Bugkalot Women: Rice Keepers of the Sierra Madre

  • Written by  Lorna E. Sister & Maria Rowena Beatriz Q. Inzon
  • Published in Features
An unmarried Bugkalot woman and the patek at a Conservation Field School session in Wasid. © Rice Roots Legacy Project/Lorna E. Sister An unmarried Bugkalot woman and the patek at a Conservation Field School session in Wasid.

Deep in the heart of the Sierra Madre, within the Quirino Protected Landscape dwells the Bugkalot tribe. Descendants of early Indonesian or Malay headhunters, the Bugkalots make ends meet in the small village of Brgy. Wasid, Nagtipunan, Quirino Province, a signifi cant part of their ancestral domain.

In Wasid, raising their livestock and planting various heirloom rice are the major sources of nutrition and income for the Bugkalot family - a family whose daily subsistence pretty much rely on the female members.

“Planting of traditional rice varieties is usually the work of women of the Bugkalot tribe,” says Padinsa Ballang, one of the Bugkalot leaders. It is hard manual work done through the patek, a javelin-like tool with a steel end which Bugkalot women use to dig holes in the ground where the seeds would be planted.

The patek is artfully decorated and sometimes has colorful trimmings that wave in the wind. The patek is not only a tool for production, as its use is even embedded in Bugkalot traditions – the colorful trimmings signify that the woman using it is single and available. During planting, the Bugkalot women dip into their ukuyan, a small basket tied to their waists carrying seeds, and drop these seeds into the holes. On the other hand, during harvest, they use another basket called the lakbut, where they put the collected panicles of grain.

These are just a few of the traditional agricultural practices that the Bugkalot have continued to keep alive over the years.

Conserving rice varieties

These practices, traditional they may be, are reasons why up to now, quite a number of traditional rice varieties exist in farmer’s fields which are continually planted by the Bugkalots.

The “Rice Roots Legacy1” project of the UNDP-FAO-DENR-DA-BAR- UPLBFI has initially assessed that there are around 30 traditional rice varieties which have been identified by the Bugkalot as indigenous to their community.

The project demonstrated the integral role that women play in the conservation of indigenous Bugkalot rice in the community. Led by Professors Nestor Altoveros and Teresita Borromeo of the Crop Science Cluster, UPLB College of Agriculture, the project aims to promote the conservation of traditional rice varieties and other focus crops in several sites in the country. It also seeks to strengthen the conservation of plant genetic diversity by integrating conservation planning with the landscape-level planning and decentralized government programming.

Women ensure, sustain future

Bugkalot women dominate the spectrum of rice production in Wasid.

Women are relied upon to select the best seeds from the batch of bundled panicles based on the relative weights of similar bundles. The heavier the bundles, the better the seed quality: more grains and more filled grains.

“The task of seed selection is left to the women because they are considered more sensitive to slight differences in weight,” Padinsa said. This has also been verified during several interviews done by the project.

“We found out that Bugkalot men have become so used to carrying heavy weights that they have become less sensitive to small variations in their load,” Altoveros explained.

Bugkalot women also monitor the rice stocks held in storage. While they must ensure that the household has food every day, women are responsible in making sure that seeds are available for the next planting.

“Difficult decisions must be made when the supply runs low. Food must be on the table today, but losing the seed means food cannot be served in the future,” Borromeo, a plant breeder said.

Gender roles in science building

It is clear that the role of women in the conservation of traditional rice varieties of the Bugkalot is extremely crucial. The very core of every woman’s role in nurturing her family is geared towards ensuring food security for the household.

However, the tribe is quick to point out that everything is still a collaboration between genders. Essential to Bugkalot rice conservation practice is a community-based gene bank called agang – a local seed-storage structure - built by Bugkalot men.

According to Altoveros and Borromeo, it is therefore important to understand local conservation practices and find the science behind these.

“Innovations built on these will validate local knowledge and enhance cultural pride by not alienating communities from sound traditional practices,” Altoveros said.

An essential part of this is understanding the gender dimensions of traditional practices: who does what in plant genetic resource conservation, who holds what knowledge, and who makes specific decisions.

Participants of the Conservation Field School in Barangay Wasid, Nagtipunan, Quirino pose in front with the Bugkalot seed storage structure called “agang” under construction with Nagtipunan Municipal Agriculture Officer Hedie Arsenia Marquez (second from right, standing), MAO staff, barangay officials and member of the project team - project leader Nestor C. Altoveros (extreme L, standing), co-project leader Teresita H. Borromeo (bending down, right), Virginia L. Agcopra (third from right, standing), study leader Hidelisa de Chavez (extreme right, sitting), project coordinator Shalan Joseph Kitma (extreme left, sitting) and project staff Lorna E. Sister (extreme right, standing)