Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Ifugao Agricultural Landscapes: Agro-Cultural Complexes and the Intensification Debate

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Ifugao Agricultural Landscapes: Agro-Cultural Complexes and the Intensification Debate

Article excerpt


The Ifugao agricultural terraces offer a means to better understand agricultural ecology and relationships between the landscape and human organisation. Similar to other agricultural systems in Southeast Asia, the complexity of Ifugao agriculture can be considered an 'agro-cultural complex'. (1) The concurrent existence of intensive agriculture, swidden and agroforestry in the region provides an opportunity to look into a living agricultural system where components are interrelated and integrated into economic, political and religious spheres. Moreover, the Ifugao agricultural system presents a case study for addressing issues of economic and ecological sustainability of current farming systems, and the implications of state agricultural policies.

Using an historical ecological approach, (2) this article discusses the links between agricultural intensification and ecological and social factors. Dominant models on the intensification of agricultural production suggest an evolutionary relationship between extensive and intensive systems. Previous archaeological models for agricultural intensification assumed that there was a direct link between population and production system (3) and levels or stages of change. (4) These models, however, focused on lowland (i.e. Egypt, Mesopotamia, China) or island populations (i.e. the Pacific), whose evolution suggests that population increase and ecological factors may have influenced production intensification, making swiddening and gardening less suitable. In highland Southeast Asia, however, the relationship between extensive and intensive systems differs. The simultaneous presence of both farming systems suggests that a risk-minimisation strategy is an important aspect of how populations choose a specific subsistence system. Thus, ethnographic (5) and archaeological (6) studies in montane Southeast Asia challenge dominant intensification models.

This work re-evaluates the existing models using ecological parameters, as exemplified by the distribution of agricultural fields in the North Central Cordillera in the Philippines (see Figure 1), a region famous for the Ifugao rice terraces. Statistical analysis was used to determine the relationship between the distribution of cultural features, in this case, terraced rice fields and swidden plots, with ecological parameters that include elevation, slope, aspect, distance to water source and distance to hamlets. The ecological-distributional relationships were then integrated with ethnographic and ethnohistoric data to establish the suite of ecological and social considerations that the Ifugao have in making decisions about their subsistence strategies.

In Ifugao, swiddening, intensive cultivation and agroforestry are part of a sustainable system. Swiddening has been blamed for upland deforestation and desertification elsewhere; however, the Ifugao agricultural system sustains significant forest cover in the upland terrain. I argue that populations practising a combination of swiddening and intensive forms of cultivation demonstrate a risk-minimisation strategy.


In discussing agrarian ecological issues, I start with a description of the distribution of agricultural systems in the North Central Cordillera relative to environmental parameters. The Ifugao agricultural system (especially, terraced rice pond-fields) is a unique opportunity for long-term study by archaeologists and ecologists; the terraces are still being used after more than four centuries. (7) As opposed to other agricultural systems of archaeological interest (i.e. Mimbres Valley, Mexico, the Andean raised fields, and Kohala field in Hawai'i), the Ifugao study provides us with both ethnographic and archaeological evidence for understanding human-environment interactions.

To balance the dataset (information obtained in the 1960s) (8) I focused on the present-day distribution of Ifugao agricultural systems. …

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