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Cordillera Traditions Help Save The Environment – OpEd

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Family traditions among indigenous peoples have played a role in the cultural and biological diversity practices of the the environment long before there were environmentalists. The UNHCHR states that “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.”

Not many have heard of the Ifugao people, or the physician Dr. Felixberto Ayahao, who could have established himself in the city but instead returned to his people in the mountainous countryside to become a volunteer rural health worker without pay (Ifugaos). Some traditions die hard.

High in the mountains comfortably nestled upon the lofty heights of the Cordillera mountain range, 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 (a collective name for the tribes of the Cordillera) practice the development and management of centuries-old muyung/pinugos — woodlots. The indigenous technology is as old as the famed Banaue rice terraces, dating back some 2,000 years ago. Conservation is not new to the Igorot families of the Philippines, especially the Ifugaos. 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 Ifugao 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.

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.

This reciprocity is extended to other aspects of the lives of the Ifugao. In the National Schools Maintenance Week, May 2006, Ifugao parents all contributed their time and resources in the repair of their schools. Roofs were painted, footpaths fixed, ceiling boards replaced, furniture repainted, gardens were cleaned, broken windows replaced, and more (Bulayungan)!

Muyung/Pinugos

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 tress are also being integrated to provide family income. In recent years the mining industry has threatened the local environment and the traditional ways. Exacting might over right, the mining contractors, an interfaith stance calls out “That Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21)

[ And the earth We have spread it forth; and made in it firm mountains and caused to grow in it of every suitable thing. And We have made in it means of subsistence for you and for him for whom you are not the suppliers.] (Al Hijr 15:19–20)

“(Land is) a gift from Magbabaya to a people he has put in a place in order to develop and guard Creation. As a divine gift, it could not be owned by anyone for one cannot own that which gives life.” (Dibabawon Tribe)

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.


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Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

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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