Terraces: The Other Wonders of the World

Europeans have their own visions of the wonders of the ancient world – the great feats of engineering that first underlined mankind’s mastery over his environment. The pyramids of Egypt, the Colossus of Rhodes and so on. When exploring the rest of the world, Europeans looked for similar edifices – Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for instance, or the great Inca city of Machu Pichu. But these are mere adornments, baubles for the delight of kings and emperors, in comparison with the huge and largely unremarked public works of irrigated agriculture. These are the real monuments to past civilizations in much of the world.
Particularly in Asia, the engineering needs for the irrigation of crops have for thousands of years molded societies. In the eyes of many academics, those needs were responsible for the creation of the first civilizations. Karl Wittfogel, an American historian of the 1950s, first coined the term “hydraulic civilizations” to describe the many complex hierarchical societies that developed across Asia. He argued that they emerged specifically in order to organize the large labor forces necessary to create and maintain the water-supply systems for irrigated agriculture.
Whether in flat desert plains such as those in Mesopotamia, or mountainous country such as the Philippines or Sri Lanka, the Himalayas or the eastern Mediterranean, the management of water to irrigate crops was the central, defining technology. “Artificial irrigation by canals and waterworks were the basis of Oriental agriculture,” Wittfogel said. “Water control necessitated the centralizing power of government. Until the industrial revolution, the majority of human beings lived within the orbit of hydraulic civilizations.”
You have only to look at a map to see how extensive these public works were. Take Sri Lanka, which a thousand years ago was run by King Parakramabahu from his jungle capital, Polonnaruwa. Even today, the island is dominated by huge reservoirs and long-distance canals built by Parakramabahu to provide irrigation water for hillside terraces and river-valley fields. British anthropologist Edmund Leach noted that the country’s great kings all “had reputations as irrigation engineers rather than conquerors.”
Or take Cambodia. The great ruins of Angkor Wat amazed European explorers and still bring tourists who wonder at the skills of its ancient engineers. But it was the construction of reservoirs, canal systems and rice terraces that were the foundation of that society.
Perhaps the most spectacular of all these works are the terraced hillsides of Asia. Terraces are the product of massive and highly organized human endeavor through the ages. They turn mountain slopes into huge “staircases” of narrow fields, each held up by retaining walls. Each step is irrigated by water brought down the mountainside from springs or reservoirs, using a complex network of canals, sluices and pipes. The terraces allow the hillside to be cultivated without all the soil washing away. And they serve to keep irrigation water on the fields. And, just as they re-engineer and fix the landscape on a large scale, they also fix the societies that run them.
Among the most spectacular examples are the rice terraces that cover much of northern Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines. Often dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world”, they were among the first of these ancient works to gain modern recognition from both archaeologists and tourists. Across vast swathes of the Cordillera highlands of Luzon, stone-walled terraces cling to mountainsides between 700 and 1500 meters above sea level. These stairways of terraces rise unbroken from river bed to mountain top at angles of up to 70 degrees. Each step is held in place by a dry-stone wall up to ten meters high.
The first terraces of Luzon were built around 2000 years ago, at the same time as the Romans were building their water aqueducts in Europe. But, unlike Roman water works, they mostly remain in use, constantly maintained, extended and improved ever since by the Ifugao people who first built them. Despite centuries of tilling, the soils of the terraces remain as productive as ever. “Impeccable maintenance and the complex ecology of the ponded fields, combine to make the subsistence systems stable, self-perpetuating, inherently conservative and nearby indestructible,” says American anthropologist Charles Drucker.
The farmers have developed strains of rice that can germinate in the cold conditions high up in these mountains. And their management of the local ecology is unsurpassed. Recently, a giant worm invaded the terraces, apparently imported with new high-yield rice varieties from the International Rice Research Institute in southern Luzon. It caused massive erosion and threatened to undermine the terraces. Modern pesticides proved useless against it. But the Ifugao found the solution in an ancient method of pest control that involved treating the soil with a mulch made from vines from the surrounding forests.
The history of the rice terraces of the Luzon Cordillera mountains are intimately bound up with the Ifugao people, their religion and culture. Each stage in the farming cycle is accompanied by special religious ceremonies. The focal point of each village is a ritual rice field – the first to be planted and harvested. The owner of this field, is traditionally in charge of the village granary, and may also be the priest. He thus controls every aspect of the village’s life.
Growing rice in hillside terraces is one of the most characteristic activities of the whole of Asia. According to the British anthropologist and traveler, John Reader, most of the continent’s rice – by far the most important crop – is eaten within walking distance of where it is grown. The fecundity of this crop goes a long way to explaining the continent’s high rural population. Certainly no other societies have proved capable of sustaining such dense populations in mountains areas.
The reason is simple. Growing rice on irrigated terraces is labor-intensive work, requiring a large laboring population. But it is also highly productive. In the rich soils of islands such as Java and Bali, both in Indonesia, the rice terraces feed upwards of a thousand people per square kilometer.
But to achieve this, farmers have evolved complex and, to many eyes, regimented social structures. The needs of the individual have to be subordinated to the communal will. On a terrace system, farmers cannot grow their rice when they want. Growing has to be staggered so as to share out the water most efficiently – so that some terraces are at the dry stage while others requiring flooding. To break ranks would be disastrous.
In Bali, for instance, there is a separate village organization known as a subak or “irrigation society” that determines who plants when. According to American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, there is one subak for each water source, whether a dam or a spring. Each branch of the distribution canal from that source also has its own neighborhood organization. Every move in the management of water and crops is written into the village religious as well as secular calendar. Even the traditional Balinese year is 210 days long – precisely two growing seasons for a rice crop.
The work of the terraces fundamentally determines the nature of the society. As Reader puts it: “People must work together in a very well organized and co-ordinated manner, building and maintaining terraces, ensuring adequate water flow, synchronizing the planting and tending of the crops.” The process is virtually self-perpetuating, he says. Confined to a limited patch of land, the culture turns in on itself. Practices become ritualized in religious and social behavior. “The threads run so tightly through all aspects of the society and culture that they have proved remarkably resistant to external attempts to pull them apart.”
In essence, the rice-terrace culture of Bali has been unchanged in more than a thousand years, absorbing first Hinduism from India and later Dutch colonial and Western cultures. Having to work so intensely together to feed themselves can turn an individual into a mere cog in a wheel, says Reader. Personal identity is lost, replaced by a profound fatalism. “People come and go, but the system persists.” It perhaps also inspires religions that, in recompense, offer the hope of an eternal afterlife in paradise.
This terrace culture has its parallels in other aspects of water management among Asian mountain peoples. In particular, it applies to those whose cultures have been dominated for centuries by a second water-engineering miracle even less remarked on than mountain terraces. Qanats are gently sloping tunnels dug into the hillsides to tap underground water, which then flows to the surface by gravity. Ancient water engineers discovered that the further back you dig along the line of a spring, the more water it delivers, and with greater reliability.
In terms of workload, qanats are underground terraces. The longest run more than 40 kilometers into the mountainsides, and there are around 40 000 qanats of them in Iran alone. End to end, they would reach two-thirds of the way to the Moon. Digging and maintaining the qanats was a huge undertaking well into this century. In the 1950s, one in seven of the population in some areas of Iran were qanat diggers, members of the mughani caste. Qanats also irrigate terraced hillsides across a huge swathe of Asia from western China, through Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kurdish Iraq to Lebanon and Israel.
Qanats are to this day the major source of irrigation water for the fields and towering hillside terraces that occupy the mountains of Oman and parts of Yemen, where they are called aflaj. They have for some 2000 years allowed the villages of the interior of these desert fringes of the Arabian peninsula to grow their own wheat as well as alfalfa to feed their cattle. In these villages, there are complex systems of ownership of water rights and responsibilities for management and maintenance of the tunnels and distribution canals. In Oman their importance was underlined in the 1980s with a government-funded program to repair and upgrade the country’s aflaj.
From Palestine to the Philippines, Asia’s terraces and the water systems that feed them are a superb example of sustainable land use, allowing a high density of population to live in apparently inhospitable terrain. Yet today the sheer hard labor involved in maintaining and farming the terraces and irrigation channels has caused many to be abandoned. The steep terraces and narrow access paths mean that no farm machinery can reach these terraces. Everything from tilling to harvesting must be done by hand.
Travel the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, for instance, and you will see vast swathes of abandoned terraces. Many people buy food bought with money sent home by relatives working in the cities. The men and women who stay behind are more likely to take laboring jobs making the numerous roads now being constructed through mountains than to till their hillsides.
The Palestinians and their neighbors have for some 2000 years irrigated terraces of olive groves, vineyards and orchards with water tapped from some 250 qanat-like tunnels beneath the hills on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. But today the terraces and tunnels are largely abandoned – unused since the day in 1948 when Palestinians fled following the creation of the Israeli state there. Their demise was, says Zvi Ron, an Israeli geographer from the University of Tel Aviv who has mapped the tunnels, a human, ecological and cultural tragedy.
Increasingly, tourists are coming to recognize the marvels of mountain terraces. Four clusters of these working monuments to human endeavor have been listed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Tourists can be seen touring the villages, Lonely Planet guide books in hand. But as they arrive, the people who built and maintained the edifices are leaving. Governments could help. But in Luzon, the Cordillera Peoples Alliance has condemned the official policy of spending money to promote terrace tourism rather than on helping the farmers maintain their traditional farming methods.
Hill terraces are a global phenomenon, a technology apparently developed independently in the New World as well as the Old World. And in both they seem to be associated with centralised societies. Thus in the Andes, the Incas and their predecessors created magnificent systems of stone-walled terraces that even today cover around a million hectares of Peru. Today, more than half are abandoned. The decline of the irrigated terraces has mirrored the decline in Peru as a whole, as the hills are depopulated and millions have moved, in poverty, to the capital Lima.
It seems extraordinary that in such places, agricultural systems of such proven fecundity and sustainability should be endangered. But so it appears.

Published 1 March 2001
Original in English

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