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Wonder walls

Environment Philippines

The extraordinary engineered rice terraces of Ifugao in the Philippines are in danger of final decay. But local governor Teddy Baguilat is determined to save them, as Judith Cruickshank discovers.

To be elected governor of a province which includes a site frequently referred to as the eighth wonder of the world might be considered a plus. But for Teddy Baguilat, governor of Ifugao, which lies some 320km north of the Philippines capital Manila, the amazing Ifugao rice terraces are a headache as well as a source of pride.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, the terraces now, less than a decade later, are on its endangered list.

Spread over an area of more than 150,000ha, in places they ascend hillsides up to 900m high, to an altitude of 1,525m above sea level, the limit at which rice can be grown successfully.

Following the contours of the Cordillera mountains, the stone retaining walls were built up with primitive tools using boulders and rip rap carried down in the river beds.

Simply as a demonstration of engineering techniques, the American Society of Civil Engineers declared them to be an 'outstanding engineering marvel'. The cluster of terraces in the Batad district is described as having 'an amphitheatre-like form and almost vertical terrace ponds'.

Opinions vary as to how old they are. Some sources date them as far back as 1000BC. Few doubt that they are at least 1,500 years old.

Responsibility for them passed to the provincial government last year. A masterplan for restoration and preservation was drawn up by a Philippine government commission after UNESCO added terrace clusters to the roster of living cultural heritage sites. This was taken forward in 1998 by a Task Force before it was dissolved in 2002.

Baguilat is determined to save the terraces, and just as importantly the lifestyle that engendered and supports them.

He is far from the usual idea of a provincial governor. Young and energetic, he even took part in the traditional rice planting last December, bravely donning the rather brief traditional Ifugao costume. This, he says, was some of the hardest work he has ever done. 'I thought my arms would drop off, ' he recalls. His reward was a considerable number of words in the Philippine press.

Manila-based consultancy, Semper, owned jointly by local firms DCCD, SMDI and the UK's Halcrow, has been commissioned to produce a marketing and communications plan for the terraces, as a first step to providing a long term solution.

Baguilat has also asked UNESCO to help with funding of a GIS survey, to determine how many of the terraces are still being worked, what proportion have been abandoned, the rate of deforestation in the watersheds and the extent of quarrying. He is also vigorously lobbying other institutions and donors for help with this first and vital step.

Semper general manager Luisa Delfin is leading the team preparing the marketing and communications plan. She is a more than convincing advocate for the rice terraces, but is clearly aware that convincing potential donors is unlikely to be an easy task, especially given that so little concrete progress seemed to have been made under past regimes.

The plan focuses on six areas, the first and probably the most vital being a full technical assessment of the terraces to determine their structural condition plus a hydrological survey of the irrigation channels and the watershed.

The Ifugao constructed sophisticated irrigation systems, water being essential to flood the terraces during the growing season. Water was frequently brought great distances via stone-lined channels or even aqueducts made from hollowed out bamboo or logs. Release of water may also have been used to bring down boulders needed for the construction of new terraces.

The assessment includes environmental and socio-economic studies, particularly important as many of the younger generation of Ifugao have shunned the hard work of planting and maintaining the terraces for life in the cities.

And, as Governor Baguilat explains, there is a real economic gap to be bridged. 'The terraces produce only one crop a year, not even enough for local needs. When they tried to produce two crops using fertiliser, the fertiliser killed the fish which are another important part of the local diet.'

There has to be another reliable source of income, he says.

This could be agriculture, tourism, or traditional Ifugao handicraft skills such as weaving and wood carving. But a better road network would be needed to make economic sense of any of these.

The plan will estimate the cost of conserving and restoring the terraces, try to identify potential donors, and investigate the legal and institutional structures required to manage funds. From this Semper will suggest what the next steps should be.

There is a real sense of urgency. Governor Baguilat calculates that unless something very positive is done quickly, the terraces have just 10 to 15 years of life. And he sees it as vital for funding that potential donors should see real action soon.

He is talking to groups of young Ifugao, asking what would be needed to tempt them back to their home villages, and the community is seemingly willing to embrace change if it will preserve the essentials of their lifestyle.

It is to be hoped that the world community will see fit to find the money necessary to save what is a genuine engineering marvel and a tribute to the skills of the ancient Ifugao people.

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