Role of Traditional Knowledge in Strengthening Socio-ecological Production Landscapes



  • Montanosa Research, Development Center- Tebtebba Foundation


  • 05/03/2012

  • REGION :

  • South-Eastern Asia


  • Philippines (Ifugao Province)


  • Traditional knowledge of maintaining the balance of the different parts of the land is a primary consideration in territorial management among indigenous peoples. Presently, much of these are in varying stages of persistence and dis-integration due to various socio economic and political pressures. Recognizing the importance of traditional knowledge including customary sustainable use and equitable sharing of resources, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) , has not only adopted their promotion in its Article 8j and Article 10c respectively, but also adopted the ecosystems approach as its main framework in its program of work. It was along this line that the Tebtebba Foundation, Inc. forged a partnership with the Montañosa Research and Development Center (MRDC) in June 2008 and engaged the Kalanguya’s of Tinoc, Ifugao of the Cordillera Administrative Region, Philippines to implement the project “Support for Community Development within the Framework of Indigenous Peoples Rights and Ecosystems Approach”.

The work brings together five communities of Tinoc, Ifugao, Philippines and two IP organizations; the MRDC who works directly with indigenous peoples’ organizations on sustainable production food systems for 30 years and Tebtebba, who works and has gained recognition in promoting indigenous peoples’ rights in the international arena. It is a collaborative work with the following objectives:

v  To enable communities to identify and characterize the land use and management of their territories, i.e. composition, structure and function with respect to a) human interaction, needs and values including cultural aspects; b) conservation and management of biodiversity; and c) environmental quality and assess changes on the mentioned subject matter;

v  To facilitate information exchange and learning sessions among and between community holders of traditional knowledge, authorities of customary law and service providers/duty bearers towards formulating and adopting development plans within the principles of ecosystems approach consistent with the rights and customary resource management and sustainable use practices of indigenous peoples;

v  To promote the adoption of the ecosystems-based approach at different levels of development planning and implementation and to draw lessons at appropriate times from the piloting experience and transmit these to policy makers and strengthen implementation of the ecosystems-based approach; and,

v  To support initiatives on socio-economic work pertinent to revival, innovations of traditional livelihoods linked to biodiversity and ecosystems.


To implement the project, four development strategies were drawn up, but at different stages of the work, the partnership had to find the correct balance or combination of two or three of these and at other times, to focus on just one. These strategies include (1) research and documentation, (2) organizing and capacity building, (3) advocacy and networking, and (4) socio economic projects implementation.

Site Selection and Getting off the ground

The Cordillera Region, Philippines which forms a contiguous land mass peopled mainly by indigenous peoples (comprising more than 85% of total population) who more than once have come together in region wide unity to defend their lands, rights and resources was chosen as the implementation site. The Partnership zeroed in on the area that forms the watershed of the 360- mw Magat Dam, a geographical scale that would enable the Partnership to 1) focus yet 2) be able to show interrelations and 3) be able to target an inter-provincial cooperation. The site is in the Province of Ifugao, a UN-declared heritage site for its impressive rice terraces.

Since the project was a pro-active initiative of the Partnership, it took time to introduce and explain the project and get the informed consent of the chosen communities; namely: Ahin, Wangwang, Tulludan, Tukucan and Binablayan, five of the 12 barangays of the municipality of Tinoc, Ifugao.

The developmental phase of the project proved to be much harder than anticipated due to (1) the prevailing “research fatigue” due to numerous researches conducted, (2)  the widespread discrimination against traditional lifeways and practice of rituals which some Christian fundamentalist groups have portrayed as works of Satan and (3) commercial chemical-based farming and the attendant culture that measures success in terms of cash generation have relegated  traditional subsistence production systems as “backward.”

These difficulties prompted a strategy shift from a more focused research to more awareness raising through formal and informal sharing sessions to discuss the distinct features of indigenous knowledge on sustainable use and resource conservation and the cultural practices that strengthen community cohesion and solidarity. These also served as a venue to learn and generate data on traditional resource management practices, production systems and changes through time in the target communities. Data gathered from these sessions were substantiated with key informant interviews.

The work hastened as more people became interested in the research process that incorporates awareness raising. By September 2009, the project was able to gather substantial data showing the contrasting situations of Ahin, a subsistence village, and Tukucan, which has adopted production for the market through the commercial monocrop chemical-based vegetable production. The data presented a sophisticated knowledge system of sustainable land use management and resource sharing in Ahin, most of which are still practiced by the present generation. On the other, Tukucan which since 1996 has gradually converted most of its agricultural land to vegetable farm manifested a degraded environment, decreased ecosystems services, increased food insecurity and a growing incidence of indebtedness among the farmers.

Up-scaling in the municipal[1] level

Such findings made possible the advancement of work in networking and advocacy which pushed for the holding of the First I-Tinek Land Summit in January 2010. While the Summit highlighted the Kalanguya’s profound knowledge in managing territories and sustaining and improving biodiversity, it also sounded the alarm on its state of erosion. In some areas, indigenous knowledge is eroding as people succumb to “modernity” in response to discrimination even as the international community is increasingly promoting it to remedy global ecological ills. The summit underscored the present challenges of a degraded environment resulting from chemical monocrop farming, decreased land security due to privatization of communal lands, and waning authority on customary law especially on resource use. From their collective learning the participants came to some conclusions:

We may not be able to convert privatized bel-ew (watershed) back to ‘communal’ land but ‘owners’ must agree to convert and maintain it as part of the watershed and community protected area. We need to strengthen our customary laws and further develop our indigenous knowledge systems on sustainable use.

The covenant, signed by 63 leader representatives of all 12 barangays of Tinoc, called for action to “arrest environmental degradation and promote people’s wellbeing.” To carry this out they identified some actions to take; namely: (1) halt environmental deterioration and address such phenomenon (e.g. stop farmland encroachment into the forest land, reforestation and delineation of community protected areas) and (2) increase food security through sustainable food production systems, renewable energy development and, where feasible, reviving and promoting innovations/development of traditional occupations (e.g., permaculture in rotational agricultural areas). Further unification process was done through the holding of the Man-ili Leaders’ Forum, a gathering of elders, authorities of customary laws and more community leaders. They re-affirmed the potential of their traditional knowledge and culture to solve environmental ills, weakening unity of communities, and cultural erosion due to religion. They also raised the need for the entire Tinoc municipality to unify on current land and resource issues. Finally the Man-ili forum committed to incorporate the covenant in the plans of all farmers’ associations in Lower Tinoc.

Comprehensive Land Use Planning

Among concrete actions identified as early as January during the Land Summit was for all the 12 barangays to do a comprehensive land use planning (CLUP)[2] in their respective communities. Tukucan led the first implementation by starting the delineation community protected areas and actively campaigned for the reclamation of degraded watershed areas in November 2010 and started its reforestation program in February 2011. Since only Ahin was following the example set by Tukucan, a steering committee composed of the Municipal Development and Planning Office, the Municipal Agricultural Office, 2 elders (1 male and 1 female) and the Partnership to facilitated the CLUP processes in the different barangays. Barangay CLUP started in May and continued up to the first week of August amidst preparation of swidden farms and rice harvest.


As defined, ecosystems approach is a strategy to manage land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use of the different parts of the environment, thereby ensuring continued ecosystems services and functioning for people’s well being.  The Project concluded that ecosystems approach is a traditional holistic view of the Kalanguya of Tinoc in the management of their territories. The Kalanguya manage their territories through a land use  patter creating different nested ecosystems within their mountain homeland.    Starting from the highest elevation is the ‘bel-ew’ (watershed).

The bel-ew or watersheds are collectively owned by villages. It serves as boundaries between villages and source of clean air, water, fuel, food and medicines. Neighbor villages are also allowed to hunt, gather food and medicines. Unwritten law on the use of this include no cutting of trees and non- burning of the bel-ew. Within the bel-ew are the pehyew or sacred sites which also serves as sanctuary for animals and plants; the dowengan (hunting grounds), linnengan (areas for bird hunting) and the along-ni-hebheb (natural springs).

Scattered just below the watershed are the kiyewan (woodlots), source of the many other needs of the community such as timber, firewood, food, medicinal and pesticidal/ botanical plants.  Below the kiyewan are the inum-an, areas for swidden farming[3]. The kiyewan is a communal woodlot and muyung[4] are clan-owned woodlots where people source their fuel and materials for building their houses whereby selective and regulated cutting is practice. Inum-an are communal swidden areas and kinabba is a privatized swidden farm. If not used by the owner, the kinabba can be tilled by others with the permission from the owner.

Adjacent to the swidden farms are the pahtu, the pastureland or grassland where large ruminant animals such as horses, cows, carabaos and goats are left to graze. Next is the papayaw or ricefield which are privately-owned. Aside from producing rice, onions, garlic, leafy vegetables and legumes are rotated in the same paddy field. After harvest, rice stalks are mixed with mud to form mounds where vegetables are planted. This practise makes it possible for soil to have good aeration to improve both physical and chemical properties. Ricefields are also a source of fish (tilapia, dalag and mudfish), snails and mudfish collected by any member of the community.

Pan-abungan  are the homesites. A typical Ifugao house is a perfect picture of an agro-forestry system surrounded by tree gardens of various species and bamboos integrated with herbs, vegetables and animals which manifest deep understanding of diversity and integration. Part of the home but a distinct land use is the dayahan, an area specifically designated for pigs at the farthest edge of the homesite in a forested area. Pigs after being fed their morning meals are left to roam the dayahan.

At lower elevations are the wangwang or outflowing river from streams and creeks which serve as the source of irrigation water and habitat of aquatic resources. These are held in common by the villagers and are sources of fish snails, and insect larvae gathered for food.

From the different parts of the land emerged a biodiversity of flora and fauna distinct to each of the nested ecosystems- the fish, frogs, edible snails, weeds, insects, varieties of rice, more than 20 cultivated food crops, several naturally occurring plants in the rotational agricultural areas, and various kinds of grasses and trees in the pastureland. People learned to develop livelihood and 25 traditional occupations were recorded including hunting, food gathering, food processing, farming, fishing, pottery, bamboo weaving, barter, salt making, sugar cane processing, stonewall construction and broom making. Except for blacksmithing and weaving, raw materials required for these occupations are found in the community.

The pattern of Ifugao agriculture is complex. It depends on many ecological, social, and cultural factors including the knowledge of how these elements are interrelated and effectively utilized[5].  And so with the Kalanguya of Tinoc. The complex and integrated use of distinct land forms in their territory creates a balanced ecosystem that protects the web of life of the different parts of the ili (village/community). These are strengthened by their traditional knowledge on resource management, custom laws, belief systems, spirituality, community solidarity, and social values transmitted from one generation to the other. Their respect for nature as manifested by many rituals that they have to perform for the use of resources, their strong belief that land is life is to be nurtured for future generation and their activities determined by the coming of certain birds, flowering of certain plants, the direction of the wind, the formation of the clouds illustrates their strong hold on sustainable use and land-man-nature relationship.

Up to the 80’s, people generally live from the land and produce most of their needs but the interplay of various factors brought in changes. Formal education was introduced in the area in the 1940’s and by the 80’s, the norm is to pursue higher level education. The proliferation of wants became evident and increasing need for cash was felt. Seasonal outmigration of able-bodied household members became regular annual activity leading to scarcity of labor in the village weakening the traditional farming system of soil fertility enhancement, pest management and  seed selection. Fundamentalist religions increased and downgraded the traditional belief system. This was worsened by the adoption of the chemical-based cash crop production. Virgin forests were bulldozed to pave the way for the production of commercial vegetables.  By the time the Partnership entered the area, people‘s confidence on their knowledge and lifeways was much eroded that they wouldn’t like to talk about it.


Increasing appreciation of indigenous knowledge systems and practices on natural resource management

For the project, the most significant impact came from the awareness raising incorporated in the process of research work have questioned which debunked  misperception and clarified matters pertinent to traditional knowledge.  The project was able to show, principally to the pilot communities themselves, the profound wisdom of the territorial and natural resource management passed on by their forebears especially at a time when traditional knowledge is beginning to break down and disparaging views against indigenous lifeways are causing some youth to feel shame or disinterest in learning their culture. Group discussions and formal educational sessions on sustainable use of resources led them to recognize the sound ecological basis of their traditional practices and to assert these in the face of discrimination.

Translating these into actions, members of communities have started initiatives that resulted in a) the increase of six to eight traditional rice varieties through seed exchange among women in two of the five target barangays; b) community campaigns to strengthen traditional labor exchange groups (ubbo), synchronized agricultural activities, (c)  active protest against bulldozing of forestlands; and (d) recognition of the superiority of custom law over state law on land and resource management.

Moreover, deliberations on research findings questioned the widespread notion (prior to the project) that commercial chemical based vegetable production have significantly uplifted the quality of life of the people involved and forwarded observations on inability of some farmers shift to organic farming as they are now trapped into the vicious cycle of indebtedness, the prevalence of food insecurity, the decreasing water supply (2 water spring in Tukucan dried up) and marked decline in community biodiversity. A high level of unity was achieved when there was a call for action to arrest environmental degradation in January 2010 and promote people’s well being by community leaders and affirmed by authorities of customary laws in.

Enabling communities to advocate and influence policies of concerned government bodies and development agencies towards supporting the general objective of the project on the municipal and provincial level

The first breakthrough in networking and advocacy was when the project captured the interest of the different line agencies after the research output was presented to them a year after the pilot communities granted their permission to the Partnership. As an offshoot of this presentation, the Legislative Council granted an allocation for an up scaling of the project on the municipal level.

While it was only the Municipal Development and Planning and the Municipal Agricultural offices who persisted, the municipal 3-dimensional mapping of the whole municipality was undertaken. The present day land use was documented  and subsequent village level comprehensive land use planning were undertaken led by the barangay councils. Notable in the land use planning are the common goals of (1) enhanced quality ecosystems services through the protection and conservation of  watershed, rivers, springs, irrigation canals  and (2) increased food security by increasing productivity of production areas paddy fields and rotational agricultural areas and production of cash crops through revitalization and innovations on traditional knowledge.

The strengthening of custom laws of community protected areas was another breakthrough. It took more than a year for communities to deliberate  and convince each other on the need to revive custom laws in protected areas. Yet upon deciding on the matter it was not only the delineation of protected areas (nine of twelve barangays) but also reclaiming degraded forest land by reforestation was started in Tukucan, barangay with the widest degraded forest.

Promoting development/innovations of traditional occupations for increased food security and poverty alleviation

To date, the partnership has implemented three projects. The first was the construction of the Wangwang Footbridge in July-December 2009 to facilitate access to farmlands. This project is the first of its kind in the community on four counts: best in quality and durability in the municipality, designed through collective discussion, implemented through an ubbo group and done through a collaborative effort of the people’s organization and the barangay council.

The second project set up a blacksmith training center through the newly formed Tinoc Panday Group in collaboration with the local government unit. Blacksmithing is one of the traditional occupations in the area, but in the entire central Tinoc only one living blacksmith continues to practice it. As 53-year-old Daniel Binay-an declared,

It gives me great pleasure to be a trainer in blacksmithing. I thought I would not be able to transmit the skills I have. The project now gives me the opportunity to lead a more meaningful life, I can transfer my skills to others. As such, I will die a happy man.

Monitoring the project revealed that people have continuously streamed into the blacksmith training center to have their tools repaired since it opened in August 2010. This also manifests the tradition of kailala in which people are wont not to waste but to optimize the use of every resource.

A third project was the establishment of the Inum-an Development Project launched on November 23. The inum-an is the rotational agricultural area or where shifting cultivation is practiced. Since time immemorial, the inum-an has contributed much of the people’s sustenance. Before rice terraces were built, these areas supplied rice, camote (sweet potato), legumes and vegetables. Up to this time, these continue to supplement rice farming, contributing more than 50 percent of the food needs of the village. However, inum-an management has to contend with 1) shorter fallow periods, thus decreased soil fertility and reduced productivity; 2) need for better soil erosion control as the environment becomes more fragile; 3) growing population and limited land; 4) decreasing labor force and 5) the need for cash. With the Inum-an Development Project, innovations for sustainable food systems can be showcased and food security enhanced. Specifically, the project aims to:

  1. Support interested ubbo groups, with members of organized groups as a priority, willing to integrate innovations in their inum-an;
  2. Provide learning venues for other members of communities for innovative technologies;
  3. Increase productivity of the inum-an;
  4. Contribute to increasing food security of project beneficiaries;and
  5. Contribute to organizational funds to promote and develop sustainable food systems.

Some barangays have also started reclamation of degraded watershed areas through reforestation. The promotion of self help initiatives for the establishment  of communal and household tree nurseries has also taken off the ground.

The bigger challenge still  is how to strengthen collective action to enhance watersheds and wood lots, intensify swidden cultivation, revitalize food and honey gathering, hunting and other traditional occupations to answer the growing need for cash.

Forming or strengthening appropriate groups in the community to spearhead planning, resource generation and implementation of community development plans

Strengthening the farmers’ organizations was initially not considered a priority by barangay councils, but this problem was overcome as the need for strong peoples’ organizations was reaffirmed. Community leaders and elders at the Man-ili Convention discussed and agreed on a more systematic and comprehensive plan for community organizing as they gained a better appreciation of the role of indigenous peoples’ organizations in ensuring self determined development. To date four farmers’ organizations have been revived and organizing of elders is ongoing.

Maximizing project outcomes for national and international policy advocacy

Linking the project to national and global policy advocacy has just started. The project experience has been presented in fora organized by Tebtebba in the Philippines with the aim to promote revitalization of indigenous peoples’ natural resource management systems, using as an example the profound knowledge of the Kalanguya. It has also been shared with community mappers in different countries supported by the Forest Peoples Programme (a UK-based NGO) working on customary sustainable use through community mapping. A broader perspective was provided to these groups including traditional occupations and traditional knowledge on the development of nested ecosystems.


The MRDC-Tebtebba Partnership continues to work towards the objective of unifying different stakeholders in Tinoc to formulate a road map for the adoption of the ecosystems approach on a higher and wider level taking into account current realities. This requires the formation of a body that will spearhead and ensure adoption and implementation of the Land Summit Covenant on the municipal level through the municipal comprehensive land use plan. To attain this, the following work has to be done:

  • Capacity building among different peoples’ organizations formed on the barangay level and envisioned to be part of the project’s sustaining mechanism; and
  • Convening an inter-agency roundtable discussion to define roles of each in the implementation of land use and development plans.


The project to pilot the CBD ecosystems approach in Ifugao is a work in progress. But as it moves to the next phase, it is guided by the insights drawn from the first phase of work.

  • To introduce the ecosystems-based approach as something new is historically inaccurate and an inappropriate starting point for indigenous peoples because it fails to appreciate and build on indigenous and customary land use and management systems These systems are anchored on maintaining ecological balance, which is of utmost consideration in their economic system and part of the socio-cultural and political fabric of their community life. These must be supported.
  •  Development strategies that require the effective and full participation of local people have long been formulated but implementation has yet to take off in the project site.
  •  The conceptual framework linking ecosystems services to people’s wellbeing holds true among the Kalanguya of Tinoc. This and other materials will facilitate the formulation of development indicators themselves.
  • The notion that traditional occupations are directly linked to land use pattern and biodiversity is also affirmed in the study areas.
  • Against an external threat, people can easily unite themselves to resist and fight. However, the democratic processes to resolve conflicts and threats created from within and by members of a community may take a longer process.
  •  Land use and sustainable development planning needs to be pursued to ensure the people of Tinoc of the enjoyment of their rights. These are the rights to own and develop their lands, territories and resources; to have legal recognition and protection for these as well as for their customs, traditions and land tenure systems; and to have their free, prior and informed consent obtained in any project that affects them as provided for in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples linking the project to national and global policy advocacy has just started.

[1] A municipality is the second level of local governance in the Philippines

[2] CLUP has been introduced and encouraged by the Municipal Planning and Development Office since 1998 but

was adopted by only 1 barangay (Barangay Eheb in 2008)

[3] Swiddens  are rainfed , semi permanent farms cultivated and planted for two to three years then left to fallow to regain its fertility . These are popularly known as shifting cultivation areas.

[4]Muyung , is a system of assisting and enhancing  the growth of a natural forest by protecting this from fire, animals, cutting undesirable weeds/plants and planting choice trees .

[5] Harold Conklin, Atlas of Ifugao, page 7