Rice Farming Among Philippine Indigenous Peoples Still A Woman’s World – OpEd


Rice production in the Cordillera Region in northern Philippines is still a woman’s domain. From selecting the seeds to storing the grains in the granary, women play the major role. The significance of this role in maintain- ing the high status of women in the society has been undermined by the intro- duction of cash crops, which has shifted the major role in production to males. This also means the loss of practices that have ensured that generations of indigenous peoples have remained self-reliant and self-sustaining in meeting their basic food needs.

Irrigated rice production is the main livelihood of many villages in the Cordillera and particularly for the people of the Mountain Province. The sus- tained production yields of rice in Bontoc, Mountain Province through hun- dreds of years. The interplay of technical and socio-cultural prac- tices seems to have made this kind of farming sustainable. The combination of green and animal manure, the availability of water, the correct reading of the biophysical signs for proper planting times and the socio-cultural regula- tions of the indigenous village leadership help to produce food for a signifi- cant portion of the population on a sustained basis.

This is according to a paper by Ms. Victoria T. Corpuz, Executive Director of Tebtebba Foundation, Inc. (Indigenous Peoples’ International Center for Policy Research and Education) .

Women do most of the work from seedbed preparation,  irrigation-canal cleaning,  seeding/sowing rice-field preparation, transplanting,  weeding, watering,  bird/pest control, and  harvesting.

Rice production starts with seedbed preparation at the end of the rainy season. The seedbed may be a small plot near the rice fields or home (the latter location makes for easier monitoring). It may also be a portion of the rice field itself. Still others may use their mountain garden. Sowing immedi- ately follows, either by broadcasting the seeds or by laying them in panicles. This is done by the women. Being the “experts in broadcasting and give their services free to those who request them”.

In some villages, the start of the sowing season calls for the declaration of a village holiday. In one particular village, at the start of a two-day holiday, a woman of prestige is assigned the task of opening this phase by sowing the first seeds in her seedbed after which she will confine herself to her house and fast for a day . After the holiday, the others start sowing.

Inspection of irrigation canals and dams is also done  by men and women, during this period in order to assess any damage and thus prepare for the materials, labor and tools needed . The different irrigators’ associations will have to par- ticipate in the repairs and cleaning of the canals and dams. As the seeds are germinating, and the conveyance of water is assured, land preparation starts.

At this time, which is the end of the rainy season, the field is flooded. In water-rich areas, the field would have been left flooded since the end of the last harvest season. This is rare nowadays. The field may have been planted to a second non- rice crop, like sweet camote, and so the soil is upturned and dry. In this case, the water is directed to flood it. The surrounding areas are cleaned to ward off rats. Weeds are removed and mixed into the soil by women.

 Sunflowers leaves and stalks are also commonly added in as green manure. All these, together with the rice stubble, are plowed in. If a carabao can be used and is available, the turning of the soil becomes easier and faster. But for most, the feet are used to trample down these materials so that they are fully integrated into the soil for proper decompositionby women. This process may actually be repeated as often as possible until there are no protrusions.

 A common practice is to allow a standing period after the first plowing and allow any vegetation to regrow in the field. A second plowing is then done in order to finally fold in the new growths and complete the process. Those who have a harrow use it to refine the soil. About a week before transplanting, the field must be smooth, without any growth appearingThis land-preparation phase, including the repair and cleaning of canals, often takes two months. By this time, the seedlings would be ready for transplanting.

The transplanting of seedlings from the seedbed to the prepared field is a very important event. A village holiday is usually declared for the ceremonial opening of the planting season. In many villages, the Central Council of Elders identifies a woman of prestige who will wake up early on the appointed date and go to her rice field to plant gabi (taro)  to signal the start of the planting season. This marks the start of, usually, a three-day holiday. Nobody is al- lowed to work in the rice fields yet, nor go out of or get into the village. Men and women may do the uprooting of seedlings, but more often than not, this is done by the women.

Transplanting is a woman’s job too. Seedlings are often shared when some farmers run out of planting materials. It would be unthinkable to refuse to share extra seedling materials with those in need. After transplanting, the maintenance work is left to the women. The next two months are a slack season. The work required consists of maintaining the water level necessary for plant growth, weeding and pest control. After this, irrigation water supply decreases “so community cooperation is required to divide the dwindling supply equitably, whether by careful division of streams, the narrowing of everybody’s channels, or diverting the whole supply from field to field in rotation. Community cooperation is not, however, sufficient to guarantee such equity at the height of the dry season, and the terraces will then twinkle all night with the watchfires of farmers guarding their water against diversion by neighbors …” This two-month period also sees the growth of weeds.

Weeding is done mainly by women. The weeds are pulled by hand as women carefully walk in between the plants. It may also be necessary to redistribute plants if there is crowding or to dispose of stunted plants or those which were eaten by insects. This is also the period when some farmers may apply ammonium sulfate as fertilizer. Before World War the people used “a kind of acid black deposit”  for fertilizer which has long been abandoned.

In areas which use pig and other animal manure, there is no need for chemical fertilizers. When the heads of rice form, the surrounding walls, hillsides and the pathways are again cleaned in order to prevent rat infestation. The weeds are reintegrated into the field by manually pushing them into the soil, making sure that they are fully covered by muck. Tall weeds that are too bulky are left on the sides of the field to dry for incorporation later. As the grains mature, they attract rice birds which now have to be constantly driven away. Scarecrows and other capturing or repelling devices are made.

Children are often tasked with maintaining the scarecrows or watching the traps.

Harvesting comes about two months later, toward the end of the dry sea- son. Both men and women are involved in harvesting. An indigenous harvesting knife which is made of steel mounted perpendicular to a wooden frame is used. The paddy stems are cut one by one. After a handful have been cut, the leaves are removed and then the stems bundled. The size of the bundle varies by culture. The bundles are then dried and stored in piles in the granary. This style of harvesting, handling and storage calls for a rice variety with grains that do not break or shatter easily. While harvesting, the most experienced women segregate the best heads as seed materials for the next cropping.

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

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