Long before there were environmentalists in the Philippines, the Igorots (a collective name for the tribes of the Cordillera) practiced sustainable forest and farming practices.
Many of them still do, high in the mountains comfortably nestled upon the lofty heights of the Cordillera mountain range, where the tribes hold the key to information that can unlock a model of conservation. For them it is not about trees, animals, and plants; it is a way of life. It is a life that provides a playing and training ground for their children, and as they nurture the land, they are nurtured by it. It is their wealth.
The indigenous Igorot practice the development and management of centuries-old tayans, lakons and muyung/pinugos — woodlots. These indigenous technologies are as old as their rice terraces. The famed Banaue rice terraces, for one, has been irrigated by brooks and springs gushing out from muyungs and pinugos for some 2,000 years.
The same is true to the rice terraces of the Bontocs in Maligong and those of the Iaplais in Sagada and Besao which are watered by tayans and lakons, respectively.
Conservation is not new to the Igorot families of the Philippines. Family traditions among indigenous peoples have played a role in the cultural and biological diversity practices of the environment. The indigenous people account for most of the world’s cultural diversity and that many of the areas of the highest biological diversity on the planet are inhabited by indigenous people.
Among the Igorots, a system of blood ties, collective responsibility, heredity, litigation, and indemnity provides the bond that keeps the people together. However, many laws have been passed that undermine the life, caretakership, and knowledge of the Igorot as a whole, through disinheriting them: first through Spanish colonization, then American, and in modern times, the Filipino government.
Two thousand years ago, the Ifugaos carved out, by hand, terraces creating farms from the mountain sides, until this day, a practice that has become a part of their daily lives. They do not consider themselves as owners of the land, but as caretakers.
Among Ifugao tribes, muyungs or pinugos are located above the rice terraces. If someone wants access to the resources, he or she has to ask permission; when permission is granted, the person who has benefited from the resources contributes toward the environmental balance of the muyung by clearing an area of weeds before leaving. The exchange is one of obligation and responsibility, not money for the use of this man-made landscape of alternating woodlots and rice paddies.
Muyungs are noteworthy features of Ifugao families. Muyungs are woodlots that are privately owned by way of inheritance, although there are also communally owned muyungs. Most often, it is the youngest daughter who inherits the muyung.
This practice is believed best because the older members of the family are present to help in the conservation of the muyung until the youngest is of age and can decide what she will do to manage the muyung. And so the customary laws were set by the elders a long time ago that in case the daughter does not marry, she will have a place to get her timber, fuel, and other house needs. Muyungs are seldom sold, except in dire financial need.
The Ifugao families know that with the development, preservation, and management of a muyung comes water to irrigate rice fields and vegetable plots, food for the table, timber for shelter, medicine for the sick, firewood for cooking, and natural resources for customary and cultural practices.
The famed Banaue rice terraces are dependent on the muyungs for irrigation. Below all muyungs are rice terraces known as kaingin or habal — swidden farms, which are temporary plots of land that are maintained by cutting back and burning off the vegetative cover. This system allows water from the muyung springs and brooks to irrigate rice fields and prevents topsoil erosion. Cutting or harvesting of the trees is done strictly on a selective basis, as widescale cutting is not allowed.
The elders of families and clans are the ones who are authorized to choose and mark the trees that can be cut. Men do the cutting, but children help cut branches of fallen trees, from which they clean off the twigs to bring home as firewood. Planting is done by all family or clan members.
Family members, including children, regularly weed and prune their muyungs as a part of the regular upkeep, but most of the work is done by the women. Violations of customary laws, and related regulations call for strict penalties and fines.
Today, some parts of the muyungs are being turned into small areas for vegetable production because many families are in need of cash. Many fruit trees are also being integrated to provide family income.
The UNDP considers the agricultural technology of the Ifugao as a fine model that should be replicated elsewhere, and no local conservation initiative could afford to ignore it. However, just as many of the features are not apparent to the unaware observer, so too is the system of belief, that gave birth to the Ifugao conservation practices.