Friday, 8 July 2011

Preview: The Banaue Rice Terrces

Take a random handful of some of the ancient Wonders on my list - let's have the Great Wall of China, the Parthenon in Greece, and the Colosseum. How many of these are still used for their original purpose? The Great Wall is no longer used to defend the realm, the Parthenon does not receive pagan worship, and slaves and animals are not currently being butchered at the Colosseum for Roman entertainment. Keep searching, and you may find some old cathedrals still used for Christian services, but that's about. Rewind back to 2000 years ago and you'll be hard pushed to find anything still serving its original function. No, a bunch of hippies dancing round Stonehenge once a year doesn't count.

The Banaue Rice Terraces are the exception. Estimated to have been started about 2000 years ago - we don't really know - they today still function just as they did "back in the day" - rice growing. Real, living mountain sculptures, they are two millennia of art as a happy by-product; that by using the mountain landscape as efficiently as possible to grow rice, something visually beautiful is created at the same time.

My travels, as I have clearly delineated, are to find what I think are the seven greatest man-made Wonders, and the Banaue Rice Terraces definitely push the limit of this definition. Many people ask me if natural wonders are included, and I tell them that they very definitely are not, if only because I simply don't know how you can compare a waterfall to a skyscraper, a mountain to statue or, hell, a sunset to a church. Natural wonders can be utterly spectacular, and probably more grand and impressive than anything mankind could ever come up with, but they of course lack the mark of human endeavour. The Pyramids may be just a fraction the size of Mount Everest (1.62% the height to be precise) but they were built and designed by human hands, 4500 years ago - that's half the spectacle. Natural wonders are a whole separate category. People then, if they are still listening, often ask me if I intend to go round all the world's natural wonders upon finishing the man-made ones, to which I just say, "Hell no." I do quite fancy living like a normal individual one day, rather than spend half my life running round the world looking at arbitrarily-defined "Wonders".

Anyway, the Banaue Rice Terraces are balanced on a very fine line between natural and man-made, as even UNESCO itself would agree. The rice terraces, as part of the greater area of rice terraces in the province, were one of the first locations to be added to a new category of UNESCO world heritage site in 1995 - a "Cultural Landscape". This is an area, defined broadly, as representing the "combined work of nature and of man" and was created specially to include sites that aren't wholly natural or cultural - i.e. man-made - in form. However, while on a special UNESCO list, they are nonetheless sufficiently man-made to warrant being on my own list. Mount Rushmore is simply a mountain with rock chiselled away to look like four faces, just as Borobudur is just a hill with a stone temple built around it, but both are clearly man-made. Likewise, the multiple horizontal terraces that line the kilometre-plus heights of the Banaue mountains are not naturally occurring, they are a result of mankind modifying the environment. In this case to grow rice, with beautiful results.

It is these beautiful results that may save the terraces, and makes them worth saving. For the modern world, albeit innocently, is now the greatest threat to their existence. Faced with a choice of continuing the manual labour of digging and growing just as generations before have done, or going into the city for the excitement (and money) of the modern world, most youngsters are choosing the city. It's the same story the world round, from crofting in the Scottish islands to traditional industries in Japan. People are people, and we might like the idea of them being traditional and rural and quaintly digging holes with wooden spades, but put yourself in their shoes and you can see that they maybe want a little more. Nonetheless, the world as whole loses out every time a traditional industry dies. Fortunately, for the Banaue Rice Terraces, there is something to the rescue - tourism.

Tourism, though much maligned for its destructive effects, may be the force to safeguard the rice terraces. Because tourism brings in money, and money is the modern saviour. The Ifugao province, of which Banaue is just one town of eleven, has high unemployment levels, high poverty levels and low life expectancy - no wonder the youth want to leave. But with UNESCO's recognition and with increased tourism, the Banaue Rice Terraces have become not just culturally valuable but economically valuable. And to maintain this economic boost, the rice terraces need to keep their spectacular beauty - and the best way to do this is to maintain traditional farming practices. I'm sure we're all too familiar with vicious circles, but here we have what could be described as a "rather nice" circle. Increased tourism means an increased chance of the protection and preservation of the Banaue Rice Terraces, which will continue the influx of tourists.

Still, there's not much room for complacency. 30% of terraces in the province have been abandoned, and ten years ago experts predicted that without help the value of the terraces would be lost. That disaster may have been dodged, but this is not a brick-and-mortar monument, this is a living, growing sculpture that needs maintenance - and one slack generation could end it. Let's not be that generation. Aside from its aesthetic beauty, the rice terraces are the only place in the Philippines' history that still exist and were built without foreign intervention. They need preserved, not just for mine and fellow tourists' eyes, but for the Filipino psyche.

I'll be visiting the Banaue Rice Terraces in about November, and will give a fuller account of it, plus my own impressions, then.

Reviewed 3rd December 2011.

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