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Muyong forest of Ifugao: Assisted natural regeneration in traditional forest management - Moises Butic and Robert Ngidlo

Moises Butic
Officer In Charge of the Ifugao Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO) - Ifugao, Department of Environment and Natural Resources Bannit, Payawan, Philippines

Robert Ngidlo
Assistant Professor in Silviculture, Department of Forestry, Ifugao State College of Agriculture and Forestry, Nayon, Lamut, Ifugao, Philippines


The inhabitants of Ifugao, in the Philippines, have developed a unique way of life, reflected in the way they grow and tend forests. This unique system of tending forests has been referred to in the literature as the “muyong system,” coined from the local dialect meaning forest or woodlot. The muyong system has been recognized internationally as an ideal forest management strategy that is deeply ingrained in the culture of the Ifugao people.

The muyong system can be viewed from different perspectives, either as a forest conservation strategy, a watershed rehabilitation technique, a farming system or an assisted natural regeneration (ANR) strategy. While the system can be viewed from different perspectives, the role of culture in the development and continued maintenance of the system is pervasive. Although not readily apparent to the casual observer, an intricate web of relationships exists between the human and non-human resources of the system, which move to a higher sphere in the spirit world (Ngidlo, 1998). Ifugao culture and laws revolve around their physical environment, expressed in customs and taboos prescribing the treatment and use of environment and natural resources.

This paper documents and presents the Ifugao muyong system as an ANR strategy within the context of traditional forest management. It is with such blending of indigenous frameworks with learned forestry interventions that significant progress can be made in developing viable ANR alternatives.

The Ifugao muyong system

Muyong are traditionally inherited properties and are privately owned, although owners do not possess title deeds. Ownership is simply defined by inheritance and this mode of ownership transfer is highly respected and recognized by everybody within the cultural vein. The muyong plays an important role within the tribal economy. It is the primary source of fuelwood, construction materials, food and medicines.

Dacawi (1982) reported that the typical muyong consists of a few hundred square meters to about 5 hectares. Klock and Tindungan (1995), on the other hand, discovered that in Mt. Amuyao (the second highest peak in Ifugao) the standard muyong woodlot ranged from 0.6 to 2.4 hectares.

The muyong is a storehouse of both flora and fauna (Ngidlo, 1998). A recent study conducted by Rondolo (2001) found that the muyong contained 264 species, mainly indigenous, belonging to 71 plant families. Euphorbiacea was the most dominant family followed by Moracea, Meliacea, Leguminosae, Poacea, Anacardiacea and Rubiacea respectively. The number of species per woodlot ranged from 13 to 47 species, mostly endemic in the region. Out of the 264 species, 234 were considered useful and the rest (mostly grasses) were reported to have no known use.

The Ifugao agro-ecological zones consist of five key components, namely: micro forest (muyong or pinugo), swidden fields (habal), terraced paddies (payo), settlement districts (boble) and braided riverbeds (wangwang). As a whole, Ifugao agroecological zones represent a hilly type or a watershed model production system.

The subsistence economy in Ifugao revolves around the production of rice in terraced paddies (Klock and Tindungan, 1995). Cultivation of rice paddies is highly dependent on water. The muyong is a major component of the production system serving as the primary recharge zone. As the recharge zone, it provides water and stability to the other components of the production system. Water flowing out of the muyong, located at the upper fringe, dictates the overall physical soundness of terrace cultivation and the condition of the whole watershed unit. Traditionally, the Ifugaos give utmost emphasis to the proper management of muyong resources. This is in recognition of its significant role in the long-term sustainability of the rice-based terrace cultivation system.

The muyong as ANR strategy

The muyong is living proof of the Ifugao’s knowledge of silviculture, agroforestry, horticulture and soil and water conservation. The Ifugaos successfully practiced ANR before its recognition in the forestry sector as a strategy for forest regeneration. The Ifugaos attribute value to the forest on the basis of their cultural ways and practices.

Forestry development nowadays recognizes the value of integrating indigenous systems of forest management. In the search for alternative ANR frameworks and strategies, it is befitting to consider the muyong system of the Ifugaos. The ANR strategies adopted in the muyong are discussed below.

Agroforestry and multiple cropping

The Ifugaos are considered traditional practitioners of agroforestry. The Ifugaos adopted agroforestry in woodlots and multiple cropping in swiddens as an economic insurance in case of crop failure in the terraces. The integration of value-added tree crops and herbs in natural muyong vegetation and swiddens has been found to be highly compatible. Species preferred for integration in natural vegetation are: rattan, coffee, santol and citrus, while bananas, taro and cadios (Cajanus cajan) are integrated in swidden farms. A study by Rondolo (2001) found that almost all woodlots contained commercial plantings of coffee (88 percent), bananas (66 percent), and citrus (49 percent). Edible rattan (Calamus manillensis, littuko) is also included in almost all woodlots. Rattan is integrated in woodlots for its edible fruits and poles/canes for handicraft. Bettle palm (Areca catechu) and ikmo (Piper spp.) are also cultivated in the woodlots for bettle nut chewing, ritual purposes and their medicinal values.

Enrichment planting and protection

Enrichment planting with forest species is also done in woodlots to enhance diversity. Included in enrichment planting are fast-growing reforestation species and other fruit trees. The Ifugaos have the propensity to grab every opportunity to plant trees whenever seedlings are available. In the traditional tourism areas in Banaue, particularly Cambulu and Battad, hamlets of 10 to 30 families have banded together to protect whole hillside areas of public forest to ensure that their terrace paddies will have water in perpetuity. Forest protection is a common traditional concern of all villagers in Ifugao. Intrusion in muyong areas is dealt with severely. A person caught cutting trees without permission is fined and required to pay with pigs and chickens corresponding to the value of the trees cut. In the past, the guilty individual usually had to pay the fine or else face the possibility of being banished or killed.

Efficient silvicultural systems

The Ifugaos have been using ANR quite successfully without professional intervention for many years. Implicit in the application of ANR is an array of silvicultural systems learned by the Ifugaos through constant interaction with their muyong resources. Activities include thinning, cleaning, pruning and salvage cutting. These activities are done to enhance the growth and development of natural stands. In addition, harvesting of timber crops is highly selective by nature. Selection is based on the muyong owner’s extensive knowledge of the various tree species and their uses. According to Rondolo (2001), the Ifugaos have their own plant classification system. Plants are classified based on taxo-morphological characteristics and according to use. The Ifaguos’ knowledge of rattan classification is more detailed and accurate than most formally trained botanists.

Harvesting of timber crops is seasonal, except in extreme cases where wood is urgently needed. Seasonal cutting is an important silvicultural practice, which is highly beneficial as it allows the forest to recover from previous disturbances prior to harvesting again.

Whole tree harvesting and good wood utilization practice

Muyong owners follow an efficient system of timber utilization referred to as whole tree harvesting. In most cases, trees are harvested for multiple uses as may be defined by each muyong owner. Roots and buttresses are often excavated from the ground with a few feet of remaining trunks cut according to length for use as vertical columns (gamut) to support four cornered single room native houses. The remaining branches are cut according to length and then brought home for general use. Branches and small twigs are also gathered and then bundled for fuelwood or fencing purposes. Only the leaves are left in the forest to decompose. The Ifugaos who own woodlots share the bounty by allowing their co-villagers to avail of the remnants of the harvested trees for fuelwood. It is common practice among muyong owners to allow the have-nots to harvest one or two trees for house construction, after proper permission has been obtained.

Many authors contend that Ifugaos are natural tree growers. However, it was only recently that Ifugaos adopted tree planting in sparsely vegetated woodlots, as a measure to restore depleted wood cover. In the past, the Ifugaos migrated to areas where forests existed and from there began to transform the landscape into other productive uses. What is most convincing, however, is the wealth of indigenous knowledge systems employed by muyong owners in the management of forest resources.

While others may call it superstitious, the Ifugaos harvest their trees only when their leaves are matured and not when they have just changed leaves. They believe that felling mature trees that have new or young leaves renders the wood susceptible to insect attack. They also avoid cutting down trees when there is a full moon because they believe that the wood is easily destroyed by wood-boring insects. During felling operations, the Ifugaos ensure that a tree falls directly to the ground. A tree that leans and keeps hanging or suspended on a neighboring tree is a bad omen. The wood is no longer used for construction, instead, it is utilized for less important uses.

Lessons learned

The Ifugaos have aptly shown that ANR can be used effectively to transform woodlots into multiple-use centers without disturbing the pristine condition of the natural forest. Among the factors related to the success of ANR within the Ifugao landscapes are the following:

Linkage with economic values

Successful ANR strategies have been tied to and integrated with economic values. The profit function of the forest can be further enhanced when linked to the prospect of getting profits in the future. The Ifugaos have taken advantage of the beneficial effects of natural stands by converting them into tree-based agroforestry schemes. The prospects for adoption can be enhanced if ANR focuses on tree species with economic value. Tree planting for protection purposes alone is now an outdated paradigm. There is a need to put economic value on trees as an ultimate goal of forest regeneration. ANR should seen as a tool for promoting rural livelihoods.

Linkage with environmental values

ANR should support other environmental concerns. For example, ANR in the muyong serves to support not only the economic activities of the inhabitants but also the integrity of other agroecological zones dependent on the forest itself. The rallying point of many reforestation projects is that of supporting macro-economic structures such as hydroelectric power sources and other concerns of general welfare. It is difficult for local communities to see the values of such assertions. What is more important in rallying public support for ANR activities is that is based on site-specific or locality-based economic concerns. The Ifugaos’ need for more wood raw material for the expanding wood carving industry could be such a demand-focused ANR concern.

Issues and recommendations

Some of the issues and problems affecting the Ifugao muyong system inlude:

Use of fast-growing species

Muyong owners are now practicing enrichment planting to enhance depleted muyong areas. While many would like to use indigenous tree species, muyong owners have no other recourse than exotic species, since seedlings for these species are rare to find. Some examples are kalantas (Toona kalantas) and sangilo (Pistacia chinensis). However, some muyong owners are deliberately using fast-growing species for ANR or enrichment planting to take advantage of the short rotation periods. Use of fast-growing species like Gmelina arborea Swietenia macrophylla and Cassia spectabilis are threats to muyong biodiversity. It is recommended that research be conducted on the mass propagation of muyong species for reforestation. Building linkages with academic and other research institutions could help achieve this.

Inappropriate extension strategies

There have been instances of inappropriate approaches being encouraged by development projects, ostensibly to help muyong owners cope with the various problems besetting the wood carving industry of the Ifugaos. For instance, there have been cases where muyong owners were enticed to clear portions of their woodlots for replacement with exotics. In some cases, local people were taught to clear muyong forests for tambo or tiger grass production, or to implement sloping agricultural land technology (SALT), which is completely alien to what the people have been doing in the area. There is a need to reorient extension strategies to start with what the people have, before expanding into other areas, if necessary.

Incorrect perceptions of government policies and laws

In many cases, people have a misperception of various government policies and laws, which hamper people from participating effectively in government-sponsored programs. Even under the Community Based Forest Management Program (CBFMP), people fear that the government might take the land from them. The deep-seated animosity between government forestry officials and local people could be an after-effect of the punitive approaches practiced by the government in the past. Strategies to promote ANR should be backed up by massive information-education-communication campaigns to improve social and technical integration. Moreover, policy measures that impinge upon the productive existing ANR practices of indigenous peoples should be changed or reconsidered.


Indigenous forest management systems could be very good tools in promoting forest development and watershed management, not to mention agriculture. Perhaps it is time for government officials to listen to the “people in them thar hills”, like the Ifugaos who obviously possess time-tested solutions to some problems. As an eminent participant in a recent steering committee meeting of the JICA-assisted CBFM project in the Cagayan and Upper Magat river basins stated in describing the Muyong system, “Why tinker with something that has worked for so many generations?”


Dacawi, R. 1982. The Ifugao way of forest conservation. Philippine Upland World 1, 2: 14-15.

DTI. 1996. Gifts, toys and housewares. Industry Profile. Lagawe, Ifugao

Klock, J. & Tindungan, M. 1995. The Past and the Present. A meeting of forces for a sustainable future. Forest, Trees and People Newsletter. Issue no. 29. FTP Program Network.

Ngidlo, R.T. 1998. Conserving biodiversity: The case of the Ifugao farming system. PCARRD, Los Baños, Laguna.

Rondolo, M.T. 2001. Fellowship Report. Tropical Forest Update. Vol. 11, No. 4. ITTO, Japan.

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