What are the Banaue Rice Terraces?

Brendan McGuigan

The Banaue Rice Terraces are man-made terraces carved into the mountains of the island of Luzon, in the Philippines. They are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and have been since 1995. Since 2001 they have been classified as an Endangered Site.

Rice plants on the Banaue Rice Terraces.
Rice plants on the Banaue Rice Terraces.

The full name of the site is the Banaue Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, which consists of four distinct clusters of Ifugao terraces: the Banaue terraces of Batad and Bangaan, the Mayoyao terraces, the Klangan terrace of Nagacadan, and the Hungduan terrace. Some of these terraces are more than two-thousand years old, making them some of the oldest examples of terraced farming to survive.

Terraces are an ancient method of farming that creates more usable land.
Terraces are an ancient method of farming that creates more usable land.

The Banaue Rice Terraces are distinguished from other terraces in the region primarily by the altitude at which they are cut, as well as the extent to which they have been developed. They are some 5000 feet (1500m) above sea level, and cover more than 4000 square miles (10,000 sq. km). The slope of the hills into which they are cut is also remarkable. At times the slope is nearly seventy degrees, substantially steeper than nearly all other examples of this type of stepped agriculture.

In the mythology of the Ifugao, the knowledge to build the Banaue Rice Terraces is said to have been given by the god Dinipaan of Pahaadan to the hunter brothers Kabigat and Balitok, sons of Inuki and Tadona, from Kiangan. The Banaue Rice Terraces are truly stunning examples of the abilities of ancient man to shape his environment. They are referred to by many Filipinos as the Eighth Wonder of the World, and seeing them stretch out in front of you, it’s difficult to disagree with that assessment. The Banaue Rice Terraces are fed by a series of irrigation systems that come from the rainforests at the peaks of the ridges.

The Banaue Rice Terraces have survived because they have continued to be used by the locals over the past two millennia. Rice and vegetables can be grown on the terraces quite densely, making remarkable use of the limited land of the islands. The terraces require substantial upkeep to combat erosion and degradation, but so long as they remained an integral part of the food supply of the islands, that work made perfect sense.

In the past few years, young people have begun to turn away from the traditional agricultural practices of their parents, turning instead to more modern agricultural methods, and imports. As they have abandoned the traditional methods, the Banaue Rice Terraces have begun to erode where they are not upkept. For this reason, UNESCO placed the Banaue Rice Terraces on their list of Endangered Sites, in 2001. Although some effort is being made to restore them, it is not quite as simple as many architectural sites, which require only an influx of money to restore stone facades, install support structures, and clear debris. Instead, saving the Banaue Rice Terraces would require a change of lifestyle for many people, as their upkeep must be a regular and ongoing project.

Visiting the Banaue Rice Terraces is fairly simple, although they are somewhat out of the way. Most people start with the terraces at the town of Bangaan. The various towns can be reached by car, although the roads can be frightening to those unfamiliar with driving in the rural Philippines. Once at a town, the terraces spread out in all directions, and it’s simply a matter of hiking around the picturesque countryside.

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