Heritage

Of Gods and Of Men

The Philippines is undoubtedly a country marked by rice. It is present in its people, its landscape, its culture, and its cuisine. An exploration of this crop has led Michelle V. Ayuyao to dive deep into its rich history, before uncovering just how much value falls upon a single grain of rice.

The first grain of rice came from the gods.

This is the resounding idea that resonates across the origin stories of rice in regional local lore. Down south, in Bohol, comes the story of Sappia, a goddess whose drops of milk from her bosom formed the seeds of the first harvest. An Ibaloy tale from the northern region of the Philippines tells a tale of a hunter named Labangan, who stole a grain from the god Kabunian, and planted it amongst his people. Other stories in between muse of murmurs in the wind, which whispered the secrets of rice into the ears of ordinary people; unseen gods rewarding the earth with new bounty.

As a rice-consuming country, the literature surrounding rice’s beginning and importance span stories, songs, and rituals. It is a grain whose various stages of life—from the moment it is planted to the moment it is consumed—has a label, in different dialects. Binhi, for instance, refers to the rice seeds, while palay refers to the actual plant. Butikas is rice at the peak of budding, laon refers to harvested rice from the past season, and rice dried in its stalk is called lilay. 

Cooked rice takes on names like kinirog, dinung-ag, inafi, and kan-on. There is even a term in Bisaya for the kernels of cooked rice that drop on the table unwittingly, as rice is being scooped onto a plate, which is mumho (another version of this from my childhood is calling it mumu as the stray grains that fall are like forgotten ghosts of a hearty meal).
 
Perhaps it was the copious amounts of steamy rice that got to me, or it may have been some evening whispers that crept up and worked their trance, because I set out from the city in the midst of a tropical storm last August with nothing but rice on my mind. Crammed at the back of a bus at midnight with a nine-hour journey ahead, we hurtled towards the mountains where rice’s history in the country runs deepest.

A SHORT HISTORY LESSON

It’s easy to see rice as simply a staple to each meal, especially if you’ve never been without it. But understanding a little of its history in our country may put certain things in perspective. Sometime in 1978, a professor from the archeology department of Simon Fraser University by the name of Richard Shutler Jr. conducted limited test excavations in Andarayan, located in Cagayan Valley. The area is bound in a large part by mountains, with the sun rising over it from the mountain range of the Sierra Madre, then setting over it far off west in the Cordilleras. This speculated former savanna land is where various bits of red slip earthenware were uncovered, like ceramic spindle whorls, a ground stone adze, and several earthen sherds. Amongst the recovered rubble, a single piece of charcoal was acquired, with the imprint of rice kernels barely scratched onto its surface.
Microscopic inspection of this ample-sized bit of coal found that the imprints match up with the Oryza genus, the family that our everyday rice belongs to. The fragment was given a radiocarbon age of 3240 ± 160 Before Present (B.P.), which makes this diamond in the rough the earliest piece of rice evidence found on the Philippine islands. However, this isn’t to say that the radiocarbon date indicated constitutes the time in which rice first made its appearance in the country. Pieces of earthenware found during the same excavation also revealed the inclusion of rice husks and straws incorporated into the clay. A reason for this possibly being that potters of that time developed a way to temper their clay with these byproducts, because of a constant supply of rice being farmed.
 
Supposing this is all true, it must be said then that the existence of rice this far back into local history can mean a number of things for settlers of generations’ past; technologies must have been fashioned to plant and farm rice regularly, certain processes must have been created in order to domesticate this crop, and ingenuity was tested in the creation of items from rice’s offshoot.

1 : Inside the Banaue Hotel & Youth Hostel, the oldest standing inn in town.

2 : The rice terraces of the Cordillera region are comprised of five terrace clusters, namely, Bangaan, Batad, Hungduan, Mayoyao, and Nagacdan.

It’s a domino of ideas, where speculation about how far we’ve come in terms of our rice culture is stemmed to the supposed existence of a rice-growing community from a previous millennium. 
Some may argue though, that Spanish conquistadors that traveled north in the mid-1600s made no note of rice terraces, thereby putting rice domestication at a much later date than first considered. As far as physical evidence goes, this may not be the case.

THE EIGHTH WONDER

The bumpy evening bus ride came to a halt at the crack of dawn, when the perilous trails smattered by fallen boulders from landslides turned into smooth roads flanked by pomelo trees on either side. We had arrived in the quaint town of Banaue, where homes lined the sides of hilltops, and tricycles zipped around taking people where they had to be. The town seems to have mushroomed around the reason why people make the trip there in the first place.
 
The Banaue Rice Terraces may be a default image for Google searches on sights around the Philippines—as well as Thanos’s choice location after wreaking havoc across Marvel’s cinematic universe—but it is an undeniably scenic spectacle. The mountain’s slopes are etched out in steps that follow the natural contour of the mountain’s curves. It looks as though an untamed amphitheater had grown out of the wilderness. The torrential rains that passed through the province in the weeks prior helped color the area a heady green hue.
Amongst these layered rice paddies grow the Cordillera heirloom rice, aromatic grains which are said to be the foremost foundation of rice in the country. Varieties encompass the Tinawon, which are short grains and earthy in color; Minaangan rice, which is long and slender; and the Mountain Violet, which is sticky when cooked, and maintains its deep purple color.
 
Down close to the stream, with lower rice terraces in view, is the Rice Terraces Farmers Cooperative (RTFC) headed by Jimmy Lingayo. At this modest facility, farmers that are part of the co-op bring their harvested grains for processing. Here, they are milled and polished, while the collected husks are turned into feed for the farm animals. The processed rice is then packaged, and the co-op acts as the fundamental supplier of these grains, to interested buyers.
 
Its intent is mainly to keep the tradition of planting heirloom rice alive, thereby preserving their culture as a rice-growing community. Lingayo estimates that he had reached a good 50 different heirloom rice varieties since his youth. That number has since gone down to 17, and he was hellbent on not letting that number falter.

In the early noughties, RICE Inc.’s Vicky Garcia and Mary Henley of Eight Wonder pursued the marketing of Philippine heirloom rice overseas. It was this movement that led them to meet Lingayo in 2005, who was then toying with the idea of forming a co-op in order to create a bigger sense of purpose in the farmers, so they would continue producing heirloom rice varieties. A year later, in April of 2006, RTFC received its official title as a cooperative, with all of 21 members in its roster. This number grew gradually, and now, as of the second half of 2018, more than 300 farmers from the area are under RTFC.

As opposed to native white rice, which goes through the crop cycle in three months, the heirloom variants produced by these farmers take a longer time to mature. Given the higher climate on the terraces, the rice planted there are left to grow for five to seven months, which means the harvest takes place just twice a year at best. Because of the yield from modest harvests, the price of heirloom rice is much higher than everyday white rice. The initial large-quantity demand for this variety came from foreign exports, which allowed Lingayo to price the co-op’s rice at double the cost of native rice. He guaranteed his farmers that one yield would render the cost of two harvests, and this money could go into the betterment of their land.

Since 2006, the co-op earned from heirloom rice exports, however their biggest client has since stopped in 2016, “Matanda na kasi yung in-charge doon, kaya hindi na nila pinag-patuloy yung negosyo nila,” Lingayo reveals. The rice that they produce is now sold solely to local markets and restaurants, and sometimes to interested buyers from other countries. But this isn’t enough to go by for the plans that Lingayo has been dreaming up for the co-op.

A shelf of Violet Mountain Rice, one of four varieties available at the time, at the Rice Terraces Farmers Cooperative (RTFC).

One of the biggest drags he presently encounters is the irony of the region’s tourism. The Rice Terraces are marketed as a sight to behold, but the upkeep of the paddies are often overlooked. “I keep proposing to the local government that we partner up and work together to maintain the terraces. They are trying to attract more tourists by promoting the rice terraces, but the farmers do not get so much support except for the co-op,” Lingayo shares, with hints of frustration surfacing. He has also tried campaigning his efforts to neighboring baranggays, so that heirloom rice farmers present a united front as a means to boost tourism. “Here in the Cordillera, our capital is the rice terraces. Sino ba ang nagbubuhay ng rice fields? Ang farmers. Sila naman talaga ang nagpapayaman dito.” These plans have however been met with mixed reactions from neighboring towns.

At one point Lingayo took us across the stream, up steep and winding steps by the side of a hill, and finally across mud-soaked skinny paths that line the rice terraces, which barely hold up under the weight of a step. If the view from the main highway was impressive enough, seeing it all from up close sired a sense of pride for a local architectural wonder. “Noong bata ako, malakas yung bayanihan sa kapwa,” says Lingayo, looking out into the vastness of the terraces while snacking on young grains plucked from a rice stalk. It’s easy to sense the grievance Lingayo bears, but he remains hopeful and persistent that these ancient heirloom varieties will find their place on a bigger stage. Outside the confines of the Cordilleras however, the weight of rice on the national scale is a completely different structure altogether.

From top:

Freshly gathered rice stalks are referred to as sipok.

AS YOU SOW

Upon my return to the city, news of a different storm had also settled, as the rumble of the rice shortage flooded every corner of the country. Everyday rice was carrying a price tag that was approaching the same bracket that local heirloom rice was priced—at export rate. The eruption of why it’s come to this goes back several months.
 
Last June, Department of Agriculture secretary Emmanuel Piñol announced, with much optimism, that the country would be able to reach total rice self-sufficiency by 2020. To be self sufficient, the country’s production of a food item—in this case, rice—should be ample enough not only to meet national food requirements, but also to maintain a constant reserve stock at the same time as well. In spite of dedicated programs on crop insurance, provision of high quality seeds, and advanced irrigation systems, the country has, in the last 57 years, only truly been self sufficient for 13 years.
 
Barely a month after Piñol’s bright-eyed declaration, the country was rubbed raw with the news of August’s rocketing inflation. The supply shocks of food are what pushed inflation beyond acceptable, but none more than rice may have pushed it to an intolerable range.
The National Food Authority (NFA) is in charge of maintaining the cost and supply of rice in the nation, and holds a monopoly on rice imports. The NFA ultimately met dangerous terrain at the start of 2018, as rice reserves slid down to a two-day supply (maintaining a 15-day reserve is mandatory, which is pushed up to 30 days for the calamity-prone months of July to September). In an effort to alleviate the situation, 500,000 metric tons worth of rice imports were ordered in the first quarter of the year. This reckless reliance on emergency imports to meet demands has put NFA in the midst of a losing battle, which is likely due to last year’s booboo: their 2017 target for acquiring local palay fell short by 124,969 metric tons. It was later revealed that NFA’s P5.1 billion government subsidy for Food Security was diverted to paying off maturing loans, and debt previously shouldered by the Bureau of Treasury. Flash forward to 2018, where emergency imports remain a momentary solution to the rice shortage problem that only seems to be growing as the months progress.
 
A means to take the pressure off of this comes to play through the Revised Agricultural Tariffication Act (House Bill 7735), a bill that lifts the cap off rice imports, and puts a tariff in its stead. Currently, accredited private rice traders are allowed a maximum annual amount of 805,200 tons of rice. For as long as people are willing to pay the tariffs, then rice brought in from other countries won’t be bound by this number any longer. Tariffs collected will then be put into a Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund, which will capitalize on increasing production of rice farms, further research, and establishing infrastructure projects. If that pushes through, the NFA’s role may just be put out to pasture.

In theory, the Rice Tariffication Act, which has already been passed by the House of Representatives, makes optimistic points in favor of alleviating the rising inflation rate, and giving provisions to furthering the state of local rice farmers. Estimations made by Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas even state that cheap rice imports, with tariffs in play, may be able to ease inflation by 0.4 percentage points.

In the midst of all this, however, it seems that the voices of the rice farmers themselves have been drowned out. It’s a discussion that brought me back to Banaue’s rice fields, as Jimmy Lingayo repeatedly emphasized the true value of farmers because they’re the ones that get their hands dirty out there. With HB 7735, the role of local rice farmers, as well as their harvest, are put at risk. Opposition lawmakers have even gone so far as saying local farmers are in danger of extinction. The Enhancement Fund has nothing but a confident lineup of programs but, given that government projects require land ownership, the requirements necessary to partake in it may be too tall an order for small-scale, landless farmers.

It’s hard not to be skeptical about whether big money will be put into areas of good use, as far as small-town farmers are concerned. The influx of imported rice alone will inevitably put a dent into their livelihood. This reality opens up the gates to a chain of events that puts rice farmers on the losing end. It’s chilling to see just how much power this grain can wield. Stories about it are passed on through generations, entire cities are built on it, and economies can topple because of it. Was rice truly a gift to begin with, when it’s reached a point of being a curse? 
 
And yet, there will be no end to consuming it, just as much as it will continue to consume us.
 

Originally published in Volume 7.