Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Abra landscape © Renato S. Rastrollo

The Lapat System, an Indigenous Resource System in Abra, Philippines

The Philippines, in the tropical waters of the South China Sea at the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, is dry from January to May and rain-swept for the rest of the year, especially during the monsoon months of June to September. The archipelagic country is vulnerable to climatic changes. The balmy ocean air becomes searing heat of 40 degrees Celsius in summer, and the monsoon rains extend in duration with increased volume.

Tyhoons Yolanda/Haiyan and Ompong

Three years ago, the islands of Leyte and Samar in eastern Visayas was devastated by a Category 5 typhoon. Coming from the Pacific Ocean, Super Typhoon Haiyan, claimed thousands of lives, cut-down all vegetation, and flattened manmade structures. The wind gusts seemed immeasurable, causing ocean waters to surge over coconut trees and ram a megaton commercial ship into coastal villages. So unprecedented was the extent of the combined power of wind and ocean that people in the locality and the entire country did not even have a word for it. Dalluyong or sea waves was so inadequate a word.

This year in September, another super typhoon locally named Ompong hit the country. From the Pacific Ocean, it cut through Northern Luzon, landing at the northeastern valleys of Isabela-Cagayan, and sweeping through the Cordillera mountain range before exiting to the West Philippine Sea through the Ilocos plains. The typhoon’s eye gathered so much strength and its extent or coverage from the center was hundreds of kilometers. It uprooted centuries-old trees, shattered glass windows, carried away the roofs of village-houses, and flattened all agricultural crops to the ground. The Cordillera mountains recorded numerous eroded sites, road cuts, and landslides. Worst hit were areas of a mining company established in the early decades of the twentieth century. The typhoon caused wide stretches of mountain sides to erode, obliterating the vegetation. Innumerable houses of small-scale miners were crushed and buried under tons of earth and trees, along with the miners and their families.

Not all is lost or a sorry sight. On the other side of the Cordillera Mountain Range is a culture and a practice that can mitigate or probably deter the harsh effects of climate change. This is lapat, an indigenous system of managing the physical terrain and natural resources that are the basis of the economy of the people. It is a way of protecting, propagating, and sustaining the entire ecosystem by regulating the use or harvest of nature’s resources such as trees, vines, wild game, fishes and shellfish in streams and rivers, and the continuous replenishment of vegetation.

The lapat system thrives on three underlying principles: 1.) stewardship, 2.) communal ownership and collective responsibility, and 3.) sustainability.

Principle of Stewardship

In the principle of stewardship as explained by one of the foremost advocates of lapat, Mr. Philip Tingonong, the land and the natural resources are bequeathals to the people as cultural heritage from their forebears. And with the same thought of passing them on as material-cultural heritage to the succeeding generations, the land and natural resources are to be well taken care of, protected, and cultivated for the sustainability of life and culture.

Loading cogon grass onto a bamboo raft © Renato S. Rastrollo

In consonance with the above principle of stewardship, the community is responsible for maintaining a healthy robust forest. Planting trees in all areas possible is a constant activity.

Catching forest animals such as deer, wild pigs, and fowl in the lapat area is regulated. Doe and pregnant animals should be released when caught in a trap and should not be targeted in a hunt. This is implemented along with the national ordinance that prohibits catching wild birds such as eagles, owls, and bill horns among others. Once the target animal slips into a lapat area, the hunter cannot pursue its hunt. In a way, the lapat area is a sanctuary for animals and birds.

Principle of Communal Responsibility

Under the principle of communal responsibility, land and natural resources belong to the community so that their use or harvest of produce are regulated and not abused as these are not for one individual or a family alone but for all members of the community. And since all the resources—land, watersheds, streams, and forests—are those of the community, each member of the community has the responsibility to take care, protect, and propagate the resources for the interest of all. While clearing and burning the mountainsides of cogon grass and bushes in preparation for dry rice agriculture, the responsibility of regulating and containing the fire within the area is primarily that of the individual concerned. The individual clearing and burning a mountain patch for agriculture always sees to it that the clearing and fire do not adversely affect adjacent patches planted with other crops. Any violation by the individual or family concerned is met with a punishment decided upon by members of the entire community. Nowadays, it is common to have such activities overseen by elders or responsible neighbors in the community.

Sustainability

The third principle in the lapat system is sustainability. Although resources are a-plenty in a lapat area, gathering wood in the forest especially in watersheds and fishing in rivers and streams is not indiscriminate. Hardwood trees such as narra, molave, and kamagong may be cut down for use as house posts, floors, and roof beams only after the trees have reached a prescribed number of years of maturity. And the quantity is limited to what is needed, based on the size and design of the house to be constructed. The same can be said for rattan, nito vines, and anibong or fish tail palms, which need to mature a certain number of years before they can be gathered. Rattan is used to fasten palm leaves on roof beams of houses. Rattan, along with bamboo and nito vines, are the main materials for making farm baskets, bags, and hats while anibong palm leaves are materials for house roofing.

Abra rice fields © Cecilia V. Picache
The same rule applies in rivers and streams. When gathering riverine food such as fish, crustaceans, shells, and frogs, the use of poison or chemicals is a strict taboo. This is meant to protect small riverine life from disappearing. Even the use of the old method of catching fish by throwing bullay flowers that emit toxic substances when wet to stupefy fish, is now forbidden, according to Mr. Johnny Ballao-ad, an elder and official of barangay Bazar in the municipality of Sallapadan.

For the sustainability of resources, certain areas of the forest, watersheds, and/or rivers can be declared as lapat for certain periods of time—months or years, to allow regeneration and for people to enjoy, gather, and share with relatives and all members of the community. But then again, for sustainability to thrive, the other two principles of the lapat system—stewardship, and communal ownership and collective responsibility—should be equally observed and practiced with utmost respect. Each principle supports the other principles.

And it is because of the above principles, that extraction of mineral resources in a wide-scale, and commercial logging are prohibited in the Lapat areas. The elders in the community are well-aware of the pollution of water systems in large-scale mining areas. For these elders, who absorb the wisdom of their forbears, gold is not precious at all when commercial mining would only pollute the rivers and waterways that have sustained their farming activities, ways of living, and heritage.

The Lapat System, Now Government Law

Lapat administration, enforcement, and governance have been formalized and implemented as laws in local governments—at both barangay and municipal levels—of Sallapadan, Boliney, and Bucloc in the province of Abra of the Cordillera Administrative Region. The lapat system is fully recognized as an effective indigenous natural resources management system, and its total implementation is the flagship program of the Cordillera Highland Agricultural Resources Management Project.
The lapat system has thrived through generations among the Itneg groups in Abra Province on the northwestern side of the Cordillera mountain range. It is particularly practiced by the Masadiit Itneg sub-groups in the towns of Sallapadan, Boliney, and Bucloc.
Lapat System as Mitigator of Effects of Climate Change
After Ompong, the super typhoon that hit Northern Luzon in September 2018, Mrs. Pacita Ballao-ad, wife of Barangay Kagawad, Johnny Ballao-ad, and Barangay Captain Eliza Dakiwas all of Bazar, Sallapadan, reported with pride that adverse effects on resources were minimal. Only few small tree branches were broken, and some newly opened roads got slightly eroded. Most important of all, there were no human or animal lives lost.

References and Interviewees

2004. The Way of Lapat, an Effective Indigenous Natural Resources Management System of the Tinggians in Abra, Philippines. Baguio City.

Interviewees: Philip Tingonong, Manuel and Mrs. Tessie Ambalneg, Eliza Dakiwas, Johnny and Pacita Ballao-ad, and Dominador Pudol of the Disaster Risk Reduction Office, Bangued Abra.