housing material.

Part of the muyong management tradition is carefully selecting a tree to cut for a specific purpose. '(But) different species of trees are now more frequently cut for woodcarving purposes,' the study said.

Tourism also has a direct impact on Banaue's problem of shortage of water. 'In the Poblacion (central town), the community now has to share water with the growing number of hotels, lodges and restaurants servicing tourists who come to the area,' the study said.

Thus, whatever water left is enough only to irrigate the paddies in the higher tiers, which are more adjacent to the springs and creeks at the higher elevations of the mountains that feed the rice terraces. No water is left for the lower paddies, which eventually dry up in summer, leaving farmers unable to plant these fields.

Land conversion

With tourism, some Ifugao folk have converted their rice paddies into residential lots where lodging houses and display shops are built.

The study cited cases in the villages of Bangaan, Poitan and Bocos, all in Banaue, where farmers either built traditional Ifugao houses for lodging or sold their rice paddies for residential and commercial purposes.

The study found several reasons such as shortage of water and the absence of people to tend, maintain and sustain the fields because the persons expected to take care of the fields have become either white-collar professionals or entrepreneurs in tourism-related industries.

Another case was a family in the Poblacion which abandoned a cluster of four ricefields because it could not afford the repair and restoration of terrace walls that eroded after a strong typhoon. The family shifted to the woodcarving business, leaving the ricefields idle up to now.

Threats to cooperative farming

A cooperative farming practice called ug-ugbo for women and bachang for men has helped sustain and nurture the rice terraces for ages. But this practice is being eroded as the money economy invades Ifugao, thanks to the well-promoted tourism industry, said the study.

Under the cooperative practice, neighbouring farmers would go voluntarily as a group to one field to clear weeds, plant or harvest rice, and repair eroded terrace walls or irrigation canals. The owner of the field would just provide the food and is expected to help when another neighbour needs help in the future.

Not anymore. According to the study, workers who now help in the fields or in terrace wall and irrigation repairs are paid either in kind or in cash, depending on what the workers ask for.

The demise of Ifugao's cooperative farming tradition has led to rising labour costs, which the ordinary Ifugao farmer can hardly afford. This helps reduce the attractiveness of rice terrace farming for many locals.

As a result, more and more Ifugao folk have completely given up farming in favour of tourism-related jobs such as posing before the tourist's camera for a fee.

To meet the needs and demands of visitors and tourists, some Ifugao farmers have shifted to planting vegetables. But this shift demands the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides which, the study warned, could damage the fertility and ecology of the rice terraces.

Terraces Commission

The government of Philippine ex-president Fidel Ramos formed in February 1994 the Ifugao Terraces Commission (ITC) to 'save' the threatened rice terraces.

The ITC's masterplan includes restoring and rehabilitating the terraces by mobilising local government units and the various government agencies.

But the study found that many Ifugao folk were not aware of the ITC and that the few who were familiar with the body hardly appreciated what the ITC was doing.

ITC executive director Juan Dait, Jr. defended the ITC's mandate. An Ifugao himself, the official in an interview said his office has been doing its best to 'address holistically' problems plaguing the famed rice terraces.

The ITC has since been researching on possible antidotes for the destructive earthworms, and one potential control discovered, said Dait, was neem. 'Neem is the most promising because, aside from killing earthworms, it can kill 20 kinds of insects,' he said. The problem is that neem is not endemic to Ifugao.

The ITC took 2,000 neem seedlings from the University of the Philippines-Los Banos, south of Manila, for propagation in Ifugao Province - both as earthworm control and as reforestation materials.

Dait acknowledges the 'negative effects' of tourism on Ifugao culture and values. He also admits tourism's impact on resource-extractive industries such as woodcarving which, in turn, is taking a heavy toll on Ifugao's forest resources.

But Dait is in a tightrope situation: His office cannot just say it must stop tourism or the woodcarving industry in order to save the rice terraces. 'We cannot just stop the livelihood of the woodcarvers,' he said, adding this is just like killing them. 'Neither can we stop the tourism industry.'

Woodcarvers themselves, he said, have pledged to work with the environment and natural resources department to reforest vital watersheds.

Noting that farmers hardly benefit from tourism, the ITC, said Dait, has also proposed a trust fund for farmers. The trust fund comes from tourism-related industries such as hotels, inns and restaurants.

Dait explains how the fund can be generated. 'For example, the actual daily occupancy rate of an inn is P150 (US$3.90), the inn keeper can charge P160 (US$4.21), and the P10 (US$0.26) goes to the trust fund,' he said. 'A cola drink may cost P8.50 (US$0.22) but a restaurant owner can sell it at P9.00 (US$0.23), so the P0.50 (US$0.013) goes to the fund.'

The local trust fund plus other funds the ITC can access from national government agencies and foreign donors will finance the repair of eroded rice terrace walls and destroyed irrigation facilities.

Dait revealed that aside from UNESCO, the ITC's network includes two US-based foundations - Green Globe and the World Monument Watch, which both specialise in helping to save endangered historical sites.

Sincere in its vision and mission to help save the world's 'eighth wonder', the ITC, however, has a great deal of expectations to meet. It has to ensure, for example, that it properly spends on the terraces' rehabilitation every peso or dollar accessed from local and international funders. This is to dispel some public perceptions that the new Commission is just another milking cow.

Ecotourism as marketing gimmick

Coming under a new package in recent years, tourism now has a new prefix, 'eco' - for ecology or ecologically friendly. It is under this package that Ifugao Province's famed rice terraces had been promoted under Ramos.

But can ecotourism, which is also wrapped under the 'sustainable development' catchphrase, save the world's eighth wonder, now a UNESCO World Heritage site? Tebtebba Foundation's Alangui doesn't think so.

In the Tebtebba study about the impact of tourism on Ifugao's resource management and culture, Alangui exposed ecotourism as 'more of a marketing tool than an ecological necessity or a condition of sustainable development.'

True enough, ecotourism, which is supposed to take into heart environmental matters, has proved to be a lucrative business worldwide.

Alangui cited facts and figures by the Manila-based private research centre, Ibon Foundation. From US$12 billion in revenues in 1988 for less developed countries, ecotourism now accounts for 25% of all leisure trips worldwide.

President Joseph Estrada's government has promoted tourism for Ifugao under yet another package - agri-tourism. But Alangui says regardless of the type of tourism being promoted in Ifugao, the government is clearly 'exerting all efforts' to lure tourists the world over 'at all cost.'

Alangui predicted that Ifugao folk in the next few years may yet see an increase of 'high-impact tourism activities' and their 'attendant effects on culture and the environment'.

Commercialised culture

Tourism, said Alangui, has commercialised Ifugao culture and corrupted local values. He cited how elderly folk, in search of easy money, would pose in their traditional garb before tourists' cameras.

Many Ifugao folk now prefer tourism-related jobs such as weaving handicrafts, woodcarving, and guiding tourists to tending the rice terraces, he said.

With tourism, Ifugao folk have been selling their antique heirlooms such as beads and religious icons such as the bulul or rice god. Even traditional houses are being sold.

Tourism has been eyed to save Ifugao, one of the country's poorest provinces, from the poverty rut. But Alangui's study showed that ever since the late ex-dictator Ferdinand Marcos aggressively promoted tourism in Ifugao in the 1970s, local folk's lives have hardly improved.

Farmers left out

Tourism may have benefited a few Ifugao entrepreneurs in the hotel, inn, restaurant and entertainment business. But tourism, said Alangui, hardly benefited the farmers who maintain and sustain the rice terraces. In fact, tourism, he said, has made life harder for most Ifugao folk. His study showed, for example, how local folk suffer from the soaring cost of prime commodities brought about by the influx of tourists.

A life made harder by tourism has forced many ordinary Ifugao folk to migrate to and seek better fortunes in other places such as the provinces of Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino, and Baguio City, all in the northern Philippines. The rice terraces are continually abandoned as a result, said Alangui.

Pressure on resources

Tourism's pressure on the very lives and culture of Ifugao folk and on forest resources (i.e., tourism-motivated woodcarving), according to Alangui, will eventually kill the rice terraces, the main driving force behind the tourism industry.

'Eventually, the very reason that made the tourism industry flourish in Ifugao will be gone forever, driving the tourists away, and leaving the people with whatever is left of their culture, environment and dignity,' said Alangui.

But Dait, is upbeat about the future of the province's 'stairways to heaven'.

Land use plan

The key to saving the rice terraces, not only in Banaue town, but in eight other neighbouring towns, says Dait, is encouraging these towns to map out their development through a 'comprehensive land use plan'.

With a land use plan, a town can assign specific zones for particular purposes. Dait says, for example, rice terraces cannot be converted into residential or commercial districts.

Alangui's study notes how some rice terraces in Banaue have been converted into residential and commercial zones. Under a land use plan, watersheds, says Dait, can also be protected.

The ITC last year had facilitated workshops on comprehensive land use planning and at least three towns - Banaue, Lamut, and Mayoyao - are about to complete their municipal land use plans. The other towns are catching up.

Dait thus foresees Ifugao becoming the first province in the Cordillera to have each town with a comprehensive land use plan by the end of this year.

Aside from this land use plan, Dait says UNESCO has initially okayed US$50,000 to fund a 'geographic information system' (GIS) mapping project for Banaue. Using computers, GIS can be used to monitor, for example, what area of the terraces was eroded or converted into residentials. He also reveals how the ITC has helped encourage the Ifugao State College of Agriculture and Forestry (ISCAF) to motivate its agriculture students to learn the art of terracing from Ifugao farmers.

'This is to ensure that the age-old engineering skill that built the rice terraces won't vanish,' Dait says.

The ITC official enumerates other ITC projects which, he says, can encourage Ifugao farmers to protect and sustain the rice terraces. These are reviving blacksmithing, promoting a native rice variety as a 'premium' commercial product, and rewriting a social studies curriculum for Ifugao gradeschools.

Funding a community-based industry such as blacksmithing, says Dait, is one way of helping local folk produce appropriate farm tools to help them in their rice terrace farming.

The ITC is also encouraging Ifugao folk to market their native rice called tinawon at a 'profitable' price of P55 (US$1.44) or more per kilo. According to Dait, Ifugao farmers can sell their traditional rice for more pesos and in exchange they can buy cheaper commercial rice, which is sold at P20 (US$0.52) per kilo.

The rewriting of a social studies curriculum for Ifugao grade schools will integrate Ifugao cultural values such as cooperative farming practices and indigenous engineering skills such as carving terraces. Dait says the Ifugao Division of the Department of Education, Culture and Sports collaborated with the ITC in coming out last January with 'indigenised learning guides' for grade VI and II pupils. Learning guides for other graders will follow.

In trying to save the rice terraces and Ifugao's threatened culture, Dait says the approach must be 'holistic and integrated' and 'the stakeholders themselves must be involved'. But private groups such as Alangui's outfit and many Ifugao folk themselves continue to challenge the ITC and concerned government agencies to match their rhetoric with action. (Third World Resurgence No. 103, March 1999)

Maurice Malanes is a member of the research staff at Tebtebba Foundation.