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22 februari 2008 07:55

Saving Ifugao Heritage And The Dwindling `Mumbaki` (Native High Priests)

Saving Ifugao Heritage And The Dwindling `Mumbaki` (Native High Priests)

Hungduan, Ifugao - Much has been said and written about the majestic Eighth Wonder of the World, described also as “stairways to heaven.” But there is more to appreciate in Ifugao than just the terraces. Safeguarding the spectacular rice terraces of the Philippines begins with preserving the culture of those who created them. The rich cultural beliefs and practices, as well as the indigenous skills of the Ifugao, complete the whole picture of the 2,000-year-old rice terraces.

Reviving the rice rituals and other cultural beliefs practiced by our great ancestors is one of the more effective efforts in preserving the terraces, says Ifugao Gov. Teodoro Baguilat Jr.

While some farmers interpret the rapid deterioration of the rice terraces as a curse, tribal folk perform rituals to appease the gods. Through chants and the offering of some chickens, dogs, pigs or ducks, farmers implore the gods to help them revive the beauty of the mountain terraces.

“It is important to preserve and restore the beauty of the terraces as they are not only a source of food, but also a reminder of our ancestors and their connection to the land,” asserts Baguilat.

In Ifugao, many rituals for good rice harvests and other ceremonies require the leadership of a native high priest called mumbaki, a group that is becoming rare in Ifugao over the years because of the onslaught of modernization and Christianity in Ifugao.

“If the mumbaki disappear, the Ifugao will lose the primary carriers of our oral traditions, community laws and other rich Ifugao heritage,” Baguilat laments.

Losing our tradition

Mumbaki are chosen, gifted and blessed by their god called Maknongan. Only the anointed can perform the tasks of a mumbaki. They are imbued with the knowledge of the ancient rituals and teachings, customs and traditions of the rich Ifugao culture.

“It‘s very hard to become a mumbaki, and younger people here don‘t want to learn any more,” said 54-year-old Joseph Nakake, the youngest of three remaining mumbaki in the municipality of Hungduan in Ifugao.

Nakake, also a councilor in Hungduan, feels sad that despite having four sons, none of them are prepared to be ordained as a mumbaki.

Changing attitudes, especially among the young Ifugaos have had great implications on the local culture, Nakake said.

“I know mumbaki will soon vanish. It is our tradition to pass on to our sons to become the next mumbaki. But unfortunately, my sons are not interested anymore because of many factors such as modernization and Christianity,” laments Nakake, who has been Hungduan‘s mumbaki for more than 12 years now. “I think I will be the last mumbaki in our tribe.”

Apo Bandao Atolba, 78, the oldest remaining mumbaki in Ifugao, recalls that his grandfather told him to preserve and pass on the oral rituals and history of the mumbakis—and he did.

“We really have to instill in the minds of the young generation that in order to save the crumbling rice terraces, they need to understand the history of their forefathers,” Apo Atolba, the ninth-generation mumbaki in his clan, said in his dialect, the Tuwali.

Mumbaki like Apo Atolba are usually garbed in a traditional costume of a bright- red g-string and wide and equally red native blankets which are draped over their upper bodies. They have memorized long chants and family genealogy which they now share to their community.

“I am old now and I will not be here forever, I still hope the mumbaki tradition will not vanish when I‘m gone,” Apo Atolba said.

Lack of care

Already, sections of the terraces, designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), have worn away, with jagged earth now showing where green rice stalks once swayed.

Without regular maintenance, the mud-walled terraces, one of the world‘s few surviving ancient wonders, began crumbling, setting off a chain reaction of erosion and hardship for other farmers.

“When there would be no more rice terraces, it will seem the face of our ancestors is erased. Now you can see they are already deteriorating,” said Governor Baguilat who, at his most pessimistic, believes they could be gone within 15 years.

The World Heritage Committee of Unesco inscribe in 2001 the Rice Terraces in the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger due to its continuous deterioration.

Baguilat said an exodus of the younger generation into the cities has resulted in the erosion of local culture as well as the old traditions.

“The young people are not interested in tilling the terraces anymore. They are turning their backs on the hard grind of working the terraces. The influence of education and religion has also altered the mindsets of the locals. The current generation does not have much appreciation for the heritage value of the rice terraces,” he said.

Some old farmers, no longer able to work the fields, dress up instead in tribal costume and perform for tourists in exchange for a few pesos.

Because the productivity of the terraces remains low, Baguilat explains that the profit farmers gain is not even enough to support them. As a result, they abandon rice farming and seek other means of livelihood like woodcarving, weaving handicrafts or even lucrative overseas employment.

An outbreak of giant worms is also plaguing the terraces. Olang to locals, these worms that grow as long as 18 inches bore through the terraces, causing them to collapse. The worm menace worsened in the 1990s when water for the terraces started to dwindle.

The influx of tourists has also resulted in increasing demand for souvenir items, and many locals, including children, turned to the more profitable trade of woodcarving or weaving. Not only does Ifugao lose farmers, but also trees to the carving industry.

As highly skilled craftsmen, the Ifugao are renowned for effigies of their gods, lions, eagles, the Ifugao basketwork and also their crafted spoons, bowls, ritual boxes, gong handles and even coffins, wooden beds, jewelry boxes and many more.

But 33-year-old Romeo Bayocca said that since trees are dwindling in Ifugao, they stopped cutting trees and concentrated on reforestation efforts, or the muyong system.

“We used to carve images as high as 10 feet. But we do not have enough trees now so we stopped the woodcarving business and do reforestation together with the community,” Bayocca said.

Also with tourism, villagers have been selling their antique heirlooms such as jars, baskets, beads and religious icons such as the bulul or rice god. Even traditional houses are being sold.

Reviving the culture

One sure way of reviving the culture and traditions of Ifugao is to encourage the young people to value their rich heritage, says Governor Baguilat.

“We have so many programs in mind to revive our dying heritage. But we need the support not only of local villagers but also national and international assistance,” he said.

A mapping of oral and written indigenous-information resources is currently being conducted by the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement (Sitmo), a nongovernment organization campaigning for the preservation and rehabilitation of the terraces.

Sitmo aims to gather rituals and beliefs in the terraces communities covering eight municipalities in Ifugao, to prepare for the development of systems of knowledge transfer in the formal and informal setting.

The government, through the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, has also established the School for Living Traditions in the villages of Ifugao, aiming to preserve Ifugao culture where traditional arts and crafts like woodcarving, backstrap weaving, rice-wine brewing, metal smithing and basket-making are being taught to the younger generation.

“This is our heritage. We have to put our acts together to preserve our culture and, at the same time, save the Cordillera rice terraces from further deterioration, Baguilat said.

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