On Easter Sunday, I and the lean team of Biyaheng Bukid travelled from Baguio City to Banaue, Ifugao via Bontoc, Mt. Province to deliver a P1-M check from the Dept. of Agriculture and Fisheries to Ifugao Governor Pedro Mayam-o to start the move to rehabilitate, develop and bring back to its old grandeur and mystic the world-famous Cordillera Rice Terraces.
The P1-M fund, which I committed when I visited the province in August, will be used to operationalise the Cordillera Rice Terraces Rehabilitation and Development Council, a body composed of local farmers, people's organisations and local government units, which will draft a comprehensive plan to bring back the 2,000-year-old rice terraces to its former glory.
Considered as one of the Eight Wonders of the World, the rice terraces were carved out of the sides of the mountains of the region and were mainly planted to rice varieties which have been handed down from generation to generation of the mountain tribes.
The rice varieties are generally called "Tinawon," a word which finds its roots in the word "Taon" which means "Year" and this is mainly because it takes almost one year before the terraces rice varieties are harvested only once a year.
Since the planting system has largely been primitive and organic, the yields from the rice terraces are very low and through the years, with the introduction of the more profitable vegetable farming, many of the terraces were abandoned.
I have always been endlessly fascinated by the Cordillera Rice Terraces because it is a perfect example of the delicate balance of forest conservation through the "Muyong" which is a protected forest area from where the spring waters which flow to the rice terraces come from and people's desire to produce enough food for their families.
During my first two visits to Ifugao since I was named as Agriculture Secretary by President Rody Duterte, I have appreciated the importance of the Rice Terraces to our effort not only to produce food but also in addressing poverty in the countryside.
For a province which is a favourite destination of tourists, Ifugao has a very high poverty incidence per family of 47.5% as of the 2012 survey of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).
Aside from promoting the marketing of the "Tinawon" rice, also known as the "Heirloom Rice," which is being sold now at P120 per kilo, the Department is also introducing additional livelihood projects for families involved in rice farming in the terraces.
A priority project now is the backyard dairy production program which will "award" each rice terraces farming family two heads of dairy cattle which could be kept in a corral behind their homes and fed with locally available forage enriched with feed supplements.
The initial task, however, is to rehabilitate the abandoned rice terraces and this will entail a lot of funds and concerted efforts among the stakeholders.
The good thing is that the program to rehabilitate the Cordillera Rice Terraces will also provide employment opportunities to farmers and even young people during off planting season.
During my visit to Banaue on Easter Sunday, I asked Gov. Mayam-o and Banaue Mayor Jerry Dalipog to immediately activate the Council so that the Master Plan for the Rehabilitation and Development of the Cordillera Rice Terraces could be completed at the earlier possible time.
When completed, I intend to present the Master Plan to President Duterte and ask for sufficient funds, even explore the possibility of foreign funding, to bring back the amazing Cordillera Rice Terraces to its old glory, not only to mystify tourists visiting the region but also to enable the local people to benefit from the blessings of the ingenuity of their forefathers.