Preserving an agricultural heirloom

Passed down from generation to generation, tinawon, the collective term for the different traditional rice varieties in the Ifugao province, has become as famous as the rice terraces where they are planted. However, tinawon – as well as the practices of its production – is now in danger of extinction. 

The very nature of the tinawon plays a role in the problem. Because it is only planted and harvested once annually (in fact, “tinawon” literally means once a year), preserving this rice year-round is a challenge for the farmers. 

Tinawon is not spared from the effects of climate change: despite being generally more resistant to pests, diseases, and changes in weather, its resiliency has been put to the test, resulting in reduced production. 

Fewer farmers are also involved in cultivating tinawon, given that the younger generations are shifting to non-agricultural work. This dilemma is also worsened due to the intensive labor and low yields that characterize tinawon. As a result, it is grown by farmers largely for their own households’ subsistence, with whatever surplus left being sold to the market. 

The alang, or seed bank, is a crucial facility for the preservation of tinawon seeds. It serves as storage and safekeeping of seeds until the next harvest season as well as for genetic conservation of traditional rice varieties. However, only the richer farmers have the capacity to have this structure built, owing to the fact that they have bigger fields and therefore more farm yields and higher income. 

Recognizing this need, the “Dynamic Conservation and Sustainable Use of Agro-Biodiversity in Traditional Agro-Ecosystems of the Philippines” project supported the construction of six alang in six barangays each in the municipalities of Hingyon and Hungduan.  This agro-biodiversity conservation project is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and jointly implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Agricultural Research (DA-BAR). 

The community seed banks constructed through the project, available to all the community farmers, provide seeds for use during planting season and space to store them after harvest. Keeping in mind the importance of biodiversity, other crops are being cultivated immediately around the alangs to help preserve the local crops. 

Community-based organizations manage the community seed bank at the barangay level, which include the following: Baang Women’s Organization and Rural Improvement Club, Bokiawan Women’s Organization, Dackitan Farmers Organization, Hungduan Heirloom Rice Producers Organization, Maggok Farmers’ Organization, Nungulunan Women’s Organization, Anao Timpuyug Organization, Bitu SEA-K Organization, Cababuyan South Farmers Organization, Cababuyan North Farmers Association, AMK Organization, and Poblacion Farmers Association.   

The community farmers said that through the seed banks constructed by the project, they already feel “richer” because they now have seed banks much like the  more well-off members of their communities. In the future, the structures may allow them to even earn more. 

Kung maibabalik ang mga nawawalang seeds, especially the short maturing ones, may possibility na mag-second crop [If we can bring back the lost seeds, especially the short maturing ones, it may now be possible for us to have second cropping],” Jose Pinay-An of Barangay Poblacion in Hungduan said.

With the construction of community seed banks, farmers have recognized that collective effort – much like communal seed banks – is the key to both preserving their heirloom rice and improving their livelihoods.